Take 2: Student produced video projects

I previously vented my frustrations about the losing so much time to preventable problems while doing my first video project, though despite these issues I decided to give it another go. I feel the project design is pretty strong, so I didn't want to just scrap it because of some technical issues. After today's "Grand Premiere" of student videos, I'm very glad I didn't give up on it.

Why did it go so much better this time around?

I'm not entirely sure, but I'm going to suggest it was mainly due to two factors:

  1. I was better able to anticipate where we'd run into problems. Last semester I was blind-sided several times leading to lots of scrambling and inefficiency. We ran into similar problems this time, but I already had a protocol in place for how to deal with these issues1.
  2. I had exemplars. I could point to some well-made videos from last semester to illustrate my expectations. More than anything, I was impressed by the overall increase of video quality this semester.

The Grand Premiere

I haven't always done a great job at championing my students' work. One thing I admire about Christian Long is how frequently he tells his students how awesome they are. (especially visible during the Alice Project & the 1984 project). I'm generally proud of my students, but I felt I needed to celebrate their work in a more special and obvious way.

Today I popped 12 bags of microwave popcorn during my prep and stitched together their finished video projects complete with introductory fanfare, the THX sound, an opening red curtain, and a fun intermission song. We spent about half the class simply watching each others' videos2.

The videos

Enough of me. More of them. Here are every one of my 2nd block's video projects. Feel free to leave comments on this post or on the the YouTube video pages. I'll be sure to share your comments (both praises & critiques) with my students.

(Update: This post has received a lot of attention by people doing Comments 4 Kids. While I'm grateful for that, unfortunately the kids really don't read this blog. My suggestion would be to leave comments on each video's YouTube page. That way the students are much more likely to see your comments. Thanks!)

Alkali Metals:

Alkaline-Earth Metals:

Transition Metals:

Metalloids & Semi-Conductors in Plain English:


Noble Gases:


  1. For a more detailed explanation, see my guest post over at the Free Tech 4 Teachers site.      (back)
  2. We later did, and are still doing, some self- and peer-assessments.     (back)

Digital video projects with bare-bones equipment

Originally written as a guest post over at Free Technology for Teachers.

Last semester I had students create videos that creatively describe the families of elements despite a lack of much in the way of digital video hardware, software, or technical support. There were some challenges along the way, but overall I found the project to be a positive experience.

Why video?

I don't simply want students to learn a set of facts. I want students to engage with the material and demonstrate the ability to apply their knowledge to situations beyond traditional classroom assessments. I also wanted students to think of how they could simply and clearly communicate scientific information to non-scientific audience. The video format allowed for easy sharing (through TeacherTube or YouTube) and encouraged the concise and creative communication of ideas.

Bare minimums

  • Cameras. I have an older Flip video camera and a digital still camera that takes movies. I encouraged students to use their own cameras if they had them as well (many did). Despite having four times as many groups as cameras, students rarely had to wait to film.
  • Computers. I had a cart of 24 laptops available for my use, though it would have worked just as well if I only had one computer per group.
  • Software. I had students used Windows Movie Maker, which comes pre-installed on pretty much every Windows computer. Some students also used PowerPoint to create and edit still frames in their videos.
  • File converter. The version of MovieMaker on our student computers didn't recognize the AVI video files my cameras use, though I know in general MovieMaker should play nice with AVI files. The first time around I used Zamzar to convert the video files to the WMV format. Zamzar works great, but is pretty slow. Even worse, due to downloading restrictions on student computers, I had to do all the conversions on my computer. This semester I'm using Format Factory on my machine, which has worked just fine so far. If the version of MovieMaker installed on the student computers was up to date, there would've been no need for conversion at all.
  • Microphone. Several groups chose to narrate over their video. I had a cheapo $9.95 mic and a nicer USB headset mic. Students preferred the cheapo mic because the student computers often didn't recognize the USB device.


  • Unforeseen conversion mess. The first time through, we had some pretty significant delays due to having to convert all the video files to the WMV format. I'm in the middle of the second time through this project right now, and I'm finding I'm much better prepared. Using Format Factory instead of Zamzar has helped cut down the wait time for file conversion and there seems to be much less frustration this time around.
  • Teaching the tool. I didn't spend time teaching students how to use MovieMaker. This was a purposeful move. I knew MovieMaker isn't overly complicated and the students were quite capable of figuring out a lot of its features on their own. I made a couple of quick screencasts going over the basics and provided links to other helpful screencasts. When a group had trouble with something, I would help that group and then have that group help any other groups experiencing similar problems.
  • My personal fear. I was pretty worried this whole project would crash and burn- especially considering my lack of experience with video and the bare-bones nature of my equipment. In the end, things turned out just fine, though the fear of the unknown is always something that can prevent us from trying out new ideas.

