Great Smoky Mountains Park launches digital storytelling project

From Great Smoky Mountains National Park:

With each passing day our connections to the past slip through our fingers, taking with them their first-person stories of what life was like in the Smokies before Google, iTunes or even black-and-white television. When Beth Bramhall, in her role as a Parks in Classroom seasonal ranger with Great Smoky Mountains National Park, decided to do something to stem the tide of such loss, she recruited an unlikely group to help: Teenagers!

“Passing It On: A Digital Storytelling Project,” winner of this year’s Association of Partners of Public Lands first-place award for an educational program, is the result of a yearlong project involving many local and regional partnerships. “Passing It On” was singled out by APPL judges as “the best of the best” for bringing together a wide variety of players, including North Carolina and Tennessee history scholars, local elders, middle- and high-school teachers and their students from both sides of the park, GSMNP rangers and Great Smoky Mountains Association directors.

The idea for “Passing It On” came to Bramhall during hikes she’d take in the Greenbrier section of the national park, where she’d often meet and have a chance to talk with “old-timers” who remembered what it was like to grow up in the early part of the 20th century in the mountain region that became the national park in 1934.

“I remember thinking what a shame it was that the old-timers and former Civilian Conservation Corps members were disappearing,” Bramhall said. “The time to talk with these folks is now, while they’re still around to tell their stories first hand.”

Even as this generation of mountain people continues to dwindle, their stories remain numerous. Capturing them would be more than one person, or even one agency, could accomplish alone, she said. That’s when the idea of digital storytelling – and the teenager workforce – came to her. Get students excited about the high-tech aspect of the project, and they’d instantly supply the labor needed on the effort’s ground-floor to collect the stories of the past. The first step, however, was to get their teachers even more excited about the curriculum possibilities of such a project.

With a grant focused on teaching history and civics, 28 teachers from North Carolina and Tennessee were recruited to attend a workshop conducted by experts in local history and digital storytelling. The experts included Chad Berry, an Appalachian studies history professor at Berea College in Kentucky; Seed Lynn, a digital storytelling facilitator with the Carpetbag Theater in Knoxville, Tenn.; Tom Belt, elder-in-residence and Cherokee language professor at Western Carolina University in North Carolina; and Daniel Pierce, chair of the University of North Carolina at Asheville history department. When additional experts were required to answer specific questions about the park or provide resource materials like historic photographs maps and other archival material, park employees and GSMA staffers were also called upon.

From the initial workshop, four teachers immediately got on board with the project and took the idea of digital storytelling back to their classrooms with a mission to get their students excited about today’s high-tech methods of preserving the region’s rich cultural history. Once hooked by the latest bells and whistles, including movie-making software, sound equipment and digital cameras, students took the project to heart and began to collect stories about the past.

Some students made the project personal by selecting their own family members to interview, said Karen Ballentine, education branch chief for GSMNP, the same family members who had been telling them stories of “walking uphill both ways in three feet of snow to school every day and to church twice on Sunday.”

To get a better idea of what is involved in digital storytelling, think of Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” for the visuals combined with National Public Radio’s “Story Corps” for the interview element. Then add in a narrator’s compelling voice, still photographs that appear to move through camera sweeps, old letters written to loved ones, archival maps outlining boundaries created by nature and man, mountain-style music that undeniably creates the mood, and, of course, the words and memories straight from the men and women who lived the experience, whether it was helping to move a community church out of the new national park or playing a game of Native American medicine ball or living in a CCC camp.

“Basically it’s the high-tech version of an ancient art form,” Bramhill said. “The idea is still to tell a great story, just using all the art forms available.”

As anyone who spends time with teenagers can tell you, working with this age group can present certain challenges. The project created a great deal of excitement at the beginning, when the students let their imaginations run wild, and at the end, when the final product was within sight. In the middle some students needed extra prodding to keep going, she said.

And since prodding is what teachers do best, Bramhill was grateful for those who stepped up and oversaw the classroom research and story development. They included Brenda Williams at Robbinsville High School and Kathy Wiggins at Swain County High, both in North Carolina, as well as Tennessee teachers Sheryl Sharp from Pittman Center Elementary, April Daniels of Pigeon Forge Middle School and Melissa Crisp of Pi Beta Phi.

“I loved being able to focus students on their heritage, their place in it and the place of story,” said Wiggins, a self-titled “cybrarian.” “The technology was challenging. With several platforms being used, it was hard to nail down the best fit, but the end results were great.”

Wiggins, who said the project gave her an opportunity to honor her grandmother, plans to offer the curriculum to future students, but maybe on a slightly smaller scale.

The potential uses for the resulting projects are almost limitless, said NPS’s Ballentine. “We’re considering story mapping and creating apps for educational purposes. The educational value is definitely there.” As of now, those involved are regrouping and evaluating how to proceed, she said.

“I think everyone was amazed at how much information these kids uncovered about the pre-park Smokies,” said Steve Kemp, interpretive products and services director for Great Smoky Mountains Association, the agency that oversaw the project and administered the grant. “I’ve been researching and writing about this area for over 25 years, and I learned things from their videos.”

Since its inception in 1953, Great Smoky Mountains Association has supported the preservation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the national park system by promoting greater public understanding and appreciation through education, interpretation and research. A non-profit organization, GSMA has provided more than $30 million to the park during its 60-year history.

Support for the Association comes primarily from sales of educational products and from membership dues. Anyone who wishes to become more closely involved with the park is encouraged to become a member. For more information about GSMA’s membership and volunteer opportunities, visit or call 888.898.9102.


0 thoughts on “Great Smoky Mountains Park launches digital storytelling project

  1. guest

    The history they don’t want “passed on” is how the National Park Service and its wealthy, politically connected backers used eminent domain and mass condemnation for its reprehensible population displacement.

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