Students demonstrate digital storytelling technology at a Story Lab showcase.

Cultivating a new generation of digital storytellers in Eastern Oregon

Fishtrap Story Lab & Joseph Charter School

Co-teaching the craft of storytelling

On a crisp, sunny day in February 2015, Cam Scott, writer-in-residence at Fishtrap, and Liza Strickland, business technology teacher, moved with ease through a large classroom and adjoining Story Lab at Joseph Charter School, checking in with eighth grade students as they worked independently on digital stories—combining original writing with images and sound to create short video narratives.

To see Cam and Liza working together so seamlessly—building on one another’s ideas and guidance, encouraging students to think bigger, and supporting students in tandem—you might think they’d been teaching together for many years. It was clear from the way they worked almost interchangeably, while also bringing their own perspectives and teaching talents, that they had a shared understanding of what they wanted students to learn and how the classroom would run.

To see the students so engrossed in the process of storyboarding, stop-motion capture and video editing, you might think they’d spent years honing their craft. But for Cam and Liza, this was the first long-term digital storytelling residency they’d co-taught. And for students, this was only their second project of the term.

Liza Strickland & Cam Scott.

All around the classroom, students worked independently and with intense focus, eager to show off their progress and talk about the process and vision for their work. One student worked under the light of a window, meticulously capturing a set of photos, adding a line to a drawing, then capturing another series of photos. She repeated this process again and again, noting that she’d taken about 1,800 photos at the halfway mark of her stop-motion project. When finished, the image would appear to draw itself on screen while a voiceover of the narrative she’d written with Cam’s guidance rolled simultaneously.

Cam and Liza mostly waited for students to approach them with questions or requests for support but made themselves available and encouraged students throughout the class. One student asked Liza for help taking photos as he posed in front of a whiteboard with several messages written in thought bubbles: “Who am I?” “Do I fit in?” Liza helped him adjust his camera so that it lined up just right with his text, shot a few photos and then helped him plan his next steps.

Students had clearly been guided to this point in their projects expertly, with Cam and Liza providing enough support to keep students on track while giving them lots of room to experiment and troubleshoot. Liza noted that students were so engaged in the project they’d started showing up early for the class—the first-period class of the day!

The wonders of Wallowa County

Imnaha Canyon, Wallowa County.

When you mention Wallowa County in casual conversation, people often have one of two responses. The first is a blank look, or maybe a curious Oh yeah, people are always telling me to go check out that place, but I’ve never been.

The second response comes in the form of a far-off, dreamy look, as the respondent seems to be transported for at least a few moments. For those who know the place, just the words “Wallowa County” are enough to stir up romanticism: a deep appreciation for the area’s natural wonders; a sense of adventure, exploration and place; memories of the kindness and generosity of the people who live there; the sounds of stories shared over a pint of Terminal Gravity by a flickering fire in a grove of aspens; or the taste of a freshly made truffle from Arrowhead Chocolates. Wallowa County is a special place, and those who know, know.

For millennia, the Walwáama—a band of the Nimíipuu (Nez Perce)—lived on the land that we now call Wallowa County. In 1863, the vast Walwáama lands were reduced by treaty by 90%. A decade later, President Grant proposed a revision to the original treaty, splitting the remaining Walwáama lands in half. Half of the land would remain with the “Roaming Nez Perce of the Wallowa Valley” and the other half would go to white settlers. The white population protested this revision and Grant rescinded this plan, ultimately forcing the Walwáama from the area altogether.1

Over the last several decades, the Walwáama have been returning to their homelands with support from local communities and other tribal groups, including the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho. They began holding local powwows in the 1990s, established the Wallowa Band Nez Perce Trail Interpretive Center and purchased the land adjacent to the Center in the late 1990s. The Nez Perce Wallowa Homelands Visitor Center opened in Wallowa in 2019; in 2018 and 2021 respectively, property in Joseph and Wallowa was returned to the Nez Perce by the local United Methodist churches.

