Click Play: Launching Digital Media in the Classroom
Software and online resources enhance literacy education.
By Brian McDonough
The days when the most exciting thing in the classroom was having to
read a handwritten book report in front of the class are over. Teachers
everywhere are beginning to engage their students with exciting and surprisingly
manageable multimedia projects using digital video.
"It kind of brings the magic in," says Janet English, a middle-school
teacher in Orange County who also works with Schoolhouse Video, which gets
student videos on public television, and helps teachers learn to make use
of digital video.
Julie Winter, who teaches at Oakland's Urban Promise Academy, agrees.
She enhanced English and social studies lessons by having her students
do "movie trailers" for the Epic of Gilgamesh -- using the newest technology
on the world's oldest written story. "Digital video really made it a lot
more fun," she says. "I always think it's fun to introduce dramatics into
the class. Sixth graders love to move their bodies, and they love to use
"It's a very motivating medium for students to work in," says Elaine
Wrenn, a technology coordinator at Echo Horizon School, a K-6 campus in
Culver City. "It's a very visual world, and they're used to receiving information
in a multimedia fashion."
And it's inspiring, she adds. "Because it's so motivating, often students
are willing to go much further in researching and learning," Wrenn says.
"They're motivated by creating something."
"It's also a great equalizer," Winter notes. Digital video creates new
opportunities for students to excel, which is a great boost for kids who
don't dazzle in straight academics. "It lets those kids see they can do
something that Joe Great Reader can't, and it lets Joe Great Reader see
that these other kids aren't dummies."
Getting started can seem daunting, but experienced teachers -- and there
will be some in any district -- have a number of good tips, from tech and
organization to simple self-motivation. "Teachers should start with a topic
that's already an area of interest to them," Wrenn says. "If your strength
is in science, or social studies, think of ways to use technology to enhance
Video Comes Last
If there's one thing that messes up digital video projects, it's digital
video. Janet English says her earliest efforts to incorporate video weren't
very successful, largely because she rushed to incorporate video. "I decided
to just take the cameras and see what we could do," she says. "It didn't
work. The emotional charge was there, but my organization wasn't."
"The key is in the planning, Wrenn agrees. "You really want to think
through the steps in the process before getting started."
English says that rather than putting the cameras into the all-too-eager
hands of her students, she now holds the technology back until dead last,
and makes her kids finish all the groundwork first. To start, the teacher
must decide what outcomes the project is supposed to have, so the pursuit
of an end product can shape the work. Once she knows what she wants the
kids to learn, she says, she can structure their time and efforts, making
sure they reach the video stage with a firm goal in mind and a map to achieve
it. If she's using live video, the children will have done research, written
a script and prepared storyboards before ever turning on the camera.
That's particularly important because, while computer time isn't so hard
to come by on most campuses these days, most classrooms don't come equipped
with their own cameras. "A lot of times you're sharing equipment," Wrenn
says. "You might only have the camera for an hour."
Sliding in Simply
The actual video portion of a project should be as short and uncomplicated
"The first year, we tried to do the whole Epic of Gilgamesh," Winter
says. "That was boring. This year, we just did a movie trailer, which forced
the kids to work on their summary skills, to figure out what were the main
parts of the story."
Thus, close reading and discussion of the story yielded consensus on
what would be the highlights of a hypothetical film version of the Sumerian/Babylonian
epic. Then there was research to do on ancient costumes, customs and other
aspects needed to create the visual.
But even that's more than a teacher needs to try the first time out,
Janet English says. A great first video project could involve researching
an issue -- child labor in the 19th century, or in today's Third World
-- and finding as few as six or eight images to illustrate the subject.
Children then organize the images, create narration to accompany them,
and record the sound over the video in a simple slide show. Add some music
and put title slides on the front and back, and you've got a project. And
you didn't even need a video camera.
"I've had tremendous success helping teachers start this way," she says.
Such projects require limited skills that teachers can easily identify,
learn and teach, such as doing Web research, downloading or scanning images,
and putting it all together in a relatively straightforward program such
as iMovie. And the result is excitement -- for the students, the parents
and the teacher.
At the most developed level, video projects can get quite elaborate,
and can have amazing results. Alex Hakobian, a film-industry veteran who
has taught at Grant High School in the San Fernando Valley for nearly two
decades, says he's seen video projects really help students turn their
He describes one student with a dim outlook on life who came looking
for a change. "He had a lot of problems at home, said he'd never completed
anything in his life," the teacher says. "He said, 'I have all these ideas
-- can you help me just finish something?'
"Just getting a kid to finish a project they started is a chore," Hakobian
notes. He said he worked all summer with the student through script development
and planning, and the result was an award-winning mini-feature called "Salvation."The 19-minute video looked at a post-apocalyptic world and won a number
of awards. Other projects have included short anti-smoking public service
announcements. While Hakobian is teaching a video class in the shadows
of Hollywood, he says having an ethical component in all the projects his
students generate is important. And getting the kids to produce something
they can be proud of is critical, he says.
"A lot of teachers try to build students' ego without product," he says.
Executing a project that can be finished and shown to the public, be it
fellow students, parents or contest judges, creates a genuine sense of
accomplishment, and may plant the seeds of future success.
The subjects his students -- who generate their own ideas and must pitch
them to Hakobian -- have run through are broad: the (non)existence of extraterrestrial
visitors; overpopulation; the history of girls' athletics on the campus.
Though the projects at Grant, which is a communications and technology
magnet school, are a world away from an elementary classroom's eight-slide
picture show, Hakobian's principals are the same as those for the most
basic project. He makes the students learn their subject, plan their project
and really know what they're doing before bringing in lights, cameras and
"If you take the attitude that technology is going to create fantastic
work for you ... well, that's not going to happen," he says. "The technology
is just the tool."
Digital video also provides a great way to communicate with parents
and the community, Janet English says. Parents, PTA members, district administrators,
the wider community can all be reached through video projects that let
them see that their classrooms, and students, are more than the sums of
standardized test scores and the bottom lines of budget dollars. Those
videos can be posted online, entered in contests and burned onto CD-ROMs
or DVDs for students and parents to keep.
And then there's always the next project. Once you get off the ground,
the teachers say, it's easier to build on success and do more and better
work with video next year. Julie Winter notes that once you've trained
one sixth-grade class to make a video project, next year you'll be able
to call on those seventh-graders to help a new class learn.
"One of the keys to being successful the first time," Elaine Wrenn says,
"is being willing to admit to students that you don't know everything about
the technology. Students know that in many cases they know more about the
tech, and they're actually quite patient with teachers. If you wait until
you think you know everything about the technology, you'll be waiting quite
"The actual technology is a leap of faith," Winter agrees. "But kids
really know what to do with it. They're not afraid to press a button."