Lights! Camera! Learning!

More important than air to a teenager is that fleeting intangible called...attention. Some of them derive it through hard work, and then you pat them on the shoulder. Some of them get accolades by raising their hands and providing the hard-to-find answer you've been searching for. But, craving attention, too many act up in class in a thousand different ways. Every teacher has had to deal with the kids who won't stop talking, the class clown who can't quit performing, or the next Jim Carrey who's waited all day for the most serious moment of your lesson. It's frustrating, but you can harness this craving through the power of the media.

Teenagers grow up on a diet of sound-bites and media images with a relevant content level inversely proportional to the attention they give it. They might not know the symbol for calcium, but they can tell you the words and moves in every music video made by their favorite artist. Each of them secretly wishes they could be in the limelight and admired by their peers. With the advent of inexpensive video editing systems you can make this happen, and make them active participants in your lessons, as well as in learning. The Benchmarks for Science Literacy (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993) and NSES (National Research Council, 1999) both advocate student involvement in science education. Note that if students like being involved in science, they love starring in it. My students were mystified after direct instruction about the phases of matter. Then I announced we were going outside. I gave a quick review of the subject and an informal assessment showed they understood the concept of molecular movement. I instructed them on how to organize themselves once we reached the football field, and the class performed better than they knew they would.

Videotaping students during kinesthetic and verbal activities has many benefits. First, it creates a record of what they've done to illustrate their achievements to themselves and other students. Students may understand what they're doing and the purpose of the lesson, but seeing themselves do it allows another level of understanding to take place. We taped a chemistry class on the football field acting as molecules, and when the students saw their formation on the video go from ice to water the idea of hydrogen bonding suddenly made more sense. They were able to contrast this with their formation as a crystal solid, and see exactly why water expands as it freezes.

Second, moving to the football field added variety to the usual classroom style. Some kids are visual learners, some like to manipulate things, and others need to move around. The result of going outside provided a tool to link the lecture, football field, and video to the concept of the dynamics of the states of matter. The students were conscious of being taped, and strove to submit their best performance, budding actors that they are.

Third, videotaping a lesson involving activities means those activities can be recalled and examined in detail at a later time. Whether it's cars hurtling down a track toward a barrier, their clay-figure occupants destined to demonstrate Newton's First Law, or student-electrons circling a garbage can nucleus to demonstrate electron pairing, the video will serve as a permanent record of the accomplishments of the class. Rarely is a lesson presented that has no tie-in or relevancy to anything else. Being able to pop in a video of student-based demonstrations of a particular concept is a great way to tie lesson and concepts together, especially if months have passed between them, and the video can be paused so commentary or discussion can ensue.

And finally, many educational videos used in classrooms today retain students' interest in the subject about as long as it takes Madonna to switch to a new outfit in her latest video. They're often good on content, but short on making students care. A video illustrating a particular concept that stars them, the student, is infinitely more engrossing. They'll watch themselves ad infinitum, and they can't help but notice their part in the whole. Discussions about the states of matter became much more animated after our chemistry students saw themselves on the small screen. Linking their performance to abstract conceptual thinking became child's play when we were able to relate the video to the lesson. Kids want to be the center of attention, and are even willing to learn if that's what it takes to get it.

Is it hard to get started? Surprisingly, no. Many schools have money that never gets spent by the end of the year; there are grants available through organizations like NSTA; and cross-training opportunities abound. At our school the science and social studies department share the video equipment. Such a combination definitely adds strength to a grant proposal.

Macintosh computers come with the software and hardware necessary to import, edit, and output finished videos complete with a soundtrack, music, transitions, titles, and credits. Many Windows systems are able to do the same thing for a modest investment ($1000) over the cost of a state-of-the-art machine. Some video cameras have this capability built in, and in a worst-case scenario, results can even be achieved using a camera, a VCR, and a quick finger on the record and stop buttons. Bookstores abound with tomes dedicated to Desktop Video, and many websites are dedicated to the concept and cater to everyone from the novice to the seasoned professional.

However, more important than expensive equipment, is to make sure you have a story to tell before you begin. If you know what you're trying to say, know the goal of the video, know the concepts you want to illustrate and know the order in which to illustrate them, you've solved 90% of your problems. Too often someone will get a camcorder and shoot footage without a plan, and then have to pick and choose from whatever they've managed to get. If you know what you're trying to say you can make an outline, then a storyboard. A list of scenes and shots needed will aid you in knowing when you've got the footage you want, and help you best use your time. Even if you use the threat of exclusion to get your cast to behave, and even if you get great shots, don't kid yourself for a second that your students won't detect early on if you don't have a plan. No plan equals some loss of control. However, if they sense you've got a vision and an outline there will be an overriding sense of purpose to the project. But not every project or lesson is suitable to be taped.

Obviously, to make a good topic for a video you lesson should involve action, and it should demonstrate something that will benefit from being seen again. As mentioned before, students moving around a football field with a purpose, orbiting a nucleus, passing electrons back and forth, or clay men hurtling out of toy cars are all viable topics. A student posing for a very brief interview where she explains a concept that other students act out is also suitable, as is a team of students demonstrating an experiment during lab, and providing commentary on why it works and what they've learned. Any media type kids have seen is fair game including demonstrations, interviews, acting, or proving something like a new class record for something, to name a few. The key elements to remember is that each segment should be short, relevant, and include the students.

Assessment of the topics displayed on the small screen lends itself to a variety of methods. You can do informal assessment by observing the buzz the video generates in the room after you give students a few minutes to discuss it and remind them to talk about themselves and each other in terms of the lesson. My students were able to express themselves more clearly in both written and oral discussions after seeing how their piece fit into the whole. With regard to hydrogen bonding of water, it was satisfying to see students jump from abstract to concrete conceptualization simply because they had been the water molecules.

Students love to see themselves on the same small screen where they've seen their pop idols. Learning takes on a whole new meaning when the kids are involved, and they know others are seeing them involved too. Concepts are easily reinforced when the topic becomes personal because the student is involved with the video, and discussions and writing about it are greatly facilitated. Having credits at the end of the video also serves another purpose to helping to build up the topic in their minds. After the state of matter video was shown for all the earth science students in another grade level one of our students complained that four unknown kids had come up to him during Spanish class and exclaimed their delight at seeing him that morning.

"Oh, come on," another class member said with a smile to the whiner. "This is what it's like to be famous. Get over it."

And although the rest of our students' peers don't carry cameras, they're paparazzi enough.

Email: Mark R. Feil


American Association for the Advancement of Science, Project 2061. 1993. Benchmarks for Science Literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

National Research Council. 1996. National Science Education Standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.