Video Production in Language Arts Classrooms: A Practical ApproachBy Robert Early

Setting the Stage:
Recently, the terms digital literacy and new literacy have been used abundantly in the field of education to describe one’s ability to locate, understand, and analyze digitally produced and disseminated information. As we continue moving into a world increasingly saturated—if not supersaturated—in digital media, teachers are recognizing the importance of facilitating their students’ skills in digital literacy. In a response to these societal pressures, language arts teachers have made it a priority to incorporate a broad range of new literacies into their curricula, along with traditional print literacy. In his book Teaching Youth Media: A Critical Guide to Literacy, Video Production, and Social Change (2003), Steven Goodman describes the history of media education. As early as 1910, people have enthusiastically promoted the use of film as an educational tool. With every subsequent technological innovation, schools attempted to use new devices to improve pedagogical strategies. In the early 1960s, a shift occurred in which teachers stopped simply teaching through the media and began teaching about the media—thus the birth of early digital literacy. Around this same time, people began toying with the notion of having students use imaging and audio technology to produce their own work. Although 16-millimeter film production workshops for teenagers were emerging in the 1960s, this movement quickly dissolved by the mid-1970s as recession-era budgets were cut and arts programs were removed. However, with the increasing availability of inexpensive, yet high quality equipment, modern teachers have slowly returning to the trends of the 1960s by experimenting with student-made media projects.
This wiki chapter will answer the following question:
How can language arts teachers, with little to no technical experience, implement video production assignments into their curricula?
This analysis is less of an argument to support the use of video production in language arts classrooms and more a practical guide to help those teachers who are interested in getting their students creating their own video compositions. By the end of this chapter, teachers will have a better understanding of the following issues:
  1. Why is video production important in the language arts?
  2. What are some helpful resources for learning about video production terminology and techniques?
  3. What can students use to make videos if a classroom doesn’t have the necessary resources?
  4. What type of video projects can be assigned to meet common core standards?
  5. What is the best way to assess student video work?

Support for Video Production in the Classroom:
Before discussing the pragmatic issues of applying video composition into a language arts classroom, attention must first be given to supporting this overall goal. You, as a language arts teacher, will undoubtedly have to justify every action to administrators if you want to incorporate filmmaking into your curriculum, and chances are you will run into some form of opposition along the way. This is not meant as a discouragement, however. Before doing anything, it is important you have a strong understanding of the benefits of utilizing visual arts to teach the language arts.
Our modern world is a place full of digital messages. Gone are the days where we waited for the evening news, flipped through the pages of the morning newspaper, or even waited to see a blockbuster film in the movie theaters. Instead, we are surrounded by lightning fast gadgets that bring everything we could ever want right to our fingertips instantaneously. Although this sounds wonderful in theory, we have realized the severe drawbacks of the pervasiveness of digital media that endlessly bombards us with messages. As language arts teachers, we have the duty to help our students gain the skills needed to sift through this overabundance of mass communication and gain what Goodman (2003) calls “critical literacy,” which he defines as “the ability to analyze, evaluate, and produce print, aural, and visual forms” (p. 3).
So why is it not enough for students simply to analyze digital media? Why must they actually make their own videos? The answer to this question stems from the same reason language arts teachers require their students to write as well as read. Analyzing and evaluating external messages help students grow and mature as thinkers, but this can only go so far. The act of creating a unique and personal message forces students to apply their highest level of cognitive abilities to synthesize abstract ideas into coherent entities for others to experience. Suzanne Miller (2007) explains that the definition of knowledge has changed from rote memorization to genuine performance. The best, if not the only, way to prepare young students for a life of performance in the 21st century is to give them the opportunity to learn how to “speak” the visual and audio language of modern digital media. Visual composition requires the creators to employ their linguistic skills during the writing and editing stages, and the collaborative aspect of video production fosters communication and cooperation skills within the crew members. On top of all of these positive aspects of filmmaking, the students will end the assignment with a portfolio of their work on which they can pride themselves and show others in the future.


Filmmaking 101 for the Layman:
Before language arts teachers even begin planning lessons on video production, they themselves must develop an aptitude for the craft. Out of the hundreds of books on film analysis and filmmaking, the following three stand out as the most helpful for high school teachers:
  • Film Art (2008) by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson—This comprehensive text provides an in-depth study of film as an art form and gives numerous examples from both well-known and obscure films to help the reader comprehend the appropriate terminology. Specifically, teachers would most benefit from the chapters on film form, narrative system, mise-en-scene, and editing. By gaining a complete understanding of film terminology and techniques, language arts teachers can better scaffold the material for their students and help them analyze visual mediums in new and unfamiliar ways.
  • Reading in the Dark (2001) by John Golden—What makes this text unique in the world of filmmaking is the fact that it is written by an English teacher. Unlike books from critics and filmmakers, Golden does a wonderful job presenting film terminology in an easily digestible format. Essentially, Golden takes everything from Film Art and distills it into a practical, manageable outline specifically tailored for the English classroom.
  • Shot By Shot (2000) by John Cantine, Susan Howard, and Brady Lewis—This compact book provides the ins and outs of creating a film from start to finish. Although the authors mention both film and digital formats, language arts teachers can easily focus their attention on the digital realm while bypassing any superfluous information. Teachers would benefit the most from the chapters on camera and lenses, composition, editing, and preproduction. This is a must have book for all of those teachers who are committed to expanding their abilities as filmmakers.

