Friday, November 18, 2011

Enhance Discussion with Flip Cameras

The Problem

I don't know about you, but I often find myself wanting to use my Flip video camera, but not feeling like I know what to do with it. After all, it's only one camera, how do I engage an entire class in an activity? I'm kind of tired of having groups re-create scenes from stories, and I suspect that while they have lots of fun doing it, it's not the best bit of learning they do.

I did a little research and found Tom Barrett's slideshow on 45 ways (and tips) for using video in the classroom.

These looked great and fun...and not quite what I was looking for for English. I had to think of something else.

The Brainstorm

This summer I planned a discussion activity involving essential questions in literature. I knew that students would get a lot out of sharing the questions they found in their summer reading, but I was concerned about accountability and class management. Small group discussions are great, but when circling the room, I always feel like I'm missing something in the groups I'm not currently watching.

It hit me. Film them.

The Planning

I had to borrow five more cameras from our media center so there would be one for each group. No other planning was necessary other than the lecture and mini activity the day before on essential questions. Students then went home with their novels and found one essential question in their novel and at least one passage to support it.

The Activity

When it came time to have the discussion, I explained to the students that I wanted to give them full credit for their discussion, but to do that, I needed to see their entire discussions, not just the bits I saw while strolling by. I explained that it would help all of us in multiple ways, including keeping them on track. They were a little unsure about this, but they took the cameras and went to work.

I should say here that I immediately discovered the importance of checking the batteries on the camera, because two cameras had dead batteries. Undaunted, I changed the cameras around so that the two groups who did not have cameras were right next to each other and I could observe them while the rest of the room worked.

I have never had a class so focused on discussion.

When we started the group talks, I told them they had 30 minutes, giving each student in the group 5 minutes to share their question and subsequent passage. They all looked frightened - how were they going to share one question and one passage and make it last five whole minutes?!? They discovered that, surprisingly, when they listened to each other, they had questions to ask. Those questions led to connections, and soon they were comparing themes in their books.


The Result

After the discussion, I ostensibly had three hours of film to review, but grading didn't actually take me that long. I was able to give credit for the discussion almost immediately, having observed the class deliver a focused, sustained, thirty-minute conversation. I uploaded all their films and looked for specific students that I hadn't heard comment during the talk. Easy. I was also relieved that, if a student wasn't happy with his or her grade, we could always go back to the film - I have a permanent record now of the discussion. (I don't have to tell you how handy that is when putting together a professional portfolio.)

Many students said in reflections afterward that the activity on essential questions and the discussion were extremely helpful in identifying universal theme and in comparing different texts. In fact, some went as far as to say that they learned more in those two days about literature than they had in their entire high school experience. I thank them for the compliment, even if it is hyperbolic.

Students used their essential questions and their identified themes and wrote their first analytical papers of the year. While they still carried the organization and style issues that the first papers of the year typically carry, the papers ALL identified universal themes correctly and strove to analyze the methods that created those themes. In that alone I feel the exercise was a success.

The Conclusion

We don't need to feel we have to do grand things with technology. Sometimes, technology serves us best when we use it to enhance, not replace, what we are already doing.

Just make sure you've checked the batteries.

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