Visual Learners

By Karen J. Bannan — February 01, 2003 9 min read
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As more schools assign video-based lessons, camcorders are replacing pen and paper—and, often, traditional research projects.

Jackie Desmond, a 17-year-old senior at Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park, Illinois, powered through some pretty heavy reading last semester in her honors English class—four novels, including Fahrenheit 451 and The Lord of the Rings. Her final assignment was to create a story with a plausible plot that touched on a modern theme, with characters from all four books. So what was she doing watching a movie in the school’s audiovisual department on a Monday afternoon in November? Working on her story, as a matter of fact.

Jackie’s teacher, Charlie Tarjin, had asked his students to produce 12- to 15-minute videos for the assignment, using the school’s cameras and video-editing equipment. Jackie had teamed up with three of her classmates to produce a parody. The entire project took about six weeks: several for writing the script, a day of casting and filming, plus a few more weeks of organizing the footage into a story on the computer.

This fall afternoon found Jackie deep into the editing process at a workstation in the AV room. The large, windowless space plastered with movie posters was bustling, with more than 20 other students working on projects at 12 editing stations. Carole Kudla, the audiovisual media specialist at the 3,600-student suburban Chicago school, sat by Jackie’s side as the teenager showed her some clips on the large, flat-panel screen in front of them. The lighting had been poor when Jackie’s team shot the scene, giving the images a slight orange tint. Kudla explained that Jackie could fix the problem by adding contrast and brightness with video-editing tools, then demonstrated the process. The clock on the wall read 6:15 p.m., but neither amateur auteur was in a hurry to get home.

Just because video projects let students work with images instead of words doesn’t mean that they’re easy, Tarjin contends. “They really have to know the characters inside and out in order to do a good job,” he says of the honors English assignment. “They can’t fake it. You can’t just film a bunch of talking heads. You need plot movement, which requires creativity, knowledge of the books, and writing skills.”

Jackie, who has written and produced videos for other classes, agrees. “It takes quite a bit longer to do a video assignment than a regular written assignment,” she says. “But it seems so much more worthwhile. I really enjoy doing assignments like this because I learn so much.”

Sandburg High is at the forefront of a growing trend: having students produce video projects instead of traditional term papers and essays.

Educators’ interest in video-based schoolwork is driven by many changes, though none as dramatic as the technology itself. Digital moviemaking gear has become considerably more affordable during the past decade. These days, most classroom computers support video-editing software, which costs between $29 and $600. Some machines, like Apple Computer’s recent offerings, even ship with such programs alreadyinstalled.

A top-of-the-line video production lab can be pricey, with digital cameras costing anywhere from $250 to $1,000 each and editing machines, which convert traditional tape- or film-based footage to digital video, running as much as $1,000 each. Plus, technical-support fees bite into a department’s budget.

But a teacher can also lead a video project for significantly less. A bare-bones setup might have students film with video cameras borrowed from relatives, use a $300 media converter to change analog video to digital images, and edit on classroom computers. While still prohibitive for some schools, cheaper equipment has put video projects within reach for most.

While many educators are enthusiastic about video projects, others worry that students, simply don’t have time to play filmmaker.

The technology also has become simpler to use. Educators say that any student who can work a mouse and pay attention for short periods of time can create their own videos, allowing even elementary schools to get in on the action. Teachers know that students spend a lot of time in front of televisions—nearly 20 hours per week, according to Nielsen Media Research—and they’re keen to channel that interest into the classroom. And educators who’ve assigned video projects rave about the skills that the filmmaking process develops.

Alice Epstein, a 6th grade teacher at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, says her students’ speaking abilities and confidence improved this past fall when they created “video book reports” in the form of Tonight Show-style interviews. The kids read books that their parents had enjoyed at age 11 or 12, then discussed them on camera. The assignment also gave students with writing difficulties an opportunity to be successful, she adds. Hina Naseem, a 5th grade science teacher at Ellicott Mills Middle School in Ellicott City, Maryland, says the video assignments she’s given have helped boost retention. Recently, she recalls, “my kids did a presentation, picking concepts like air pressure and scripting out all of the different parts of an experiment. Every time we watch a movie, the kids get excited all over again. It’s a reflection tool.”

