Using Cameras To Inspire Learning

I’m reading the third chapter of Michael Schoonmaker’s terrific book, Cameras in the Classroom, when a particular passage smacks me in the face:

Television, not unlike childish behavior, has generally been placed outside the circle of appropriate educational activities. The parents and teachers I interacted with at Corrigan Elementary tended to shield children from television as if too much exposure would stunt their development.

I’m glad I don’t teach at Corrigan, where Schoonmaker conducted some of his research. I’m sure Corrigan is still a great school, but every day I utilize some visual component to inform instruction.

Schoonmaker, who serves a chair of the Television-Radio-Film Department at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, advocates effective use of television and video production to pique  student interest and foster deep, lasting learning.

In fact, my senior government class is currently writing and producing video segments to convey a creative understanding of how the media cover politics. As my students get started, they watch and analyze clips from Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow, Stephen Colbert, John Stewart, Brian Williams and other traditional news commentators. Students work together to produce a script before continuing, and I strongly emphasize quality writing.

Last semester, the class spent two weeks researching the inner workings of a typical presidential campaign. In addition to writing a short research paper, students were required to conduct and film a mock presidential debate. From energy policy to education issues, they offered thoughtful insight into pressing matters facing our nation today.

In my journalism production class, students run a virtual newsroom to disseminate information on The Falconer, Palmer Trinity School’s online newspaper. Recently, Senior Editor Preston Michelson interviewed Martin Luther King III, who visited campus to speak about civil rights and his father’s legacy.

Michelson remains calm and composed throughout the interview, never stammering in front of such a high-profile figure. Granted, Michelson is the most talented young journalist I have ever known, and his written reporting is equally impressive. All the same, video production has allowed him to realize his diverse and impressive potential.

Sarah Corbishley, a freshman Falconer reporter, does a remarkable job of localizing national and world news events. Recently, she wrote a strong piece about the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.

She is equally remarkable in front of the camera, and I’m especially proud of how she covered a controversial anti-Muslim film that made waves around the Sept. 11, 2012 Benghazi attack.

I’m not ashamed to say that I rely on television to help my students produce quality work, or help them improve their understanding of core concepts. But as I speak with Schoonmaker, I welcome his reaffirmation that my efforts are worthwhile.

“It’s not necessarily about the product, but it’s about the process of them engaging with an idea,” Schoonmaker says, explaining that television and video production offer a great conduit to spark student interest in taking ownership of the learning.

I’ve had great success with visual learning, but it frustrates me that many teachers still refuse to find creative ways to include television in the classroom. Schoonmaker eases my extreme disappointment by explaining the mindset of many older teachers.

“My hunch is that teachers who were brought up in the television generation were raised to be very skeptical of television because it was a fairly new thing,” Schoonmaker says. “It was a thing they were kind of coaxed by their parents to be kind of skeptical of and wary of. And they still are waiting for something to happen. If they watched too much TV, they’ll blow-up.”

Neither Schoonmaker nor I would ever advocate teaching video production over writing or other equally important skills. As head of student publications at Palmer Trinity School, as well as a former local Boston Globe news freelance reporter, I am passionate about teaching effective writing—and like all thoughtful teachers, I frequently wrestle with the age-old content-versus-skills debate.

“There is a place for reading,” Schoonmaker says. “Text and print are very good at certain things, television is good at other things—it’s not a cure-all magic bullet.”

Unfortunately, I know that too many teachers find a YouTube clip minutes before a lesson because they come unprepared. These teachers perpetuate the notion that television exists as an ineffectual substitute for quality instruction. I always have a clear objective for showing video in class—often with the goal of inspiring students to create higher quality written work.

“It’s amazing what does once you put it in their hands,” Shoonmaker says. “If you pay enough attention to it, it leads you to great places.”

Schoonmaker tells me he has just finished another book, currently titled Unlocking the Movie-Making Mind. I can’t wait to read his most recent scholarship, and I sincerely hope he visits Palmer Trinity School when he comes to Florida this March.

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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