Classroom Technology

Want to Help Students Develop Empathy? Try Making Movies

By Alyson Klein — July 06, 2023 5 min read
photograph Young teenage boys vlogging
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Mylo dreams of owning a house on the beach in Mexico, according to a video he made at the beginning of a recent school year to introduce himself to Jessica Pack, his teacher at James Workman Middle School.

Pack recalled asking Mylo how many rooms he wanted in that house. A lot, he answered. It would be great if everyone in his family could have their own space. Did Mylo have his own room now? Pack asked. No, Mylo said. He shared it with siblings, and sometimes went into the closet when he needed quiet.

The video, which also featured Mylo’s Mexican heritage, his love of dogs, meat, and his mom, as well as the conversation it sparked “told me a lot about Mylo,” Pack said in a session at the International Society for Technology in Education’s annual conference in Philadelphia last month. (Pack only referred to her students by their first names during the session.) “His culture, his hopes for the future. It really helped me know him on a deeper level and it flavored every interaction for the rest of the year.”

Many teachers already see moviemaking as a creative way for students to demonstrate their learning. But Pack, a teacher in California’s Palm Springs Unified school district, also uses it to help students share themselves and their cultures, get to know their classmates, and develop empathy for others. Georgia Terlaje, an instructional coach in the district, who supports Pack’s work, presented alongside her at ISTE.

“Moviemaking gives us a jumping off point for understanding perspectives of others, understanding our place in the world and the lived experiences of others and maybe comparing them to our lived experiences, developing empathy, understanding privilege, understanding all of the broader landscape of what it is to be a person here living in this culture, and it also fosters dialogue,” Pack said.

Pack often kicks off the school year asking students to make videos like the one Mylo created to form connections with her students.

She learned from viewing another student’s video and asking follow-up questions that he was mostly parenting himself after school. That student had been a “struggling learner” in the past, Pack said, but shared in the video that one of his big goals for the school year was to get good grades. Pack made sure not to judge him based on his past transcripts.

“If I say, ‘well, he’s historically been a low achiever,’” when he wants to improve “I’m limiting his potential,” she explained.

Nuts and bolts of moviemaking

To enable this work, Pack and Terlaje teach mini moviemaking lessons throughout the year, including walking her class through the storytelling process. That means starting with a script and having students think in advance about visuals. Platforms that can help with the technical aspects include Microsoft Flip, WeVideo, Animoto, Adobe Express, and Canva, they said.

At some point in the process, students need to get feedback on the direction of their video project, from their teacher, classmates, or both, Terlaje said.

In fact, creating films offers a “great vehicle for teaching kids how to give and receive feedback,” a key executive functioning skill, she said. “You have to really teach that in the beginning when you’re starting out because [many] kids aren’t used” to it.

The final step: “We always end with an authentic audience,” Terlaje said. “We want kids to see each other’s movies to be able to give feedback on them and really get the message across the entire room.”

Moviemaking to share cultural backgrounds

Giving students the opportunity to view one another’s videos doesn’t have to mean spending an hour of class time cycling through them all, Pack said. Instead, she makes student videos accessible to their classmates through the school’s learning management system so that they can look when they have a moment.

When students watch the short films classmates have made—especially the most personal ones—it can “help build empathy for who the other people in the room are,” Pack said.

One of her favorite moments: A student created a video story about visiting his home country of Syria during wartime that was shared during class. When it was time for comments and questions, “one of the kids in front [turned to his classmate and] was like, ‘Hold up, I thought you were Mexican!’”

The Syrian student said no, just because he had brown skin didn’t mean he was Latino. Then the class had this “whole incredible conversation about what it was like in Syria, and they had all these questions [from] things that he had referenced in his movie,” Pack said.

Moviemaking in the curriculum

Pack and Terlaje love pairing video with haiku, the three line, tightly structured Japanese style of poetry. One recent assignment asked students to write a haiku and make a video from the perspective of one of the characters in the Ray Bradbury short story, “All Summer in a Day.” The story takes place in a classroom on Venus, where children endure constant rainstorms, with just one hour of sunshine every seven years.

Looking at a story through the lens of a single character helps develop empathy, Terlaje said, and is also “a higher-level thinking task. [You] really can tell whether [the student] understands the story, understands the character.”

One of Pack’s favorite moviemaking project ideas came from a conversation with a student, just before the start of Black history month. Pack makes it her mission to talk about the subject all year long and not confine those conversations to February. So, when January 31 rolled around one year, she didn’t have anything special planned.

But one of her Black students, Owen, didn’t know that. He told her he was looking forward to the next day’s Black history lesson. Not wanting to disappoint her student, Pack invited Owen to come to her classroom at lunchtime and help plan a project.

Pack recalled Owen telling her: “We always learn about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But there are a lot of other Black people that I want people to know about, because we’ve done a lot.”

Together, they decided each student in the class would choose a prominent Black figure from history and create a video about their life and work.

Pack stuck with the idea long after Owen—who chose Frederick Douglass for his project—left her classroom. One of her more recent students—who is not Black—became a huge fan of baseball player Jackie Robinson, after researching him for the project.

Even though that student does “not necessarily share a culture with Jackie Robinson or an ethnicity, he was obsessed with Jackie Robinson for like, the next month,” Pack recalled. “I love that we can have our kids really foster an appreciation for all parts of our history and all the individuals who contributed to that.”

Coverage of the intersection of social-emotional learning, technology, and student well-being is supported in part by a grant from the Susan Crown Exchange, at www.scefdn.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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