What Video Has Taught Me – Part 2

In a stack of papers called Instruction.

  • Jun
  • 07
  • 2009

I feel like an idiot for not realizing this sooner. What have I been doing the last eleven years? Why didn’t I discover this until just about a month ago? Such a simple thing made a huge difference. And it all started with those documentaries in Speech.


“Tell me about your project. What do you see on the screen? What are you doing a documentary about?”

Wait. It started earlier than that.

“What do you notice? What works and what doesn’t?”

Yeah, somewhere around there is when my realization began.

I mentioned this in an earlier entry, lamenting the fact that students regularly do not know why one thing is better than another. My realization happened when it dawned on me that this is normal, that part of my job is to help them see such things, that I know what they don’t and it’s OK to tell them outright.

I spent the bulk of my career so far giving the shoulder shrug to the question, “What do you think it means, Mr. Seal?” I wanted students to reach their own conclusions and to discover meaning for themselves. I still want that, but I realize that there’s a step or two between hand holding and independence. Giving students a vision for where they can go provides possibility where they might not have seen it before, even if that vision is created by someone else.

Back To The Videos

So we watch these videos, I point out what I think works, and ask for student input. I’m seeing storyboards come together in blatant attempts to mimic structures we’ve seen in other videos, but with enough difference to show a student struggling with concepts instead of simply imitating. Soon, I’m starting to hear students use the language of film and even make comments in their groups using techniques that I’ve shown them.

Shazam! And now I’m with my English 3 students, working on the latest piece of writing. Students struggle. I point out what I think works and ask for student input. They need to pick two short stories of O’Brien’s to discuss and as students focus on the one story they like, I come around with options for what their second story should be. “So ‘Love’ and ‘Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong’ are both about love, right? But what happens to the love each story starts out with? What do you think O’Brien’s point is, then?” Soon, I’m starting to hear students use the language of literature and even make comments about other stories using techniques I’ve shown them.

I’m no longer shrugging at the “What do you think” question. And this is why I feel like an idiot, because I shrugged for so long.


“Tell me about your project. What do you see on the screen? What are you doing a documentary about?”

And a group says, “Cars.”

I then launch into a description of what they should do this Saturday: take a drive down Auto Row with a camera pointed out the passenger-side window, zoomed in close on all the cars they pass by. Do this a couple of times, maybe even getting out of the car and walking down the sidewalk. The opening of the video should be that footage with a voice over, setting up what the video will be about, roughly ten seconds worth of something interesting to say about cars. They say they want to do a video about racing, import cars specifically. “Any possibility that there are people here at school who prefer muscle cars to imports? Maybe you could compare those two groups.” We go on from there.

The final product from these students begins with a montage of still shots: cars in the school parking lot with a voice over about different kinds of vehicles. They move on to interview an import fanatic and then a muscle car owner. They took my idea, expanded upon it, and made it their own.

And I’m seeing the exact same thing in my English classes: ideas that I suggested, but that students turned into an original product. Why didn’t I learn this lesson a long time ago? It’s OK to give your interpretation because, with only a little nudging, students will give you their own spin on your thoughts. And at the other end of this spectrum are a bunch of students who have absolutely no idea how to begin. Your ideas give them that beginning.

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