Even among the sprawling landscapes of the west, Wallowa County is rural. Wallowa Valley is in Oregon’s northeastern corner—not far from its borders with Washington and Idaho—in the shadow of the Wallowa Mountains. It is defined as a frontier county, with approximately 7,200 residents—fewer than six people per square mile.2 More than half of the land in Wallowa County is publicly owned, and another quarter is used for agriculture.3

The region has a long history of ranching, farming and logging, and for many residents, life is tied closely to the land.

The three largest towns are Joseph, Wallowa and Enterprise, the county seat. Wallowa County folks have a long history of commitment to education and taking care of their own. Among Oregon counties, Wallowa ranks in the top five in per-student spending.4 The high school graduation rate is 93%, almost 20 percentage points higher than Oregon overall,5 and the four-year graduation rate is 95%, the highest in the state.6 Almost half of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals; Wallowa is one of only two Oregon counties where more than 90% of economically disadvantaged students graduate high school on time.7

The town of Joseph is named for the Nez Perce chief who fought his tribe’s displacement. Today, it has just over 1,000 residents and is known for its natural beauty, wide open skies, and the life-sized bronze sculptures—designed by local artists and forged at the local foundry—that line its downtown. Enterprise, a larger community of about 2,000, sits just over 6 miles northwest of Joseph and is home to the main offices of many organizations serving the county, including Fishtrap. Wallowa sits almost 24 miles northwest of Joseph; it’s a smaller community, without the influx of summer tourists each year. Despite their relatively small populations, each community has its own school district, which allows each to set its own priorities but also creates challenges for organizations trying to deliver services and coordinate efforts across districts.

Launching Fishtrap Story Lab

Fishtrap Story Lab creates a platform for storytelling and digital access to story. We believe everyone has a story to tell, [that] clear communication is essential to understanding each other, and telling stories creates community. Fishtrap Story Lab's intention is to impact students by empowering them to tell their stories, gain the tools to be effective communicators, learn new forms of self-expression, and improve the problem-solving skills, cooperation, and self-confidence.
—Fishtrap website

Fishtrap Story Lab developed through the Studio to School Initiative, building on Fishtrap’s existing Writers-in-Residence program and an existing partnership between Fishtrap and Joseph Charter School.

The project launched a collaboration between Cam and Liza, who co-taught digital storytelling to Liza’s seventh and eighth grade students. Through quarter-long residencies, they covered all the ground needed for students to write an original narrative and create an accompanying video using iStopMotion and iMovie—often with original music using Garage Band—which culminated in short digital stories.

In the project’s first year, the team built a physical Story Lab at Joseph Charter School, outfitting a small room attached to Liza’s classroom with the technology needed to create digital stories. In doing so, they also established a creatively and emotionally safe space within the school for students to explore their own ideas, perspectives and identities.

That spring, the first annual Story Lab Showcase was held at the school to celebrate student accomplishments and provide a venue for them to share their creativity with their peers, school community and families.

Over the course of the Initiative, the project team grew Story Lab into an established, robust, community-driven arts education program focused on teaching K–8 students generative writing using digital technology to craft and share their stories.

Fishtrap Story Lab inspires youth throughout Wallowa County to share their stories creatively, confidently and playfully.
—Fishtrap website

Fishtrap Story Lab: An Introduction

A more expansive vision for Story Lab

The collaboration between Cam and Liza remained a core component of Fishtrap Story Lab while the team worked toward a much bigger vision—one that would knit the Fishtrap writing community, local schools and the broader community together and substantially expand the program’s reach.

The project’s original goals were to deepen and expand Fishtrap's writer-in-the-schools program by marrying existing storytelling programming to digital technology—with a focus on developing programming in and with Joseph Charter School—and by building two digital storytelling labs: one at the school and one at Fishtrap House in Enterprise, each with mobile components that could be used in community workshops and other Fishtrap programs. The team hoped to build a culture of appreciation for digital storytelling in schools and the broader community, coupling in-school programming with community events that celebrate student storytelling and the power of digital media as a storytelling tool.

The team soon ran into trouble building a lab at Fishtrap House due to facility-related limitations. But the project and community ultimately gained something even better: an entirely mobile lab that could travel with Fishtrap staff throughout the county. This not only enabled the program to reach far more students; it also meant that equipment could travel to community events, reaching deeper into the community and diversifying participation.