At the high school level, video projects develop a multitude of skills, including decisionmaking, collaboration, creativity, and organization, says Sandburg High’s Kudla. And videos are difficult to plagiarize. “A teacher who has seen a scene would notice if it came up again in another movie,” she observes.

Kudla, a 57-year-old teaching veteran with a ready smile, is something of a pioneer in the use of video in education. She first came across the technology in the early 1980s, when she took a two-week course in video production. After completing the class, she acquired two videocassette recorders with editing capabilities and began hosting workshops for her colleagues. From the beginning, Kudla says, she liked how the medium engaged students. “It gives teachers a way to let kids be creative and teach them in a way that they are very used to,” she says.

When her colleagues assign video projects, Kudla works closely with them and their students every step of the way, demonstrating camera angles and lighting, explaining how to use a storyboard—a written plan of action for a film—and teaching editing techniques that Hollywood directors use. For example, she shows students how to use sweeps (quick cuts from blackouts to full pictures), wipes (using a geometric shape or line to “wipe off” one image and replace it with another), and titles as storytelling devices.

In the past two decades, Sandburg High has acquired more equipment—the school now owns nine digital and 15 VHS video cameras—and teachers have assigned film projects in every subject offered at the school, including science, history, foreign languages, and dance. Kudla’s favorite video to date came out of a humanities class. Asked to create a public-service announcement about a hot-button issue, one student group filmed a gun-control spot. The video opened with an executive bringing home a firearm that his wife could use to protect the family while he was traveling, then hiding it in another room. The next scene showed one of their children following a ball into the same room.

“All of a sudden, you hear ‘bang!’ The screen goes blank for five seconds,” Kudla recalls. “The next scene is great: It’s the mother sitting on the floor, packing a box of stuffed animals. At the bottom of the screen, you see stats on gun accidents and deaths scrolling past.” Not only did the students learn about a social issue while doing research for the film, Kudla observes, they also learned how to present a point of view in a compelling way. “The video never showed a gun,” she says, “but at the end, everyone in the class was crying.”

While many educators share Kudla’s enthusiasm about video projects, others worry that students, particularly at the high school level, simply don’t have time to play filmmaker. More students are moving on to higher education without the writing and research skills needed to producecollege-level work, as indicated by the proliferation of remedial writing classes at universities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 20 percent of first- and second-year students at U.S. colleges enrolled in such courses in 1999- 2000.

Douglas Reeves, chairman and founder of the Center for Performance Assessment, a Denver-based company that advises educational institutions on howto meet standards, believes that old-fashioned essay writing is one area where schools can’t afford to skimp. “Writing is the single most powerful activity in school,” he says. “When students engage in more frequentwriting— more particularly, nonfiction writing with feedback, editing, and rewriting— they improve thinking and analytical skills and achieve higher scores in math, science, social studies, and writing.” Still, he believes video projects can be valuable in moderation. “The danger is when students substitute video for writing, which is [as] ineffective as substituting music for math,” he says. “It’s not either-or—it’s both-and.”

Jefferson Middle’s Epstein argues that video-based activities can be constructed to maximize their teaching potential. “Even though it’s a video assignment, I still have a rubric that I grade on,” she says. “Their interviews have to be slow and clear, everything has to be fact-checked. I tell them that they should treat their editing process like a proofreading experience. Even though it’s video, the students are still reading, writing, and speaking.”

Educators not fortunate enough to have a dedicated video specialist on staff may find it more frustrating to guide their students through the videomaking process than to explain how to craft a topic sentence. For example, in each of the two years that Christina Greiner, a 6th grade teacher at Northbrook Junior High School in Illinois, has assigned her students a video project for history class, computers crashed and the school network slowed to a crawl during the editing process. In one case, a student lost three days of work and had to start from scratch after an especially nasty computer meltdown.

Even so, Greiner is a fan of the form. Both years, she asked her students to interview their grandparents about their experiences during World War II. Many of her kids are Jewish and had relatives who survived the Holocaust. Their first-person accounts have been riveting, Greiner says—making an assignment she’d originally concocted to hold her students’ waning attention during June into an unexpectedly profound endeavor.

“I understand that a lot of teachers are afraid of letting go of more traditional lessons,” she says. “Sometimes we get awfully concerned about getting that last paper in before the end of the year vs. thinking, How can we engage students and get them excited? There’s definitely a balance. You can still teach all the same skills and use technology.”

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