Video, Media & Empowerment in the Classroom

Television and video have an undistinguished track record in public education, as either a baby sitter or a security measure. But things have changed in recent years, and the future is certainly getting interesting.

I cannot begin to count the number of times I have seen darkened classrooms full of kids watching some video or other. Sometimes it seemed to be relevant; other times it was clearly filler, an uninspired teacher killing time or ‘rewarding’ his students by letting them watch a movie.

Of course, some teachers have used video brilliantly to bring to life what otherwise might be words on a page. Far better to experience, say, Olivier’s Hamlet on the screen while also reading the play. (When I was a high school English teacher in the late 60’s, I used some wonderful Caedmon LP’s of Shakespeare’s play to bring Macbeth’s power and passion to life.)

Lots of schools use video cameras for security purposes. I’ve been in schools where every hallway is wired and someone sits in the main office watching multiple screens. Creepy. Other reporters tell me about schools where classrooms have cameras, allowing the principal to monitor activity.

However, in recent years we’ve seen videos of teachers losing it in class, thanks to hidden cameras or cell phones.

I wouldn’t be surprised if some teachers were now turning the tables, whipping out their cell phones to video kids who are misbehaving.

But this use is negative to the max and reflects how unhealthy the atmosphere is in some schools.

Now the ante has been upped, with a massive project to videotape thousands of teachers in action.
Sam Dillon reported on this in the New York Times recently. Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation are heavily involved, and large-scale videotaping experiments are now going on in at least seven districts, including Dallas, Denver, Hillsborough, FL, and Pittsburgh. About 3,000 teachers are allowing themselves to be videotaped, with trained ‘graders’ viewing their efforts (but not their principals). These graders look for specific behaviors: does a teacher consistently ignore students who have their hands up to answer questions? Does she make an effort to help students who may have missed the previous day’s lesson? Does she turn her back on the classroom on a regular basis?

What’s the endgame? If the goal is to provide tutorial videos that will demonstrate good teaching techniques to struggling teachers, I think it’s going to be a failure, as I explain below. And if it’s a ‘gotcha game,’ it will be strongly opposed by organized teachers everywhere. As the AFT’s Randi Weingarten told the Times, “Videotaped observations have their role but shouldn’t be used to substitute for in-person observations to evaluate teachers.”

Bill Gates told the Times that he was interested in helping teachers. “Some teachers are extremely good . . . What’s unbelievable is how little the exemplars have been studied . . . You have to follow the exemplars.”

There’s money to be made here. Firms like Teachscape are charging districts hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up systems for schools (one camera per school) so they can videotape teachers at work. The Times says Teachscape charges about $1.5 million for a district with 140 schools and 7,000 students for the first year, and $800,000 annually after that.

But let’s take a deep breath. This particular project will result in 64,000 hours of classroom video by June 2011, creating what someone has called ‘a cottage industry’ for retired educators who will now sit and watch and ‘grade’ what these teachers do.

So far so good, but how do those 64,000 hours become short tutorials of the sort that Mr. Gates is envisioning? I work in this business, and for a typical NewsHour piece that runs 8 minutes, we will come back from the field with 20-30 hours of video. And we will work for days and days, whittling and shaping so the video tells a story. Who’s going to do that with these 64,000 hours?

And because television is little more than radio with pictures and these classroom videos are really nothing more than a wide-angle camera in the back of the room with a small microphone mounted on top, and a second mic on the teacher, the sound is going to be pretty bad. Nobody is going to watch what they cannot hear!

To give you a better idea of just what 64,000 hours means, that’s about 2,666 days or 7.3 years of video—mostly without decent sound. I’d rather do hard time in a penitentiary than be sentenced to watch all that.

Or think of it this way. I have been working for PBS since 1985 and in 25 years have amassed an archive of 90,000 hours of video (professionally recorded with good sound quality). These folks are collecting 64,000 hours in just the first year alone.

Properly used, video can transform learning, but it’s a tool, a piece of technology that has to be harnessed to specific learning objectives.

Let me give an example from my own high school teaching. I decided to try bringing bring Shakespeare’s Macbeth to life by putting Macbeth and his wife on trial for first degree murder. Some students took roles of major characters in the play, which required them to know the play well enough to testify accurately. Other students served as attorneys, and the principal was the judge.

But this was a large class, and there weren’t enough major parts to go around, which meant that some students had the less interesting job of juror.

Introduce a video system, however, and a whole new dimension emerges. Student newscasters could deliver regular reports on the trial (careful writing required here); a panel show could provide a forum for interviewing the defendants (more careful study of the play required); technicians would be needed to tape and edit the proceedings (I’d also have them prepare a written plan and a subsequent report); and so on. Some curious students would probably end up analyzing the plot, perhaps comparing it to one of the daytime soaps. Everyone would learn something about the cooperative nature of television production, not to mention a great deal about Macbeth and Shakespearean tragedy.