This likely helped pave the way for a growing vision for the project’s reach. Expanding on the success of Cam and Liza’s work together at Joseph Charter School, the team set out to reach as many Wallowa County classrooms as they could by mid-Initiative.

It was as if Story Lab grew tentacles, stretching out across the county. Cam and other Story Lab writers-in-residence brought short- and long-term residencies in digital storytelling to students across Wallowa County. In the latter years of the Initiative, on any given school day, Cam and other writers in residence would dash between schools and classrooms—sometimes seeing multiple groups of students in all three districts in a single day.

Third graders from Enterprise at the Fishtrap House.

In addition to engaging K–8 teachers in Joseph, Enterprise and Wallowa, the expansion introduced a partnership with the alternative high school program run by local nonprofit Building Healthy Families. This alt-ed program offered a longer-term co-teaching opportunity tailored to students’ strengths and needs. Building Healthy Families also coordinated new after-school programs in Wallowa as well as Friday programming through Wallowa Resources’ Exploration of Nature (WREN) program.

By year four (2017–2018), the program had reached over 70% of classrooms in the county—an estimated 500 K–8 students. By the Initiative’s final year, Fishtrap Story Lab was present for at least a short-term residency in all but a few classrooms, reaching over 700 students.

The success of the Story Lab Showcase at Joseph Charter School led to the development of additional showcases for individual classrooms and schools, as well as an annual communitywide showcase. Community showcase events brought together students, families and community members from across the county to hear and see the students’ work and explore digital storytelling firsthand. Showcases often featured students providing digital storytelling tutorials to the attending adults as well as recognition of student accomplishments.

In 2016, Fishtrap began awarding Summer Fishtrap scholarships to Story Lab students, presenting participating young writers with scholarships at the annual showcase. Summer Fishtrap is a nationally renowned annual writers’ gathering that includes expert-led workshops, and a special opportunity for students who showed particular interest and promise in writing. 2016 also marked the first year that Summer Fishtrap itself incorporated Story Lab classes. In 2017, Building Healthy Families matched the funding needed to support two additional alternative education students to attend Summer Fishtrap.       

Fishtrap Story Lab Community Showcase, 2016.

Balancing quantity and quality

As programming spread, the team learned to adjust to student and community needs and contextual limitations. Cam soon realized that there was a big difference between what could be accomplished in a short-term (one- or two-week) program in a single classroom and what was possible in a residency, noting that the longer-term approach afforded substantially deeper learning. He also acknowledged that it wasn’t feasible to provide those opportunities in all classrooms, nor were all teachers interested in longer-term programming.

Cam quickly learned to tailor programming to various grade levels, finding that fifth and sixth graders seemed to be developmentally optimal for these workshops. Students at this age could master the technology easily while also engaging in identity and story exploration through writing. He also noticed that some digital storytelling skill sets seemed to appear with students in seventh grade and beyond—particularly the ability to retrofit narrative to visual stories as they diverged from original writing.

As time went on, Cam and Liza leveled up Story Lab programming as students—particularly those who'd had repeated or longer experiences with Story Lab—got more adept at writing and developing digital stories. As they refined their expectations for students, they began seeing demonstrable progress in the quality of student stories.

The more experience, the more sophisticated the storytelling gets. The students learn quickly!
—Liza Strickland

At the same time, Cam worked across the county in different classrooms and contexts, and in service to a wide range of learning goals. Digital storytelling helped teachers deliver content in science, social studies and other subjects, and Cam began to build a robust, adaptable set of curricula while honing program delivery.

As Liza gained experience with Story Lab, she began integrating it into her curriculum year-round, offering it with her high school students as well as incorporating filmmaking into her technology classes. She also leveraged her experience with Fishtrap Story Lab to acquire five brand-new Apple desktop computers through another grant. By the latter years of the Initiative, students at Joseph Charter School were getting a particularly robust set of experiences and the team was thinking again about how to further support students through digital storytelling.

