My English II students recently made vocabulary videos. I was impressed by their products, slightly in awe of their process, and thrilled that they had fun. I’ve been reflecting on why this was a good project, thinking about how I could make it better, and wondering how I could use it in more sophisticated ways. In this blog post I give background on the assignment and work through some of my reflections.
What I Wanted
I watch a lot of Sesame Street–I have a five-year-old daughter–and one of our favorite segments is the word-of-the-day skit. Here’s an example:
These videos are instructional and funny. They define a vocabulary word and use it (a lot), usually in silly ways. The guest stars seem to have fun. Elmo is–well–Elmo. What’s not to like?
Or, the question I ask as a teacher: how could my students do something like this?
I should add here that vocabulary is not my favorite part of teaching, mainly because I’m not sure how to escape the routine of: “Here are your words. Here’s a quiz. Here are some more words. Here’s a quiz. Here are some more words, etc.” This routine prepares (most) students for my quizzes, but does little to help them develop their working vocabulary. Of course I know that there are ways to do better with vocabulary–for example, this–I just haven’t figured out just how I want to do better.
So watching Sesame Street week after week, I started to see the word-of-the-day skits as a way to liven up the whole vocab thing. I occasionally have students do little skits with vocabulary words. This would be a bit more of a project, and it would leave us with a more lasting product. I realized that each student would work on only a small number of vocabulary words. Still, they could learn from each others’ videos–especially if the videos were good. Plus, I really liked the idea of creating a resource that others could use.
How I Set It Up
One day I started class by showing two of the Sesame Street videos and asking the students what they saw. We talked about that for a little bit, and then I told them they were going to use these videos as models and handed out the assignment sheet, which gave basic requirements and warned against inappropriate material. I avoided providing further instruction because I didn’t want the project to be overwhelming. Instead, I trusted students with the “simple” task of imitating the Sesame Street videos.
(Of course, it wasn’t simple at all–and some groups went far beyond the basic requirements–but the level of difficulty was determined less by requirements of the assignment and more by the students’ own creative vision.)
A little bit later I gave students a day to plan their videos. I asked them to think about what they needed in terms of props and whether or not they needed a video camera. Then I borrowed five small video cameras from the art department for students without video cameras, iPhones, or other video recording devices.
What I Saw Students Doing
To be honest, I’m not sure what I expected to see–probably something a lot like the Sesame Street videos. The students were far more creative than that.
Here’s some of what I saw students doing:
- drawing storyboards for videos
- running around campus filming
- grabbing other students to help out
- making stupid jokes
- bringing in props from home
- using random objects as props
- getting into costume
- pulling other videos from the web for their videos
- adding background music
- adding voice overs
- speaking directly to the camera
- shaping videos according to genres
- using special effects
- including symbols
Of course there were roadblocks. Some students who missed the class when we filmed had trouble coordinating with their partners; others struggled with the editing process. But overall the whole project went really well. You can see some of the videos here.
The assignment did not ask for a lot from the students, but it did give them room to do a lot. Not only did they illustrate vocabulary words. They created short videos that engaged with literary concepts that we weren’t even looking at.
Here’s a video on the word “chivalry”:
It follows the basic adventure story, tracing a young man’s progress from being knighted, wandering the countryside, and rescuing a maiden. At the same time, the triviality of the first rescue–an evil dog has bitten her petticoat, and she utters her joy, “Everything is sunshine and lollipops now!”–satirizes this kind of tale. The video not only illustrates the meaning of the word “chivalry” but makes us wonder if chivalry has a place in the modern world.
Or consider this video on “nostalgia,” completed by two students from China:
As in the chivalry video, music effectively establishes the tone. Not only do the students give the definition of the word. They convey its feeling. They also include symbols. I love the shot of the wilted flowers. The phone itself works more as a particularly 21st-century symbol: it’s a technology that can be used to connect to those far away, but at the beginning, Lincoln does not use it for that. Instead, he takes a call from a nearby friend, and then he looks at a photo of a past Christmas. The symbol of connection ironically suggests isolation and nostalgia.
The underlying task in this assignment was to produce a video that illustrated a vocabulary word. In other words, students engaged with course content through a creative project. Now, as far as course content goes, vocabulary is pretty basic. What I’d like to do is let students engage with more sophisticated concepts through video projects.
I’m especially excited by the possibility of using videos to work with literary concepts. The videos above already work with concepts such as genre, satire, and symbol. Students could include a symbol while videoing a scenes from literature. They would first have to identify a symbol in the scene and get a sense of its significance. They would then have to figure out how to present it in their own video. Along the way they could reflect on the different ways a written text and a film draw attention to symbols. This also relates to the topic of film adaptations of literature. (PBS Masterpiece has a guide for teaching film that includes a section on adaptation.)
I would also like to see students use videos to work with concepts such as point of view and narrative voice. They could use voice overs either to include narration or an internal monologue. They could even make different versions of the same scene–with or without narration, with more or less internal monologue. Again, such work could help them to get a better sense of how authors use narrative commentary and limited omniscience to guide the reader.
These and other possibilities make for some exciting work ahead. The bigger point, though, has to do with visual materials in the classroom.
Movies and t.v., youtube, hula, flickr, facebook, snapchat, skype, and instagram–all students consume visual images and many create them. They are ready to judge them and understand the creative choices that go into them. The written word, it seems–and this is true even for avid readers–tends to be more of a fait accompli, a thing to be consumed for fun or studied for school. Questioning it, wondering how it could have been difficult, or contrasting it to what it could have been is ridiculously difficult. This difficulty is a challenge for any teacher of literature.
It turns out, though, that some literary concepts can be discussed through visual texts. In some cases, visual texts may allow for more sophisticated discussions. And then, the visual–especially through creating and examining adaptations–can serve as a vehicle for engaging with the written and helping students to become more attuned to writerly choices. Those, at least, are the possibilities that I want to make actual.