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Michael Yell on Using DVDs/Video Segments in the History Classroom

Jul 13 2011 Gelatin Silver Print, CCC. . . , 1934, U.S. Forest Service, Flickr Commons

One may hear a thousand words or read a thousand volumes, and, at the end of the process, be very much where [he or she] was as regards knowledge. Something more than merely admitting it into the mind is necessary, if it is to remain there. It must not be passively received but actively and actually entered into, embraced, mastered. The mind must go to meet what comes to it from without.—John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

History instruction cries out for engaging thoughtful strategies to help our students embrace the content. And although it is understood by most teachers that information must not be passively received, it takes thought and a repertoire of effective strategies to maintain activity and engagement while imparting information. John Henry Newman discussed the ineffectiveness of imparting information through lectures and reading without engagement. DVDs, videos, and online streaming, via such online educational services as Discovery Education's United Streaming, were far off in the future when he wrote, but the same idea holds true. When showing students a video, DVD, or online streaming video to convey information on a unit, can we still actively engage our students? Can we still help them to embrace the content?

[. . . A]lthough it is understood by most teachers that information must not be passively received, it takes thought and a repertoire of effective strategies to maintain activity and engagement while imparting information.

As history teachers, we want our students to question and to inquire into historical events, ideas, and people, and we also want to impart historical information. One way to do both is through the use of DVDs, videos, and streaming, and we have many excellent video sources that we can choose from, but there are problems that teachers face in using them. How can we help our students get the information from that form of media while still keeping them involved? How do we help our students mine the media for information while still having them watch the program? How we utilize video resources determines much of what our students learn from them.

Some will give students worksheets to fill out while viewing, but that is hardly involving them. Having them take notes while viewing might get students active but while they are writing they are distracted from the viewing and invariably will miss some of the presentation. Some years back, I came across a reading strategy that utilized the old Cornell notetaking strategy and I adapted it for use with video presentations. My students know it simply as the Interactive Viewing Guide and it has become my go-to strategy in using nonfiction videos and DVDs.

The Interactive Viewing Guide

Experience told me long ago that simply turning on the video and running it from start to finish was definitely not the way to go, and so I began early in my career dividing the video viewing into segments. Using the viewing guide allows students to question, take brief notes, discuss, elaborate, and summarize what they have watched. The guide has several steps: 1) Preview the video or DVD, 2) Develop questions as a class, 3) Ask students to jot down one- or two-word impressions regarding each question while they view, 4) Divide students up for pair or group discussion, 5) Prompt students to summarize, 6) Convene whole-class discussion.

Key points for use of the guide include what the guide looks like, questioning, student notetaking while viewing the video, and discussion. I put the following guide on my Smartboard and students copy it into their notebooks:

Graphic, Interactive Viewing Guide, Submitted by Michael Yell

My preference is to begin the preview with discussion and developing questions. I might use an inquiry or simply pose questions to my students about the subject matter. I might use a primary source or artifact, but it is important to begin by appealing to the students' curiosity and establishing a purpose for what will be viewed. From this, we will begin to develop questions that they are to keep in mind during the video segment. As a teacher I guide the questioning and from their ideas develop a few brief questions for which they are to watch (of course, as a teacher I steer the questioning as I know what I want them to learn from the presentation).

Keeping the number of questions that students are to watch for during the segment to two or three, the questions are written in the Watch for. . . section. Students are told that when they hear or see something in the DVD that relates to the questions they are watching for, they are to jot down a one- or two-word impression or idea. This is the most difficult thing for many students as they want to write down everything, but they are told to keep it short; their purpose is not to write lengthy notes but to jot down short memory joggers for discussion.

[. . . T]heir purpose is not to write lengthy notes but to jot down short memory joggers for discussion.

Following the segment, we use a quick summarizing technique I call One-Minute Review for groups of four. Each student has jotted down some impressions and the brief review time allows them to discuss the ideas that they jotted down during the segment they just viewed. In this strategy, I set an interval timer on the Smartboard to run for four 15-second intervals. At the end of each interval an alarm sounds. Each student in each group reviews the impressions they wrote down for 15 seconds, the alarm sounds and the next student reviews hers or his, then the next, etc.

Following the brief discussion each students writes their own summary in the appropriate section of the guide. The summaries must be clear and complete and answer the questions posed for the DVD segment. We complete the interactive viewing guide with a whole-class discussion, following the reading of a number of summaries.

Turn the Suggested Process into Your Practice

The Interactive Viewing Guide has become my go-to strategy when using DVD segments in my 7th-grade history class. I find it excellent for use with nonfiction videos/DVDs/streaming (although I often use the one-minute review strategy from time to time with fictional programs, I do not use the writing component of this strategy until after the program). Although I continue to tweak it, I have found that through its use students become actively engaged in thinking about, discussing, and writing about information. Give it a try, adapt it, and help your students to embrace the informational content of the DVDs/videos that you use in class.

For more information 

Our Teaching Guide "Teaching with Historical Film Clips" gives more guidance on leading students to analyze and question film sources.

A Yale professor models critique of a famous documentary in a review of Ken Burns's Jazz.

Planning their own documentaries can give students more insight into the interpretive process that goes into making any film.

Michael, thanks for sharing a

Michael, thanks for sharing a great strategy! I've been in the habit of using a film about George Washington each year, and while my method of using it has captured some of your ideas, your Interactive Viewing Guide is much more efficient and engaging than what I've been doing. You've solved a major issue I've been struggling with in my class! Many Thanks!

Lain Whitaker

Just saw your comment Lain.

Just saw your comment Lain. You made my day! I hope that your year is also off to a terrific start!!

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