by Lori Ayotte and Cathy Collins
“Three R’s are no longer enough. Our world is changing fast – faster than we can keep up with through our historical modes of thinking and communicating. Visual literacy – the ability to both read and write visual information; the ability to learn visually; to think and solve problems in the visual domain, …is a requirement for success in business and in life.”
– Dave Gray, founder of visual thinking company XPLANE
Using Short Videos to Enhance Reading and Writing in the ELA Curriculum
Envision reading Wilfred Owen’s haunting antiwar poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” against the musical backdrop of John Lennon’s quixotic “Imagine.” Consider the emotional effect of Lennon’s lyrics, “Imagine there’s no countries / It isn’t hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too / Imagine all the people / Living life in peace” juxtaposed with Owen’s advice not to “tell with such high zest / To children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old Lie” of dying with honor for one’s country. Owen and Lennon may have produced their greatest works some 50 years apart, but their messages are similar; one writes as a soldier in World War I, and the other writes as an activist songwriter during the height of the Vietnam War. How poignant to consider that both men died tragically before their time, Owen by a machine gun and Lennon by a troubled gunman.
Now imagine the juxtaposition of Owen’s poem and Lennon’s song produced in a short video: as the audience reads Owen’s words and hears Lennon’s lyrics, historical photographs from World War I and the Vietnam War flash on screen. This video creation presents a new way for readers and listeners to understand Owen’s poem, Lennon’s song, and significant moments in world history. The compilation evokes several themes, including man’s inhumanity to man and the horror and fruitlessness of war.
Value of Visual Literacy in the ELA Curriculum
The digital video experience that creates a new story of Lennon’s song and Owen’s poem is one example of how students can illustrate their comprehension of traditional texts; their new animated creations, additionally, offer fascinating reinterpretations of these classic works. Such combinations of text, music, and images are consistent with what the NCTE calls “21st century literacies.” According to a position statement updated in 2013, the NCTE contends that “Active, successful participants in this 21st century global society must be able to
- Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology;
- Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought;
- Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
- Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;
- Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts;
- Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.” (http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/21stcentdefinition)
We have used digital videos both to analyze poetry and to teach writing strategies, including tone, imagery, and economy of language. However, in our research and brainstorming, we have discovered many uses for digital video technology: presenting outside reading through book trailers, highlighting the history of a time period, modifying an assignment for ELL and special education students, accompanying a personal narrative or a memoir, presenting a research project, advertising for a club, and even to celebrate friends and colleagues.
The tool we repeatedly have turned to is Animoto, a web-based application that allows users without technical video production experience to easily create quality films. The process, which still allows for creativity, simply is a matter of matching up images with text and sound. Educator accounts are available so that as many as 50 students under one classroom promotional code, which spans for six months, may make videos.
Animoto provides users video templates of certain themes: some are seasonal (a winter background, for example, is perfect for showcasing Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”); others are based on love or nostalgia (perfect for Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnets); still others are neutral. Adding songs is as simple as browsing through Animoto’s music library, which includes classical, country, hip hop, children’s, Latin, oldies, and pop among other genres. To add pictures and videos, Animoto has several collections, from travel to animal stock photos. Animoto also provides easy links to Facebook and Instagram to add photos, which can be uploaded from one’s computer desktop as well as from these social media sites. Although it is easy to add text, space is extremely limited, much shorter even than the length of one Tweet per slide. Animoto allows, at max, 40 characters on a top line and 50 characters on a bottom line – 90 characters in all per slide.
As useful and as engaging as it is educationally, Animoto – and for that matter, digital video in general – should be used as a tool and not as an end. Its multimedia capabilities encourage students to become more proficient in new literacies as well as new technologies; its limited textual space encourages students to write shorter and smarter, to achieve an emotional or informative effect; and its easy template to add photos, videos and music encourages students to become familiar with fair use/copyright issues.
Influences on Reading
The idea to use Animoto to combine poetry and video evolved out of ELA teacher Lori Ayotte’s creative writing class, which was starting poetry unit. Many students polled in the class responded that they do not enjoy poetry. Lori made time for students to explore their own poetic interests. That involved media specialist Cathy Collins providing a slew of poetry books ranging from Marge Piercy and Maya Angelou to Robert Frost and Walt Whitman to several poetry anthologies.
