The Art of Storytelling with Prezi

This was originally posted on Aug 26, 2014 at

As a history teacher, I look for creative ways to communicate stories of people and places.  Many mediums tell these narratives such as memoirs, film, art, and music, which add voice and depth to students’ understanding of the past and present.  In the past couple of years, I have discovered that Prezi is a tool that not only allows me to curate many of these sources into one place, but also adds its own artistic dimension to the art of storytelling in history and the humanities.

Three years ago, I worked with a Jordanian teacher, Ms. Noor, and her class over Twitter to compare perspectives on the Middle East and the United States. I was able to sum this experience up visually through a Prezi, “What is the Middle East?”, which combines word clouds, animations, and representative zooms.  The goal of this exercise was to develop perspective and empathy, as well as a broader understanding of how identity, culture, and environment influence each other.  The Prezi shows word clouds made by students in the United States about the Middle East and word clouds that were simultaneously made by students of Jordan and Qatar about the United States. Questions in the Prezi allow for pauses and reflection and the Prezi flips around to represent “thinking another way.”  The assignment was intended to give students and others a glimpse inside the mind of “the other” and the Prezi is designed to take us on a tour of that complex mental 2

The story of a course— the curriculum overview, that is— may not seem the most enticing of stories.  Enter Prezi.  Students and parents then have a very clear (and hopefully exciting) vision of the trajectory of the course. I have used Prezi to tell the story of history courses I teach and even to present our department elective choices to students. In a simple Prezi for Human Geography, just three zooms predicts how we will study the narrative of peoples’ identity, their relationship with each other, and the environment in which they live.  Another course Prezi, for Global Issues: Connected World, visualizes the various unit themes, resources, and activities students will engage in. In this global course, students begin with the concept of connectedness and loop back to that idea by the end, demonstrating how they are a globally connected citizen. The goal of these Prezis is to set up learning expectations and create motivation for learning.

When teaching non-fiction literature, Prezi allows me to help students visualize the text, which is also an essential, researched strategy  for reading effectively and efficiently.   Not only can students easily identify historic and cultural references through the Prezis, but they can use the cloud-based service for future reference.  One example is a Prezi I made for The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwambe, which gives students additional context and resources for this book about energy, environment, and poverty in Malawi.  The relative locations of Malawi, Lilongwe, and Dowa can be pointed out more easy with the transitions and zooms in Prezi and images of the culture (i.e. Gule Wamkulu and Billy Kaunda) surround these locations and come to life.  Another Prezi, for Steve Inskeep’s book Instant City, visualizes elements of Karachi, Pakistan and the urbanized history and life of its people.  Again, the Prezi is designed to show students the story of Karachi and what to expect— growth of a city.  Each step in the Prezi visualizes content and focuses students, sometimes through textual cues, on elements of the story to aid in their understanding of Inskeep’s narrative.

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Finally, telling the story of culture is an important part of the humanities.  In my Human Geography course, students were given definitions of folk and popular culture and were then asked to watch a related Prezi.  The Prezi is organized by categories and designed to be artistically appealing to the viewer; in the same way that culture is a complicated woven fabric, the Prezi bobs and weaves and pushes students to think and debate what is and is not folk vs. popular culture— and why.  In other Prezis, I give students the background on major world religions such as Judaism  and Hinduism. In the Judaism Prezi, I attempt to tell the basic story of the religion through images, maps, and video. In one slide, I want to take students into a synagogue and can simulate this using a combination of zoom and video.  I also do this in the Hinduism Prezi, with photos of the Pittsburgh Hindu-Jain temple that I took myself.  Additionally, in the Hinduism Prezi, I attempt to represent Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva as part of Brahman by making them— literally— part of the word Brahman.  While these things can be done in a standalone slide, the zoom-effect gives viewers the feeling of entering the presentation and they are better able to internalize the content.

Visualization is not only a valuable component of successful literacy, it is also an inherently natural part of our students’ world.  Through Prezi, I am able to capture the visual and tie it to the content and text in intricate ways that invite students to read, think, and discuss more.  The medium itself allows me to be creative and to deliver content from multiple mediums in ways that communicate subtly— through a tilt, a zoom, a fade, or merely a word.  My goal is to create something of a piece of art in itself; it should draw the observer in and generate discussion. I venture to say that a Prezi should deliberately embed natural pauses for audience reflection, make use of multiple mediums, and incorporate nuances of the zoom and pan to communicate ideas with subtlety.  Perhaps one might say my Prezis are not quite art–like Duchamp’s Fountain, or Warhol’s pop art—which means, perhaps they are. Give it a shot; they say there’s an artist in us all.