The results

They may not blow your mind, but I'm very happy with the final products:

Making my case for unfiltration: Images

I'm trying to convince my district to lax their filtration policies. Currently all blogs, social media sites, image hosting or searching sites, and many other online tools are blocked. I've met with and sent out emails to our tech directors and principals explaining my concerns. So far I haven't received any response to my emails and my face to face meetings haven't yielded any progress. I've decided to send out one email a week to the tech directors and principals explaining why various online tools should be unblocked. I'm also trying to work other angles (Curriculum directors, School Improvement Team) as well.  Here's this week's episode.

Image Hosting and Searching

Reasons for images being blocked (as I understand it)

Many image hosting (Flickr, Picasa, etc.) and searching applications (Google Images, Yahoo Images), even with a “Safe Search” setting turned on, will still occasionally turn up  inappropriate images. As a district, we want to prevent these images from being accessible to our students.

Reasons for unblocking image hosting sites and searching

Humans, by nature, are visually oriented. As a species we’ve been honed to analyze visual information for as long as there have been humanoids on the planet. Written language and text is a much more recent invention than sight. While it is an effective method of communication, visual stimuli trumps text-based stimuli in our brains. Therefore, students pay more attention (and generally learn better) when they are visually engaged or are able to exhibit their knowledge through visual modalities.

The ability to search for Creative Commons licensed or other fair use images allows students and staff to publish their work online. One major hurdle that has to be overcome to legally publish content online are copyright laws. However Flickr allows people to publish their image under Creative Commons (CC) licenses (here’s my photostream). These CC licenses can allow third parties to legally use and republish their images in any format. There are several web sites that allow you to easily search the content on Flickr for CC-licensed images (Flickr’s own, Blue Mountain, Comp-Fight). As a result, I can publish presentations online for students and other teachers to access from anywhere without having to worry about copyright infringement. Students can publish projects and other works online; accessing a global audience for feedback on their work. Research is heavy with studies showing how authentic publication of student work increases student performance.

Students can create high quality projects. Previously, I have had students create artifacts of their learning to demonstrate their understanding of the concepts being covered in class. Invariably, high quality projects include images. What good is a text-based description of a stratovolcano when you can have images of real stratovolcanoes? Why simply have a description of what the element lead looks like when you can also have a picture of lead.

Filters generally won’t be an obstacle in any other environment. I am not suggesting we unblock everything and let students do whatever they’d like online. However, most students are accessing the unfiltered internet at home. When students graduate from Fitch they will go on to educational and professional settings that will more likely that not either not have filters or have very lax filtration. In many of those places, student computer use is unsupervised. In school, all student computer use is supervised. This provides us with a wonderful opportunity to teach students how to work with sites where they may run into objectionable content. As a school, we should be jumping at the chance to teach students skills they’ll be using the rest of their lives. Instead, we’re running away from one of the best lessons we can teach our students.

Again, I thank you for your time. I feel that we need to have an open discussion concerning filtering policies concerning what is best for our students.

Signs of success

A snippet from a conversation I had with a student this morning:

Student: "This project is long."

Me: "That's why I gave you so many days in class to work on it. I wanted you to have time to make it excellent."

Student: "Yeah, but this project is taking longer than when we just used PowerPoint. Then we'd just put the information on the slide. Now we have to put it in to something. It's a lot harder."

If you haven't been following along, students are creating artifacts of their knowledge as their final exam (see previous posts). the student chose to create a textbook that covers all the information we've covered throughout the trimester.  I banned students from using PowerPoint since they were mainly just filling the slides up with text and totally missing the point of presentation software (they're not presenting, they're weren't creating graphic-based slides, etc.). That decision seems to have been a good one. I've seen many projects-in-progress that I'm sincerely excited to get a chance to look over, which hasn't always been the case in the past.

Final Exam Projects- Day 2

I've made the switch. This year I've been using a cumulative project in lieu of a traditional written test, and at this point I believe that the projects are a better indicator of student knowledge than the old examinations.

Students have just started working on their final projects for the 3rd Trimester. So far, I'm impressed. Day 1 is usually always a bit of a waste. Students aren't sure what they want to do or how to start so they end up doing lots of email checking, Google Image labeling, Impossible Quiz taking, and other things that are probably violating their AUP's. Day 2 is when the action happens (for most). They figure out what format they're going to use for their exam, and start to frame how they're going to include the required information into that format. About 25% of the projects I've seen from students so far look like they're going to be great. I don't mean simply deserving of an "A." I mean they look like they'll be shiny monuments to mountains of knowledge!

A couple things I've learned to do as I've done more of these cumulative projects:

  • Push for more than just bulleted points of information. It's dull to read, it's dull to write, it's just dull.
  • Demand diagrams, graphs, graphic organizers, and media-rich projects. These are more interesting than text, and they generally demonstrate a student's understanding of a topic more clearly.
  • Require projects to show the student's understanding of how the material covered in the class is interconnected. We covered volcanoes & plate tectonics this trimester. I want them to show me how they relate.

If you'd like to see the project description and rubric for the 3rd Trimester final exam, visit my school homepage. There are links to the rubric and a brief explanation of what is expected. Let me know what you think. What would you add? How might it be structured differently?