Video in the Classroom - 5 Tips for Videotaping in Schools

I love that Staples commercial, showing parents dancing through the aisles to the Christmas song "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year". Classic. Yes, the kids are back in class, and you might have a few thoughts of putting together a School Yearbook. One word: ORGANIZE!

Define Your Role
The most common types of videos in school are: Events: plays, concerts, sports, etc.; Informational: public announcements, principal's message; Educational: daily or weekly newscasts conducted by the media arts class or class video projects. Which category you fall into determines your own involvement with shooting and editing the project. If it's Events, whether for fun or profit, you simply need to know which ones to cover when and where. You and your assistant(s) will be doing most of the shooting and editing. If it's Informational, you may be sharing the operation of the equipment with students and faculty. If it's the Educational category, most of the gear will be operated by the students, and your position will be as a guide or trainer. Here are a few tips from our "Take 5" series to get you ready to hit the long dusty corridors yourself.

1 – Be Prepared
OK. So that's the Boy Scout motto, but it holds true to many things in life, and in video, managing your media should be a priority. You're looking at nine months of activities, from school plays and sporting events to field trips and graduation. That's a lot of shooting. So define your scope. Are you shooting just your own child, for one particular class, or for the entire school? Each has its own rules. Step 5 covers some of the legal. Being prepared can be as simple as having permission releases signed in advance and keeping track of school activities on a yearlong calendar. But most likely, you should take the time after every shoot to number the tape or media file, give it an obvious title – like 0109-sept, which means tape one, ninth month, September – and log it. Log it now, not in June!


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2 – Go to the Head of the Class
If you're going to be on campus for more than an occasional school activity, meet first with the school principal to explain yourself and find out what your limitations might be. Then ask to meet the teachers to explain who you are and what you're doing. Determine how you will obtain school access, and know who's in charge of each activity and defer to them at all times. Go to PTA or APT meetings and introduce yourself there. Protect yourself. Never allow yourself to be alone with any one child. You never want to be suspected of doing creepy things with a camcorder, so make sure there's always an adult present when you're engaging children. This protects them as well as you, your reputation and your business.

3 – Five W's
Who: Don't forget to get video of everyone associated with the project you're covering: students, teachers and parents, including school support staff, like the secretary and custodian. Make sure you cover all levels of the event, you might need to over-shoot, so plan well, but if this is going to be a yearender for the class, make sure you get coverage of EVERY child at as many events as possible. If it's a collection for the entire school, well, it might not be easy to cover every child, but keeping track on a class roster helps.
What: Video projects can be anything from a singular video like a chemistry demonstration, a compilation like a sports highlights reel or video yearbook, or something more personal like a thank-you to a special teacher. To better prepare your video, you need to know up front what your intentions will be. There's nothing like changing horses mid-stream to make the fun project become the project form hell – two weeks before the end of school.
When: You can edit your video in chronological order, September through June, or by event, Homecoming Dance, Spring Prom, etc. Doing it like this allows you to edit some key points in advance – like after every game, or event, or a highlights reel at the end of each month. Then you've at least trimmed the fat and won't have to sift through the 'edit room floor' footage again nine months later.
Where: Opportunities aren't always just at school. A field trip to a museum can be turned into a more extensive research project for the class. I know a local teacher who every year picks a different gravesite of one of our town's notable ancestors to start a genelogical search on. By using video, he's engaging the kids, and teaching history that they can relate to.
Why: Kids can learn from the project by interviewing real people who witnessed history in the making or learning story-telling skills, composition and editing. Video works as a great teaching tool. Have them interview their own teacher, grandparents, next-door neighbors or any local 'stars' like the sports heros, civic leaders, or police, hospital or fire fighters about their job and their childhood.

4 – Stay Legal
Video for just your own family's use might simply require permission in advance to bring a camera to an event. For this, you should never hold a singular shot on any other child longer than a few seconds. Does this mean you can shoot only close-ups of your own child? Of course not. Do shoot lots of closeups of your child, but don't forget to include variety in medium and wide shots, so the activity makes sense later on. Just be aware that in this age of internet creepiness, most parents are leery of video cameras pointed at their kids.

If parents request that you don't videotape their child, be polite and acknowledge the request. This is not an expos. You do want to get some of the other kids, your child will enjoy looking back at the antics of his friends as well as his own. If you're shooting your child's classroom activities for the entire class, to be given to the students at the end of the term, then you need to get written permission from each child's guardian on record. In this case, your final edited piece must include each child in the class. Don't be exclusive, and don't focus on just your own child or the popular kids. (I made this mistake once, when I was editing the school yearbook for my son's 6th grade and to this day still hear the angst of some parents who complained to me that their child wasn't ever seen a-n-y-w-h-e-r-e in the entire project.)

Being sensitive to parents' wishes and needs, and being ethical and above the clique of popularity are important traits to hold. If you are shooting for the entire school, written permission slips should be sent home to each parent at the beginning of the school year and to parents of children who join the school mid-term. Follow up with the teachers of children whose parents refused or have forgotten to sign, so that you know which kids you have to exclude in advance. If you can, hold an afterschool meeting to explain to parents what you are doing – they may be willing to help.

5 – Recess Remember, videotaping kids at play is a great endeavor, they create such complex little worlds, however if you get too close, you are in danger of causing great conflict in your own world. To read about how your first priority is to protect yourself AND your subject, read our "What's Legal" column, "Understanding Privacy Rights of your Subjects". Don't Be a Video Voyeur… Professional videographers should always be savvy about their subject's privacy and space.

To learn how educators are using video to get more kids interested in learning, read this feature: "Using Video in Schools"

What about the Art? A while back, we received a letter from a reader who needed to shoot general scenes of children on playgrounds for a documentary and wants to disguise the kids' identities, while adding a little more artistic edge to his video. This next feature, Protecting Kids' Identities goes beyond this Take 5 column, especially for some great artistic tips on shooting on the playground and in the classroom, and conducting interviews with your little subjects.

"Protecting Kids' Identities" –There's no problem videotaping your own children or those that you personally know, but what if you have a need to shoot children on a playground or in a classroom who are complete strangers to you, for a documentary or other long-format show?
Have a happy, and safe school year!

Jennifer O’Rourke is an Emmy award-winning videographer & editor.