Sunday, August 12, 2007

Lights, Camera, Take Action!: Introducing the Documentary

Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

What Students Need To Know

In order to be most effective, students need a solid understanding of persuasive and argumentative writing and the associated rhetorical techniques (balanced sentences, lists of three, rhetorical questions, etc). I used documentaries in my 10th grade English class; the department introduced persuasion in 9th grade, with commercials and persuasive letters/essays.

I started the 10th grade with persuasive speeches, then began the documentaries. While documentaries don't necessarily need to be persuasive in nature (in Science, for example, they could document the progress of an experiment), it does force students to think seriously about audience, and a perspective that may be different from theirs.

Introducing the Project

I usually start by having students journal or discuss the last thing they watched or read that really made them want to go out and DO something: try a new sport or food, volunteer for a community project. Then they would examine what it was that intrigued or interested them. Now, that type of intro is slanted towards an English class.

Another method could be to have the class brainstorm all the questions they have about X, where X is the topic in science or history or art that you want students to explore. The point is to focus on real questions, and if you don't know the answers, that's even better.

The best projects are inquiry-based, setting aside teacher-as-expert and allowing students to engage in a process with authentic goals and real issues or problems to overcome. While content is important, we are no longer in an age of information scarcity; we have no hope of teaching students all the subject-area content they need to know. Instead, we must give them the tools to find and manage information, then make their own personal meaning.

In Intelligence Reframed, Howard Gardner states that "literacies, skills, and disciplines ought to be pursued as tools that allow us to enhance our understanding of important questions, topics and themes." Documentaries are an excellent tool for doing just that. For a more detailed look at 21st century literacies and education, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach has an excellent post about Learning 2.0, with a great follow up discussion. Or you can read more about inquiry based learning here and here.

Modelling the Final Product

The first year I tried this, I used Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine as an example. My poor kids! I was expecting an awfully big leap for them to extrapolate his film-length style into their 10 minute version. Live and learn. Fortunately, there are many excellent student examples online now, and I'll give you the links to those when I post the resources in a few days. In the meantime, here is a documentary my students in Egypt created last year.

Suffice it to say it is very important to give the students examples early on, allowing them to start thinking and talking about the different elements. I usually have them watch several on their own, then discuss them amongst themselves based on some guiding questions. Nicenet is an excellent online tool to facilitate this. You can post links, create a discussion board and post assignments. Or, if you have classroom blogs, obviously that works well, too.

Once students have watched several examples, show a few in class and talk about what works and what doesn't work. Important topics to consider:

  • Content/argument: enough support? convincing? reliable authority? persuasive techniques? appeals to logic? emotion? connection between words, visuals, soundtrack? relevance to audience?
  • Visual quality: too light? too dark? focus?
  • Sound quality: too loud? too soft? music distracting?
  • Camera angles: varied? unnecessary zooming or panning?
  • Editing: pacing? any 5 minute talking heads? smooth transitions?

Try to include both good and not-so-good examples of videos, in order to raise students' awareness of video pitfalls!

Finally, the Project:

Now I hand out the introductory packet and review the overall process with the students, in order to give them the "big picture." I've uploaded all of the handouts in a single Word document rather than a PDF, allowing you to tweak them to your own project/ideas. You can download them here. I only ask that you keep my Creative Commons license on the bottom of each page.

Handout Contents:
  • Introductory packet
  • Documentary Planner
  • Research Planner
  • Sample Script
  • Project Review
  • Collaboration and project rubrics
  • Blank Storyboard
  • Release Form
  • Academy Awards Nominations

Once you've reviewed the introductory packet with students, you can either do a class brainstorm of topic ideas or, if you did that earlier, they can choose their topic.

ANYWAY, this seems like a natural breaking point for today. This is obviously going to be longer than the four segments I originally envisioned! Ah, well. Flexibility is key to learning and teaching, eh?

Questions and Musings

I wonder, as I tweak and revamp the handouts, whether I've micro-managed the process too much? Would it be more beneficial for the students to plan out the process as a group, with me acting as guide? Or would that work better once they've actually created a documentary, know the elements they need to consider and include? There is just so much to take in the first time they do these, that maybe it's better if the process is laid out for them, allowing them to focus on content and skills? Their final self-assessment encourages them to think about what worked and what didn't work for them, so maybe that's enough at this point?

Next Post: Planning the Documentaries

1 comment:

  1. This is a great blog, well organized and complete. Thanks for sharing your work.

    I tried to download the introductory package but the link doesn't work.