An online storytelling curriculum empowers students to create ‘vision videos’ that reveal their dreams for the future.
No disrespect to readin’, writin’, and ’rithmetic, but Jim Amaral has quite a whole other notion in mind when he speaks of the three R’s. “It’s about trying to get the relationship,” he declares, “to get the relevance, to get the rigor.”
Amaral’s three R’s underpin the work his students do with digital storytelling in his seventh-grade Global Concepts class at Oak-Land Jr. High School in Lake Elmo, MN. Into his classroom curriculum Amaral has incorporated Tel.A.Vision, an online program aimed at inspiring students, particularly special education and at-risk kids, through the creation of their own “vision videos.” The videos are three-minute, self-made tours of a student’s future hopes and dreams, made with multimedia resources such as animation, still images, and music that are all available to the student on the Tel.A.Vision website.
According to the program’s creator and founder, George Johnson, the videos show students a capsule of what they can accomplish in their lives, and in doing so produce more goal-oriented behavior, more focus, and more reason to stay in school. “If kids create these videos and watch them over time, they can become what they have created for themselves,” Johnson says. “They can say, ‘This is who I am.’”
A former special education teacher, Johnson was born and still resides in Lake Elmo, and his organization is based there. “My key to success has always been to figure out what the world needs and pilot it in Minnesota,” he says. “If it works in Minnesota, then it will work everywhere else.”
Johnson partnered with the Silicon Valley-based company One True Media to create the Tel.A.Vision software, and then began trials with his new tool three years ago. In October 2008 he launched the site. Johnson says that last summer he decided the curriculum, which includes eight lesson plans that carry a class through the making of a video, needed to be redesigned and made more accessible to special education students. He enlisted the help of Christy Chambers, ex-president of the Council of Administrators of Special Education and former superintendent of the Special Education District of McHenry County in Illinois. Chambers simplified the language on the site so that, Johnson says, “any student of any ability could create a Tel.A.Vision video.” She also put the lesson plans online; prior to December they came as a written guide to subscribers.
A year’s subscription to the site starts at $500 for the first 50 students, then drops off as the number of subscriptions increases. Each student in a participating school receives an account and password to access the site. Since he introduced the program, Johnson says that more than 10,000 students across the country have used it to produce their own videos.
Educator Christy Chambers’ white paper on the relationship between brain function and high school dropout prevention can be found on the Tel.A.Vision website at telavision.tv/white-paper.
Of those 10,000 students, about 1,000 of them have come through Amaral’s Global Concepts class. The class, which is a brew of math, science, social studies, and what Amaral calls “a whole lot of personal discovery,” is the perfect fit for creating vision videos, since it asks students to take a larger look at their lives and their surroundings. “It’s about the kids having a global view of themselves and their world,” says Amaral, who has been on board since Tel.A.Vision’s trial phase.
He uses the three R’s to explain why the program works. “If students perceive that they have a relationship to their learning, and they see its relevance to their life situation, then they can motivate themselves to achieve higher degrees of rigor in their studies.
“Digital storytelling fits nicely into this framework: Students see that it is about them—relevant—and their relationships— to other students, their environment, their activities. So as a result, they perform with degrees of rigor that I don’t see in other situations.”
The creation of the video is a yearlong project. Students must have it completed by Thanksgiving. They spend the second semester of the year applying new edits and additions to it. “Now they have something that sticks them to school,” Amaral says. “It may only be a digital tool, but it’s also about working with me and their friends.”
Since introducing digital storytelling into his curriculum, Amaral has seen a big change in students he says were once unmotivated and struggled academically.
“Ten percent of my kids don’t do anything in the classroom,” he says. “But I have about 99 percent of them working with Tel.A.Vision. I’m picking up kids that may have never been able to use their intelligence. I’ve got something that is capturing them and engaging them. They have a willingness to jump in and do some work—do things themselves.”
Not far west of Amaral’s school is Dunwoody Academy in Minneapolis, a charter school serving grades 9 to 12. It’s where Eric Paquette, a ninth-grade writing teacher with a large special education population, is using the Tel.A.Vision program for the first time this year to generate a higher level of interest, motivation, and achievement among his students.
“It gives them a vision of what their life can be,” Paquette says. “I’ve found that Tel.A.Vision has really increased their focus. It’s the most engaged unit that I’ve worked with them on.”
Paquette was introduced to Tel.A.Vision when Johnson approached him directly about it. After looking into the program and viewing a PowerPoint presentation produced by Johnson, Paquette decided to integrate it as much as he could.
He started using the online curriculum last fall with 35 of his students; some had trouble structuring paragraphs, others had only a fourth-grade reading level, and some struggled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Paquette began by asking them to write down five things they hoped to accomplish within the school year, five things they hoped to accomplish in high school, and five things they hoped to accomplish throughout their education that would help them get to where they wanted to be in their lives. The answers they provided helped shape the vision videos they created. As they worked on their videos, Paquette saw his students thinking larger, using phrases such as “I am a lawyer” and “I went to college.”
“I was trying to get them to set the stage,” he says. “If they can see themselves knocking out those steps, then they can see where they could be in 10 years.”
A more precise but no less important effect of using Tel.A.Vision with special ed students is that it has helped counselors and parents design individual education plans (IEPs) for the students after learning through their videos what subjects, ideas, and activities appeal to them. “It’s amazing how clear they are about what they want,” Johnson says. “We now have some way to connect with them.”
Furthermore, Johnson explains that the video can be used as a reasoning tool when the student’s behavior becomes unacceptable. Instead of punishing the student for something that he or she may not understand, the teacher can reference the video and ask, “How is this behavior helping you get what you want?”
Appropriately, the videos are not static. They reside on the Tel.A.Vision website and can be updated to accommodate students’ new ideas, new experiences, and evolving vision of their life’s goals. Johnson says the videos can be e-mailed to family and friends, downloaded to a computing device, added to the Tel.A.Vision gallery, uploaded to a personal blog or to a YouTube or Facebook page, or simply made into a DVD.
“One of the beautiful things with digital storytelling,” Johnson says, “is that you can help students succeed when you know what they are striving for.”
But Johnson emphasizes that Tel.A.Vision was not simply a friendly notion he had on using digital media to engage students. “This is more than just an idea,” he says. The value of vision videos is steeped in studies on brain function, or neuroplasticity, according to Johnson. He points to a white paper on the subject written by Chambers, which identifies positive brain function as the key to dropout prevention.
“If you put positive thoughts in your brain, it begins to look for ways to make them happen in your life,” Johnson says. “The reason kids drop out is they have no hope. What Tel.A.Vision does is give them hope, give them reason to believe they have a positive future. The brain works with you to give you examples to prove that is true. We really need to give kids more hope and possibility.”
This article originally appeared in the June / July 2010 issue of THE Journal.
Emily King is a freelance writer based in upstate New York.