Before we left Macbeth, we’d probably try our hands at acting and videotaping some scenes and speeches. I’d have the students watch different actors in TV dramas and ask them to figure out where the camera was, and why. They’d be thinking, and writing and learning.

Here’s what I believe about video and schools: Children should be given access to information about how television is made and to the TV making equipment itself. Access invites inquiry and encourages curiosity and creativity. So as not to scare anyone, I’ve labeled what I’m talking about as access, but in fact I mean power – giving young people more control over their own learning.

It’s time to recognize that television, the most powerful medium of mass communication ever invented, is also a wonderfully effective way to acknowledge individuality, foster cooperation and encourage genuine citizenship.

Hands on involvement with television makes school a place that young people want to be, and interested students make school a more satisfying place for everyone else. Hands on experience with television makes children better-educated, better-informed consumers of television, which will lead them to demand better television, avoid inferior programming and hopefully recognize propaganda when they see it.

To those who worry that TV and other media will replace the textbook, I think there is a real possibility that the textbook may go out of fashion, but text itself will not disappear. Words will always matter. In my experience, students who become avidly media literate remain curious about the world around them. They read to learn. A clothing outlet (Syms) hawks its wares with the slogan, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” That should be adapted to education: “An educated citizen is our democracy’s best hope.”

10 thoughts on “Video, Media & Empowerment in the Classroom

  1. John, I remember when you hosted the On TV Project’s Media Literacy teleconference for PBS. (There are some still in education who feel that media is the enemy of learning) Do you think schools are more accepting of media literacy education, since that live event? If so, how so? If not, why not? Frank Baker, Media Literacy Clearinghouse


  2. This video is a total outrage- everyone is out of control, teacher and kids!
    How did it escalate to this point?
    Why has no administrator stepped in to deal with the lack of control??
    Video taping is a powerful teaching tool, one I benefited from for my many years in the classroom.

    Everyone seems to have forgotten one of the most important rules about working with kids- the power of positive requests: “Please walk”, instead of “Stop running, ” “listen up,” instead of “shut up.”

    This video demonstrates a lack of respect for everyone !!!


  3. After I retired it took us a year and a half to go through the 300 hours of DVD footage that my husband filmed in my classroom for our documentary August To June. As I watched I often wished he had filmed me earlier in my career. There were definitely things I learned from seeing myself in action. But I completely agree with you John that a static camera in a classroom is 1) going to be of minimal effectiveness as an evaluative tool and 2) not lend itself to creating useful tutorials. But a much more selective and collegial approach to using video to assess effectiveness could be useful. Instead of spending those millions on the ill conceived notion you describe, imagine if that district hired mentor teachers who would interact with classroom teachers first hand, discuss the areas where the teacher would like (or need) to focus, selectively video them on a few occasions and then reflect with them on what they saw.


  4. I was, of course, in that classroom where you supplemented our reading with electronic aids. My most vivid memory was of hearing obscure folk singers named Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen while reading their lyrics off blue-printed handouts. Of course such events were arguably a chance to decompress a little from the intensity and liveliness of your teaching, best imagined for those who missed it by the picture of you in the Schreiber yearbook, sprawled across the podium as if you could come face-to-face with every one of your listeners.

    You won’t remember this, but you and I argued so long about what it meant for Hamlet to “fall” that you had to postpone the test, which made me a local hero for a few days. Whenever a student told me I changed his life, I thought of you and how you changed mine.


    • Geoff’s post makes me realize how fortunate I am, a former teacher who gets to hear from his students from 40+ years ago just because I show up on TV every once in a while. I wish there were some sort of website where students could post ‘appreciations’ of the teachers who made a significant (positive) difference in their lives. Teachers could log on and search, and then reach out if they chose to do so.
      Hey, maybe we could do that. “”


      • John,

        Very much agreed. Some teachers have been known to check their score on, but a more comprehensive ‘thank you’ is in order.

        There are a lot of good teachers from Bergen Catholic HS in Oradell NJ, who i just want to show my appreciation for. I remember giving them favorable ratings back in my senior year, and I’m glad that I had a chance to express that appreciation in person when i I just returned from college to attend my brother’s NHS induction ceremony at his (and my former) HS.


      • I received a letter from one of my pre-k children. She would now be in her thirties but she was diagnosed with Leukemia a few years ago. She had grown up to become a nurse practitioner and a mom with a little kid. She wrote the letter knowing her death was imminent and then she died last week.
        In the letter she expressed gratitude for the relationships in her life (she was 4 and then 5 in the time she spent with me) and how her journey made her appreciate what’s important- loving, living for the moment, and giving back to your community.


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