Before there was such a thing as video, there was film. We had those ugly, clunky, hard- to-thread green projectors with spools of film in our classrooms. They were better than listening to the teacher, a welcome break from class routine. You might even learn something. The caveat was most of these films were deadly dull. No imagination, low-level graphics,and talked you to death.
Much more recently, I remember a video in one 7th grade science class on geology. I swear it moved as slow as the continental drift. It was mind-numbingly bland, with information worthy of the nerdiest geology Ph.D. Geology is a vibrant, exciting subject when its presented right, as in the Discovery Channel’s “Planet Earth”. As it was, this video was a cure for insomnia.
Today, teachers have a lot more to choose from. Many of them take advantage of high quality movies and kid-friendly videos to dramatize the life of Helen Keller, or Beethoven, or Mozart. They may wrap the famous person’s life in a storyline accessible for a fifth grader or junior high student. The documentary will be full of exciting graphics to go along with science.
Any number of programs from the History or Discovery Channel, such as “The Universe”, “Mega Disasters” and histories of American wars, provide a coherent factual overview a teacher can use to expand understanding. The Biography Channel does a terrific job of bringing Americans leaders life. There is one on Benjamin Franklin that teaches students about his life as a Founding Father, inventor, thinker, diplomat, with memorable dramatizations and stories.
In one of my classrooms I used the history of the JFK assassination to teach English writing with American history. The class, all six periods, had a list of terms and key figures. We reviewed the video twice (this was a 40 minute part of a documentary, not the JFK movie).
The first time was treated as a warm-up, just to watch without taking notes. The second time was full immersion.
These students research papers on November 22nd, 1963 surprised the other teachers with their quality. I did nothing more than give them the kind of overview I would want. I carefully selected the video, previewed it repeatedly, and knew what I wanted the kids to get out of it. And I fed on their natural excitement for learning new things.
One should be sensitive to political impacts. Several years ago, when asked to show Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” to a high school class, I said no, and showed a special commemorative edition on the 9/11 tragedy that illustrated the event in all its horror without trying to propagandise young people.
What is unfortunate is when teachers use video as a babysitter instead of as an instructor. Or select a video so out of reach for the level of student, they are left frustrated and worse off for the day. Some videos can be skillfully woven into a class. Others are so full of dense sounding, academic talking heads, C-Span would snooze off. And yet, some teachers expect their students to get something out of dry dust. I made a decision not to subject my students to anything I wouldn’t watch, and that I could not justify to a room full of parents.
It does not help that teachers hardly have a “video budget” that permits them to buy quality when they see it. Libraries may or may not have the video or DVD they need. They often must use their own personal resources or borrow from others.
Videos can be a great assist to a teacher bringing value added to a subject. Students can gain an accurate overview for their understanding while enjoying the ride. When we think about what makes school memorable, or forgettable, we should not underestimate the value of what we show in the classroom. It can stimulate a natural desire to learn, or play a part in degrading education and killing enthusiasm.