One student, a high school senior with a natural flair for writing and an autism disorder, told Lori that he could not pick a poem. “I hate poetry,” he said. Lori wasn’t sure how to respond to his adamance, but she knew she had to break down his resistance. Almost miraculously, her eyes rested upon the Shel Silverstein book Where the Sidewalk Ends, a compilation of childish poems over which even the most hard-hearted high school students wax nostalgic.
Silverstein’s book was magic. Her student’s eyes lit up, and he smiled widely. He couldn’t stop reading. Now that Lori had all her students’ buy-in, it was time for them to share the poems with their fellow classmates. Twenty students reading poems out loud, however, could be monotonous, so she sought a more engaging presentation medium. In addition, although she aimed for students to engage in some kind of poem analysis, she did not want this task to appear as something that they would do in a typical English class. She also knew she wanted them to focus on tone, imagery, and rhythm.
Creating poetry videos through Animoto seemed the right answer to maintain the magic that had already begun. Lori was familiar with Animoto because she had used it for several years with Cathy as a story pitch project. By putting images to the poem, students would understand imagery. By choosing a song, they would hear the musicality of the poetry. Students also had to decide on an atmospheric mood through the music and pictures; hence, tone. Monotony was no longer an issue.
Poet choices ranged from Maya Angelou to Walt Whitman to Shel Silverstein. Lori’s two favorite videos included Shel Silverstein’s “Pancake?,” accompanied by the entertaining songs “Bacon Pancakes” and “Tumbling Down” – the latter being appropriate because that’s exactly what happens to the stack of pancakes at the end of the poem. The most beautiful video, arguably, depicted “Bus Stop” by Donald Justice – accompanied by images of rain, darkness, and candles set to a New Age soundtrack.
Influences on Writing
Digital videos can help students’ writing as well as reading comprehension. When Lori and Cathy initially experimented with Animoto, it was to enhance a writing assignment in Lori’s Creative Writing class. The students had just written 3-5 page short stories; Lori wanted them to then learn the art of writing a pitch letter to “sell” their stories in the hopes of teaching them persuasive writing and concision of language. Lori then realized that the same skills could be taught through digital video, in addition to reinforcing the concepts of imagery and tone. Cathy had previously discussed the possibility of using digital video as a novel form of book report –creating a movie trailer to get students excited to read a new book. In the revamped assignment, the new book was a student’s own short story.
Since the text is limited per slide, students had no choice but to be creative to fit their meaning to a small amount of space, an excellent exercise in word choice. They also had to consider how their chosen images and sound would be received by an audience.
Best by far was Deepika’s film, which featured a haunted house and the opening line: “She lived alone in silence and solitude / There was no one there to hear her scream.” The foreboding music she chose combined a high-pitched trill and a deep, ominous base; the images consisted of solitary women, mists, bare trees, and ghostly figures. As students watched the video when it was presented in class, they applauded vigorously and commented how much the spooky music and the images unsettled them. Deepika’s film was a success.
Cathy and Lori have offered a professional development workshop to district teachers in the middle school and high school so that educators could experiment with this teaching tool. When introduced to the program, teachers repeatedly remarked how easy it is to use.
The teachers made their own digital creations. A freshman ELA teacher created an Animoto video of a Romeo and Juliet soliloquy to teach oxymoron: “O serpent heart hid with a flowering face! / Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave? / Beautiful tyrant! Fiend angelical!” (Shakespeare 3.2.74-76). A middle school teacher showcased the T.S. Eliot poem, “The Hollow Men” photographs of WW1 in a poignant requiem set to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Lori played this video for her sophomore students while they were studying All Quiet On The Western Front, and then she thought of how these videos could help students integrate aspects of history and literature.
From collaborative planning of PD for teachers to project ideas for “Tech Help Desk” students who are housed in the library, new digital literacy and technology tools are showcased and incorporated across curriculum areas. Digital videos provide inspiring ways for students to make new meanings and to showcase their emerging multiliteracies.
An expanded version of this article, titled “Using Short Videos to Enhance Reading and Writing in the ELA Curriculum,” appeared in the January 2017 issue of English Journal (Volume 106, Number 3, pp. 19-24). Copyright 2017 by the National Council of Teachers of English. Used with permission.