Examining Multimedia Non-Fiction as a Mentor Text

Examining Multimedia Non-Fiction as a Mentor Text

post by Troy Hicks, Member of The Educator Collaborative

Examining Multimedia Non-Fiction as a Mentor Text

In the news, in contemporary literature, and in academic publishing, more and more texts are “born digital,” requiring the reader to engage in print, image, video, maps, links, and other multimedia features. Often, these digital features can be simple add-ons: a link that pops open an additional text box, the ability to zoom in on an image, or a brief video clip that reiterates what was already present in the text itself. However, when these multimedia elements are intentionally designed, when they are part of the craft of digital writing, they can have a powerful effect, propelling the reader’s experience in ways that text alone cannot.

As one example for our middle and high school students, we can look to a Pulitzer Prize winning multimedia piece from The New York Times — “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.” Published originally in 2012, it won a Peadbody and, according to Wikipedia contributors, “ became highly influential among online journalism circles, with many other publications attempting similar multimedia features and even coined an industry term, “to snowfall.” 

So, what does it mean “to snowfall?” Moreover, what are the types of technology tools that we can use to help our own students create this kind of multimedia text? In addition to helping them understanding traditional elements of non-fiction — including a table of contents, headings, use of images and maps, and citation of sources — what else might we be able to do with a responsive website design, interactive maps and timelines, as well as embedded image galleries, audio, and video?

Responsive Website Design

Though the earliest forms were introduced in the early days of the world wide web, smart phones and tablets brought the idea of responsive website design — a term coined in 2010 by Ethan Marcotte — to the fore. This type of design allows the coding and style sheets to adapt the content to a user’s screen, whether as small as a smartphone or projected on the big screen. Snow Fall was one of the first pieces of multimedia journalism to use responsive design, thus allowing images (some of them animated) as well as maps to stay stable while the user could scroll through text. Today, students can use sites like Adobe Spark Pages or WordPress to create responsive pages and embed additional media elements, like maps and timelines, into those pages. As always, if you need additional ideas or tech help, YouTube has dozens of tutorials for these two tools. 

Interactive Maps and Timelines

There are many ways to make content come alive, and some of the most innovative — and openly available — ones come from Northwestern University’s Knight Lab for Journalism. In particular, two tools that invite students into new forms of storytelling include StoryMap JS (“a free tool to help you tell stories on the web that highlight the locations of a series of events”) and Timeline JS (“an open-source tool that enables anyone to build visually rich, interactive timelines”). While each does require a bit of a learning curve, they are used by professional journalists, and I have had success in inviting my undergraduate students to create multimedia projects with them. Again, YouTube has many tutorials where you can learn more about these tools. 

Additional Embedded Media

Rather than just accentuating the story, in multimedia non-fiction these media elements are a core component. For instance, in the opening paragraphs of “Snow Fall,” the reader is introduced to Elyse Saugstad, one of the skiers. Then, within a few scrolling motions, moving through the story we find an embedded video where Saugstad describes her experience about which we had just been reading. The words in text sit alongside the words she speaks, and we gain a clear — and terrifying — insight into her experience as an avalanche cascades down the mountain. 

These media elements — including additional image galleries, interactive maps, and a documentary video at the end of the reading experience — combine to make a richer, more nuanced text. 

“To Snowfall”: From Analysis to Action

As we consider the ways in which we invite students into digital writing, we can begin by having them analyze a multimedia mentor text. Yet we don’t want to linger there forever; by helping students make rapid prototypes of various kinds of projects including videos (Adobe Spark), interactive maps (StoryMap JS) and timelines (Timeline JS), we can encourage them to see new narrative arcs or lines of arguments to pursue. When they consider new ways to incorporate multimedia elements into their digital writing, students will, as I noted in Crafting Digital Writing (2013), see things anew. 

With digital writing, we need to think with words, of course–yet we also need to begin thinking like artists, web designers, recording engineers, photographers, and filmmakers. (2013, 18-9)

Finally, there are many lessons that can be learned about using copyrighted materials in a transformational manner and exploring other materials licensed in the public domain and through Creative Commons. As we help students consider the types of materials that they can create on their own as well as what they can repurpose from others, we teach them additional digital writing and citizenship skills. 

Taken in sum, examining multimedia non-fiction as a mentor text gives our students unique opportunities as connected readers and digital writers, encouraging them to take risks and be creative as they share their stories with the world. 


To learn more, visit Troy’s archived Fall 2019 #TheEdCollabGathering session, which can be accessed here.

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