7 Amazingly Easy Video Ideas for Capturing and Keeping Students' Attention

In this video, students at the Meadowbrook School in Weston, MA created a stop motion animation video of a counting poem. (courtesy iCreate to Educate).

Keeping students attentive in the 21st century classroom is no easy feat. Sure, there's the buzzword--"engagement"--that pervades education technology rhetoric, but what does engagement really look like, and how do teachers achieve it? For veteran educators Dotty Corbiere, a math specialist at Meadowbrook School in Weston, Massachusetts, and Rushton Hurley, founder of the non-profit organization Next Vista for Learning and a former high school Japanese language teacher and principal, the answer is video.

"[Video] captures attention and learning. You can't learn anything unless you're paying attention," Hurley said.

Hurley's organization, Next Vista for Learning, is an online resource for digital media that curates videos from "ordinary" students and teachers (providing they meet a specific set of guidelines), organizes them, and makes them available for free. Hurley believes that through watching videos created by their peers, students will be challenged to think critically about the strengths and weaknesses of each video and apply this knowledge to developing their own content, in addition to learning valuable subject matter.

Corbiere, whose students create Stop-Action Movies (SAM) Animation to depict everything from life cycles to math poetry videos, gives her classroom "total license" when it comes to putting together projects; as long as students map out their idea first, they can use any materials they like to make the content come to life.

"The kids love it … when they get going, they want to do their best. If that figure doesn't come out right or that scene wasn't quite perfect, they want to do it again," she said.

Starting a video project can be overwhelming, so THE Journal asked Corbiere and Hurley to share their favorite video ideas that capture students' attention--and keep it. Here's what they came up with:

1. The Digestive System with SAM Animation

"This is just a better way to teach the digestive system," Corbiere says of one of her favorite SAM Animation projects, conducted by fourth graders at Meadowbrook. For the project, students must learn the vocabulary and stages of the digestive system in order to convey the process through a series of animated scenes, which are filmed by snapping pictures in succession to elicit the effect of "a flipbook on steroids" and put together using the myCreate app from iCreate to Educate. The best results surface when students are allowed to unleash their imaginations--Corbiere cites one particular project where the group brought in real food and concluded their piece with a flushing toilet. She furthers the learning process by inviting the third graders to watch the final videos. "That was hysterical… they learned quite a bit just from watching them," she said.

Tools needed: Classroom materials (ie: model magic, pipe cleaners, stickers, Legos, construction paper), iPad, and myCreate app or document camera on Mac computer.

2. Counting Poetry Videos with SAM Animation

In these wacky but clever videos, students script the characters in a "counting poem," a blend of math and verse that often twists the film's protagonist into a sticky situation. Like all SAM Animation projects, Corbiere appreciates the invaluable combination of technological and problem-solving skills with the learning of required curriculum students. She also praises the "collaboration and cooperation with others" and team work that goes into each SAM Animation project.

Tools needed: Classroom materials (ie: model magic, pipe cleaners, stickers, Legos, construction paper), iPad and myCreate app or document camera on Mac computer.

3. Have students discuss how they would explain their community to their peers.

Hurley believes one of the best ways to implement video in the classroom is to simply add it as on option for a project. "If you build it into the assignment, everyone will see what everyone else does. After a couple of iterations, everyone is doing a video because it can be so cool. It takes away the socio-dynamics of actually physically presenting in front of your peers," he said. He emphasizes that teachers need not necessarily know how to create their own content, but simply be open to exploring and sparking conversation. For this project he suggests asking students, "Beyond what might be tourist attractions, what makes the community a special place for them? What are the businesses where their parents work? What challenges does the community face? If making a video, what kind of visuals (images, footage), would they use to help someone from somewhere far away get to know the community?"

Tools needed: Any technology that comes with your device, from Microsoft Photo Story to the iPad to online video editing tools like WeVideo.com, Pixorial.com and YouTube.com/Editor.  

4. Have students interview a volunteer.

One of the main categories of Next Vista for Learning's video library is "Seeing Service." Hurley strives for students to not just learn from the experience of creating a video, but from the information conveyed in it. He elucidates on this prompt by suggesting teachers ask students, "What motivates volunteers? Are their organizations in your community where people volunteer their time to help others? Get lots of visuals to describe the kind of work that person does, and work with that person to make sure the story is right. Create and post a video, and you might help others choose to volunteer their time to help, as well!" 

Tools needed: Any technology that comes with your device, from Microsoft Photo Story to the iPad to online video editing tools like WeVideo.com, Pixorial.com and YouTube.com/Editor.  

5. Have students explain something in 90 seconds or less.

One of the most powerful aspects of video in learning is its "lack of predictability," says Hurley. "Lack of predictability is interesting." In this idea, Hurley suggests teachers take the unpredictability of the medium even further by putting it into the assignment itself. He continues with the prompt, "Can you creatively explain something in 90 seconds or less? Can you do so using lots of different digital media tools? We know what it's like when someone stands in front of us to explain something, but what if you could use images and footage from outside of the classroom to make a point about something … what could you create in the next classroom or on the other side of the world to help you gain confidence in something you teach?"

Tools needed: Any technology that comes with your device, from Microsoft Photo Story to the iPad to online video editing tools like WeVideo.com, Pixorial.com and YouTube.com/Editor.  

6. Take a virtual field trip.

Physics teacher Andrew Vanden Heuvel made headlines last week when he debuted as a Google Glass "Explorer" and donned the smart spectacles to take his brother's class on a "virtual field trip" to CERN in Switzerland. Heuvel dialed in to Google Hangouts to get the class on the line before giving students an up close and personal glimpse at the inner workings of the particle laboratory. While few have access to Glass itself, Heuvel's idea can be easily replicated with a smart phone and the Hangouts app, which fosters conversations through text, chat, images, and video. Whether you want to take your students to places not possible on a school budget or devise a project for students to craft virtual field trips of their own, Heuvel's teaching philosophy--"making every moment a teachable moment"--can guide the project's success.

Tools needed: Smart phone or tablet or computer, Google Hangouts app (free for iOS and Android).

7. Make videos meaningful.

We know, technically, this is more of a general rule than a specific idea--but it's a good guideline for dreaming up your own assignments. "The best videos come out of the passions of the person who makes them," Hurley said. "If a teacher is going to choose a subject for a video, don't choose it because it's standard, do it because when you teach it, your kids are into it because you've had personal experiences with it. Kids will pay attention because it's a real story and not just out of a book."