Teaching with Video

The ingenuity of teachers is astounding. In the last decade, instructors have put camcorders to novel uses in every subject from history to robotics, at every grade level from kindergarten through graduate school. So it’s high time we looked at some of the ways in which imaginative instructors are using video in classrooms. Whether you teach high school, grad school or Sunday school, you can apply these creative uses of video to help your pupils get the most out of your lessons.
To streamline our focus, we’ll skip video in sports and exclude media as an academic subject in its own right. Here, we’ll concentrate on who uses video in secondary and elementary classrooms and what some teachers are doing with this powerful resource. Of course, for every example we spotlight, ingenious readers could submit a dozen more; so treat our quick survey as more suggestive than inclusive.

Videos of Teachers and Students
Many instructors are taping themselves for use in classroom instruction. Why replace a live teacher with a TV screen? To avoid difficult and repetitive setups, for starters. Many demonstrations in disciplines from chemistry to sheet-metal shop are time-consuming to prepare and tedious to clean up. By videotaping your demonstrations you gain two big advantages: first, you avoid repeated grunt work and second, you can perfect your model demonstration by editing together the best parts of multiple tapings.


A taped lecture or demo is portable. In the old days (the 1980s), every honors English student in my wife’s high school had to assemble in the auditorium for her annual John Steinbeck presentation. This one-time lecture pulled students out of other classes and disrupted their schedules. Today, that show (with dozens of slides she’d taken in Steinbeck’s native Salinas and Monterey, Calif.) would be on tape, so each English teacher could schedule it during a regular class.


You can also tape demonstrations that are hard for students to see, particularly hands-on applications ranging from tabletop physics to home economics. The camera’s wonderful closeup power can fill a big screen with important hard-to-see details.


Finally, from the instructors’ point of view, repeating presentations can be a drag. If you teach several sections of the same course, your fourth performance of the same thing can become more dutiful than inspiring (and students are merciless about spotting a teacher’s loss of enthusiasm).


As we’ve suggested, presentations can be useful in subjects across the academic spectrum. For a ceramics class, my students shot basic pottery-wheel operations using three cameras: a front-angle full shot, a roving camera for close inserts and a closeup of the instructor giving real-time explanation of what she was doing.


After critiquing playback of the master shot to spec additional closeups, the teacher repeated the demonstration while we taped pickups, using two cameras this time. Students edited these angles together, timing the show by the teacher’s narration, then used picture-in-picture to place her closeup in the upper corner of the screen. (Sometimes, she’d opt to run the tape silent, substituting live commentary for the original narration.) She also ran the tape for individual students who enrolled late and missed the early class sessions.


In addition to taping instructional resources, teachers often make videos of student work. Any classroom demonstration, presentation or performance is a good candidate for taping, especially in speech and debate courses and in performing arts like drama, debating, music and dance.


The obvious reason for taping student work is to obtain a record of it and now that so much video is digital, that record can be made permanent.


A more important use, however, is analysis. As in sports, a record of a performance is a good study tool for identifying problems and areas to work on. Nothing motivates improvement like a closeup of an orator wagging her hands or a debater with a finger up his nose.


Finally, taping student work can be a powerful learning motivator. In a strange way, video seems to validate an activity by recording it. Looking at playback, the student thinks, "Hey, I’m really doing that!" The effect on learner confidence and enthusiasm can be dramatic.

Student Video Projects

For every video made for teachers, there may be 10 produced as student projects. Here, the range of courses and subjects is so huge that we can only describe a tiny survey sample.


We’ve already mentioned music, drama and dance but only as documents of live performances. Students that are more enterprising are moving off the stage to create performances specifically for the video medium. MTV-style music videos and conventional story programs are popular, of course; but consider dance programs shot on location. The possibilities are limitless.


On the academic side, let’s start with that venerable institution, the science project. We remember all those displays backed by tedious posters pasted with report pages and lettered with markers. Today, students are supplementing their physical exhibits with video documentaries of the processes that created them or with PowerPoint summaries of the methodologies they used.


A zippy explanatory slide show on a video monitor can brighten an unattractive plant-growing project with an explanation of the exciting hybridization procedures that the student used to create it.


Social studies lend themselves to documentaries, dramatizations and faux news programs. A docu-drama about the American Revolution, produced entirely by elementary school students and edited on a Casablanca system has been widely praised. Imagine a Native American news show reporting the sudden appearance of weird looking strangers led by someone called Ko-lum-bus.


Interviews with famous people can work extremely well. Working in a team, both the subject and the reporter assemble information on, say, Ben Franklin, Rosa Parks or Cesar Chavez, then conduct an on-camera interview. More sophisticated projects can run some of the conversations as voiceover audio accompanying historic graphic visuals.


The same techniques work well in English classes too, especially for students who seem to express themselves more fluently with a camcorder than a word processor. Instead of explaining a lyric poem, they can re-imagine it by creating its video analogue. Short stories can be dramatized and great authors can be interviewed.


Video is also a fine medium for comparative analysis. In one project, a student selected one speech each by Hamlet, King Claudius and old Polonius, copied them from tapes of three different movie Hamlets, and wrote a critical paper comparing the three interpretations of each speech.


There are so many exciting uses for video in schools that it’s frustrating to have to stop here. Fortunately, you don’t have to! Take these few examples of how others have used camcorders as teaching tools and build upon them yourself. Your students will love it and so will you and their parents.

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