Integration and evolution

As Fishtrap Story Lab grew, the team worked to integrate it more thoroughly into Fishtrap’s other offerings as well as broader community events. Story Lab was soon incorporated or included in a long list of other activities:

  • Fishtrap Fireside: Story Lab students were invited to attend and even read at these events.
  • NEA Big Read: This National Endowment for the Arts program encourages whole communities to celebrate a great work of literature. Through this program, Fishtrap provides over 500 books to local schools and also offers in-school and community programs and events. Story Lab supported this effort beginning in 2017. 
  • Summer Fishtrap: This cornerstone program offers two creative writing workshops for students in grades 5–12. Gatherings incorporated youth programming starting in 2018.
  • Fishtrap College: This program provides Writing 131 credit classes for high school juniors and seniors.

Community activities integrating Story Lab included:

While Fishtrap has delivered youth programming since the early 1990s, integrating youth programming fully into all programs and incorporating it as a core part of the organization was a big change—one that Fishtrap staff and leaders see as vital to the organization’s mission and future.

We are really working to develop the next generation of writers.
—Shannon McNerny

Throughout the Initiative, the team rode the waves of change in Wallowa County, from an influx of new residents to ever-evolving student and family needs. They juggled the many hats worn by those who work in rural nonprofit communities, putting relationships first while striving to sustain the program and the organizations involved.

Over time, the team shifted from focusing on the digital media aspect of the program toward centering writing. While this didn’t drastically change the arts education programming delivered, it connected the program more directly to school priorities and to Fishtrap’s mission. Story Lab could then play a more natural role both in classrooms and in Fishtrap’s work. It also took pressure off the technology itself, as acquiring and maintaining iPads and other necessary gear was one of the project’s largest expenses. As local schools began to provide their own iPads to students, the team found greater flexibility—and hopefully sustainability—by focusing on its core work of writing and storytelling.

Nurturing arts educators

In 2019, four years after the project began, the Story Lab project team gathered around the big wooden community table at the Fishtrap House in Enterprise to reflect on what they’d accomplished and learned together. The team’s collaborative approach was not always easy, but doing it together was clearly transformational—perhaps especially for Cam and Liza.

For Liza, Story Lab brought “sunshine” to her classroom, both through co-teaching with Cam and through the energy of other visiting writers and the celebrations of student work and voice through school and community showcases.

For Cam, bringing Story Lab across the valley was motivation to go back to school himself, get his master’s in teaching and pursue a full-time teaching career that would allow him to stay in the community and continue doing what he loved.

There's a huge privilege to getting to work with kids year after year, too, which is one of the things I really love about the local schools. So many of them have the same teachers working with the same students year after year. What you might do with students one year, you know that they're going to be in a different place the next year, so you can do something different with them next year and can help them continue along that developmental pathway or whatever your gut's saying what they need.
—Cam Scott

As Story Lab grew, and even prior to Cam’s planned departure, the team was incredibly thoughtful about bringing in additional arts educators and working toward a sustainable model, knowing that the growth they’d achieved would be challenging to maintain. The team would need the right people to continue building community and school buy-in, and they also wanted Story Lab educators to be able to thrive just as Cam had. In 2018, Whitney Chandler joined the Fishtrap team, eventually taking over for Cam when he departed for his next adventure in teaching. As the Initiative wrapped up, the team planned intensively for Cam’s transition, considering how to right-size and systematize the work to ensure it could continue.

Liza Strickland's seventh and eighth graders thank Fishtrap Story Lab educator Cameron Scott

Critical administrative and community support

Just as Fishtrap Story Lab highlights the value of arts educators and the power of co-teaching, it also demonstrates the importance of organization and school leaders, as well as community support.

Repeatedly over the course of the Initiative, project team members lauded the support of Lance Homan, the Joseph Schools Superintendent who championed the work and gave the team latitude to figure out how best to work together and with the school.

I couldn't imagine working in a school district where you don't have administrative support… it would just be hard. I think that we have a lot of freedom at our small school, and I thank Lance for that. It's nice to have that freedom. I appreciate it.

You can trace the effectiveness of what we do in schools directly to the administrative support. How those kids interact and how they're on fire is absolutely tied into how supportive the administrative team [is]. They couldn't be more supportive of us, they really couldn't be.
—Shannon McNerny

In addition, the team’s enterprising leader, Shannon McNerney, joined Fishtrap as its new executive director in 2015, inheriting the project in its early, formative days. Shannon took the reins with gusto, fiercely protecting her team’s time and energy, making sure they could focus on what mattered most and driving them toward something that would be genuinely sustainable beyond the Initiative, while shifting the culture at Fishtrap as well.