This might be the toughest hurdle to pass on the pursuit of assigning video projects for multiple reasons. Although some schools are lucky enough to have the resources needed to buy video cameras, editing software, and studio equipment, this simply is not a feasible option for many schools. However, the lack of resources does not mean all hope is lost. Today, you would be hard pressed to find an electronic device without the capability to record video. Cell phones, mp3 players, hand-held video game devices, tablets, laptops, point and shoot digital cameras—all of these can function as recording devices. Do not forget that the students can serve as their own resources. Imagine the invaluable lesson students would learn if teachers allowed them to use their own electronic devices for school-related activities. The students would then realize that the devices they hold in their hands serve as so much more than just entertaining toys—they can be powerful tools to communicate persuasive and interesting messages around the world.
As for editing capabilities, teachers have a number of resources at their disposal. Although schools will most likely not have professional software such as Final Cut Pro Studio or Avid Pro Tools, nor would many teachers have the time or energy to learn how to use them, there are many free and user friendly programs available. If a school has any Macintosh computers, then they already have iMovie, a consumer-friendly nonlinear digital video-editing program provided free on every Mac. However, for those schools that do not have Macintoshes, there are many quality video editing programs available online for free download, including YouTube Video Editor, Kaltura, Xilisoft, and Movie Masher. Along with these free programs, there are also support websites that provide how-to tutorials on a wide variety of software. The Penn State Media Commons provides free tutorials on multimedia software, equipment, and techniques, while requires a monthly subscription but offers both single tutorial videos as well as entire online courses.

Project Ideas:
The following projects represent only a sliver of the countless possible video assignments language arts teachers could use in their classrooms. Ultimately, it is up to the individual teachers to determine what type of projects work best with their curriculums and to use their own imaginations to inspire student creativity.
  • I-Speak – These types of videos are some of the most commonly used projects in language arts classes. Essentially, I-Speak projects allow students to translate print-based dramatic performances into visual representations, which William Kist (2005) calls “sketch to stretch” (p. 9). They benefit the students by permitting them to “play” with the original work. Students might "colloquialize" the author’s language or modernize the context of the plot, which would help them interact with the text on a deeper level that has never before been feasible with printed texts. For example, in this rendition of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (link found below), a group of high school boys puts a comedic spin on the original tragedy. Although many teachers might view this as trivializing Shakespeare, it could be argued that allowing the students to enjoy the story on their own terms helps them become more willing to deal with the complex themes and subtexts below the plot surface.

  • Poetry Video – Students struggle with poetry mainly because they fail to comprehend the emotive aspects of language. However, allowing students to represent written poems in video format helps them appreciate the nuances of poetry that would be easily missed when reading (i.e., rhythm, tone, sounds, textures, imagery, etc.). The link below shows a student’s interpretation of Billy Collins’ poem “Introduction to Poetry.”

  • Uncommercial – These types of videos “sell” or inform an audience about a concept or theme. In the links below, two students illustrate literary concepts through popular culture, one using Disney movies and the other using music.

  • Movie Trailer – Students use the movie trailer format to promote a short story or novel “coming to a theater near you.” These videos are great because they take the benefits of I-Speak projects and use them in a compressed form. The link below is a student-made movie trailer for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The video skillfully uses still images, music, and text to replicate the tone of the original text and highlight its strengths.

  • Public Service Announcement (PSA) – PSAs are great ways for students to demonstrate both their creativity and compassion because of the subjects’ sensitive topics. In the link below, the students demonstrate their artistic skills by creating a poignant message persuading others not to smoke.

  • News Segment/Documentary – These videos allow students to interact with the world around them and analyze the complex issues affecting society and its people. By documenting and commenting on reality, students learn to question long-standing assumptions about the way the world operates and, hopefully, come to a better understanding about the invisible forces influencing our every move. The links below connect to two organizations, the Educational Video Center and City Voices City Visions, both of which provide professional support to schools, teachers, and students interested in creating documentaries for the classroom.



Understandably, teachers might be hesitant about determining exactly how to grade students on their video projects. Kist (2005) suggests that teachers must value the filmmaking process over the final product. By using formative assessment throughout the entire production process, the teacher will communicate the importance of an author’s purpose. It’s wonderful if a few of the more techie students know how to create impressive special effects and graphics, but these skills will serve no function if they are not applied mindfully for a specific effect. This is not to say the quality of the final project should not factor at all into the summative assessment, but the teacher must always keep in mind the cognitive choices of the students and their purposeful actions throughout the filmmaking process.
A public screening is the crucial final step in the video making process because it affirms the importance of creating a message for an audience. Like all art and communication mediums, video is meant to be experienced, and students will take pride in their work if they see other people watching their videos. This is not to suggest that teachers must host a film festival for their students’ work; a classroom-viewing session would more than suffice. After watching everyone’s projects, the students would benefit from a roundtable discussion. Like the art of writing, a video is essentially never complete—something could always be tweaked or altered because of the digital format. By hearing others’ opinions about their projects, students will be more likely to critique their own work and revise it for the better—even after the project is complete and has received a final grade.

Bordwell, D., & Thompson, K. (2008). Film art. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Cantine, J., Howard, S., & Lewis, B. (2000). Shot by shot: A practical guide to filmmaking. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh Filmmakers.
Golden, J. (2001). Reading in the dark. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English.
Goodman, S. (2003). Teaching youth media: A critical guide to literacy, video production, and social change. New York: Teachers College Press.
Kist, W. (2005). New literacies in action: Teaching and learning in multiple media. New York: Teachers College Press.
Miller, S. M. (2007). English teacher learning for new times: Digital video composing as multimodal literacy practice. English Education, 40 (1), pp. 61-83.