Ready for Their Closeups


Digital technology is putting students in front of the camera as well as behind it.

Digital ImagingKATHY SWAN WAS A LATE ADOPTER. As ateacher, she had been slightly intimidated and a little boredby technology. She was more interested in the creativeaspects of pedagogy. "I didn't see any compelling reason touse technology," she says. But then a colleague gave herone, telling her, "It's like standing on the shore and telling thetide not to come in."

After enrolling in a digital moviemaking class and having her wedding day captured in a digital movie, Swan got the picture, you might say. Now an assistant professor of social studies education at the University of Kentucky, she cocreated and co-produces the Digital Directors Guild, a website for educators exploring applications of digital moviemaking in their classrooms. Her work takes her on visits to social studies classrooms across the country and, usually using Windows Movie Maker or Apple iMovie), she shows students how to make digital movies and slide shows. One of the classrooms Swan visited was Kelly Telech's fifth-grade class at Rosa Parks Elementary School in Lexington, KY. Swan worked with Telech's students on a civil rights project. Students collected digital photos, added music of the era, and wrote a narrative around the media. "We came away with a really fun, interactive time," Telech says.

That's just one of many examples of the way digital technology is being used to supplement and enhance curricula throughout K-12. Another comes from Rancho Santa Margarita, CA, where Melinda Heights Elementary School teacher Linda Rood created a project out of an awards ceremony in which Melinda Heights was honored as a National Blue Ribbon School in the presence of the mayor and the superintendent. Rood had her second-graders take photos of the ceremony and told them they'd be writing stories related to the photos. When she returned with her students to their classroom, Rood loaded the pictures onto a computer and projected them onto a screen. Students listed possible story topics on the board, and then, either individually or in pairs, wrote paragraphs about them. They read their drafts to the class, got feedback, edited their work, and wrote the final copy. The whole project took about four hours.

"It was an amazing experience for them," Rood says. "They were really writing for an audience, and they were so much more engaged than if I had had them just write something." For another project, Rood had her class modernize old fairy tales (visit here, click on "Melinda Heights," and go to the second page), such as having Jack use a chainsaw on the beanstalk, and giving Cinderella a remote-controlled slipper. Everything was produced by the second-graders.


If you're looking for a good digital photography project, do asProfessor Tom Hammond does with his class of prospective teachers in LehighUniversity's Teaching, Learning, and Technology program:

  1. Arrange students in groups of five.
  2. Give them 10 minutes—or more for K-12 students—to shoot and stringtogether five digital photos that depict a famous narrative (such as theKennedy assassination, or Watergate).
  3. Have them write the story and make a slide show out of it.
  4. Ask them to share the slide show. Also have them talk about what theywould have done with more time.
  5. Expand the project by exposing the students to more photos.

Hammond sees great potential for the use of digital technology in history andsocial studies disciplines. He describes how to make Google Earth a viable instructional tool. Students could gather photos of differentkinds of clothing as part of a lesson in which they show the country from which theitems originate. Then, using Google Earth, the students could add accompanyinginformation such as each country's flags and working conditions. "As they get moretechnological tools," Hammond says, "teachers can control their instruction more."

He describes an instance in which high school students lumped photographsof the 1950s bus boycotts with those of the 1960s freedom rides; itprovided a great opportunity for the teacher to point out the differencesbetween the two events. (For access to digital materials that can serve as thefoundation of a history lesson, go here.)

Although not much data is available, what research there is indicates that students who participate in digital moviemaking make corresponding strides academically. Hall Davidson, director of the Discovery Educator Network, which helps educators learn to use digital media, went back through the records to 2003 and looked at the Academic Performance Index scores—what California uses to measure the performance and progress of its schools—of the overall winners in each category in the California Student Media and Multimedia Festival. The schools generally improved their scores from the year before. Davidson says, "I would conjecture that the excitement, fulfillment, and satisfaction of the projects energized the students' relationship with school and brought up their scores."

Janet English, a science and technology teacher currently on leave from Saddleback Valley Unified School District (CA), is one of the directors of the festival. She formed the Schoolhouse Video project, which is an avenue for K-12 teachers to get their students' projects broadcast on KOCE-TV, the PBS station in Orange County, CA, where English works as director of educational services.

English says about 4,000 students, most but not all in middle or high school, submit videos to the festival each year. The winner in each category (fine arts, history/social science, math, news, physical education, science/health) gets a plaque, and the overall winners in the elementary and secondary divisions get checks, too, the value of which varies from year to year.

This year, the winning video among secondary schools was "Eric the Homeboy," created by students from an alternative school. Indicative of the environment they live in, the mother of one of the students kept calling her son up during his work on the project, suspecting that he was up to no good—he had to put his teacher on the line to prove that wasn't the case. During the press conference that followed the event, English says one of the winning team members "held the plaque against his chest, which was really touching." She says it was obvious that nothing big had ever happened to these kids before. "They just soared. They had built a second family. I find it really inspiring."


For more examples of students' digital projects, go here.

More inspiration can be found in the work of Julian Dillon. As a freshman last year at California's Dana Hills High School, he came across the antiwar poem "The Box" by Kendrew Lascelles and it resonated with him. "I just felt the need to get it out," Dillon says. He did that by using iMovie and taking images off the internet to make a digital antiwar movie titled "34-4-52 (The Box)." He tried out different music and finally chose "Endless Column" from the Blue Man Group. He secured all the rights to the music and then sent the video in to the festival, winning Best Independent Project. (The video can be seen here.)

"Overall, people loved it," he says. "They think it's a very moving video. I had a sense of accomplishment and also the sense that I was doing something right." Dillon's advice to other students contemplating making digital videos? "I would first tell them to pick a topic that they feel passionate about. If you're not passionate about it, what's the point of making the video? Also, play to your strengths. Try to have the most fun possible. Budget your time. Try to create something you feel. Do it from the heart."

Dillon's mother, Pia Romans, delivers the final word on the academic blessings of digital moviemaking: "We are so proud that our schools offer media classes that foster a different level of communication that is creative and powerful. The benefits of allowing students to venture out with independent projects such as this cannot be overstated."

Neal Starkman is a freelance writerbased in Seattle.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.