We can be educators in the classroom, doing our jam and rocking it, but the reach and the impact is never going to be as big without that administrative focus. 
—Cam Scott

We also made a decision, as a group, right about the time I got here, that we needed to pay more attention to our community. Fishtrap had a good reputation for the most part, but a reputation as being, ‘Summer Fishtrap, then we do some other stuff.’ Story Lab… felt like a wadded-up piece of chewing gum that was stuck on the outside of it. It wasn't fully integrated…. I always love that first few months that you have with an organization, because you only get to see it for the first time once. Really hearing feedback from people in the community that they didn't know who we were.

We really, collectively, made a group decision and really stuck to it. Making sure all of our programs, whether it was our youth programs or Summer Fishtrap, or anything we did, that there was a community element to it. We want to be a culture of yes. We want to be inclusive, in every way that that word is defined.
—Shannon McNerny

Enterprise sixth graders creating digital stories.

Building and adapting Fishtrap Story Lab was not an easy feat, and the team relied on one another and their community partners to pull it off. To reach their goal of thoroughly embedding Story Lab into the landscape of the county, the team had to engage other local organizations and individuals across Wallowa County. This included collaborating with partners who may not have had obvious arts education connections, but whose shared goals relating to storytelling, community-building, and engaging with regional history sparked incredible opportunities. Partnerships with the Josephy Center for Arts and Culture and Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center provided venues for events as well as opportunities for students and families to learn local history and understand how they fit in. Partnerships with Building Healthy Families and Wallowa Resources’ WREN program were opportunities to work with students outside typical school classrooms in an alternative school setting and with students engaging in science learning outdoors.

These partnerships and connections also reflect the nature of working in community organizations and schools in rural places. There is a sense of care for one another and the reality that community leaders often wear many hats. This necessitated Story Lab’s community engagement and made it a valuable hub for community connections. The collaborative attitude and can-do approach went both ways, as nonprofits and community members—feeling pride of place and shared responsibility for the program—came together to creatively implement and sustain the program alongside the team. As Maria Weer, executive director of Building Healthy Families, put it: “Nobody said you had to do [Story Lab] by yourself. You’re not alone in this. So how can we help each other? What do we need to do?”

Celebrating students crafting their own stories

The best way to understand the transformative effects of Fishtrap Story Lab is to watch the many videos of student digital stories shared publicly through Fishtrap’s YouTube channel—a literal demonstration of student learning, creativity and self-expression.

Story Lab emboldens students to explore themselves and the places they inhabit, encouraging personal growth and thoughtful participation in community conversation. The result is a generative program as rich and lively as Wallowa County itself.
—Project team journal

Fishtrap Story Lab presents a showcase of digital work from the 2018-2019 school year done by Joseph Charter School's students and edited by hethompson.com.
  1. Josephy Library of Western History and Culture. (2021, March 15) .The “Roaming Nez Perce” on a level playing field. https://library.josephy.org/2021/03/the-roaming-nez-perce-on-a-level-playing-field/
  2. U.S. Census Bureau. (n.d.). QuickFacts: Wallowa County, Oregon. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/wallowacountyoregon#
  3. U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2017). Census of agriculture: 2017 census volume 1, chapter 2: County level data, table 8. https://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/AgCensus/2017/%20Full_Report/Volume_1,_Chapter_2_County_Level/Oregon/
  4. Oregon Department of Education. (2020, January 23). Cohort graduation rate 2018–2019 media file. https://www.oregon.gov/ode/reports-and-data/students/%20Pages/Cohort-Graduation-Rate.aspx
  5. U.S. Census Bureau. (n.d.). QuickFacts: Wallowa County, Oregon. 
  6. Oregon Department of Education. (2019). Oregon statewide report card 2018–2019. https://oregoncf.org/%20https:/%20www.oregon.gov/ode/schools-and-districts/reportcards/%20Documents/rptcard2019.pdf.
  7. Oregon Department of Education. (2019). Oregon statewide report card 2018–2019.