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History Nerd Fest 2013 – Student created documentaries

Mark Hofer and Kathy Swan suggest that students are great consumers of information but aren’t necessarily great producers of information.

And the Common Core and new NCSS standards are asking our kids to do more creating. What does that look like? Mark and Kathy see great possibilities with new technologies that support student-created documentaries.

They’re very convincing. Video creation can align to reading and writing and communicating skills required in the Common Core literacy standards. Video can align to historical content. Video can be engaging.

But, they warn, beware the green pancake. Eating a green pancake will get someone’s attention but the pancake doesn’t taste any different or provide any more nutrition. It’s just green. But we can get very excited about it because, well . . . it’s green. So it must be really good.

It’s the shiny object idea I’ve talked about before. Technology, while important, is not necessary in every step of the documentary creation process. Make sure that kids are focused on the gathering of social studies content, on answering big ideas and rich questions, and on creating original solutions. Then you can begin to incorporate technology.

Mark talked about the idea of using Evidence-Based Arguments as a starting point. Every historical investigation needs to begin with a great question. Then they asked kids to do research and create videos. But what they got was disappointing. What they got was basically text with pictures, a script with a background. It wasn’t a story, it wasn’t engaging, and it often didn’t really answer the question.  They begin to realize that they needed to learn more about how to create high-quality documentaries, how to use images and video to actually tell a story.

And eventually they came up with a Four Step Process that students work through to create high-quality documentaries:

1. Research
The teacher develops an open-ended compelling question. For example, “What made the 20s roar?” This type of question forces kids to find out about the topic and create an answer, an answer that might be very different than someone else.

There are three parts to this step

  • Build background knowledge
  • Gathering sources / using evidence
  • Developing a core argument that addresses the question

2. Documentary Treatment / Interpretation
Argument can be strictly a writing phase. Interpretation is more of a documentary creation process. There are two parts to this step:

  • Pitch – this could a person / event / idea
  • Outline – the basic textual overview of the story

This is where the Common Core ELA literacy pieces get tied into the process.

doc pitch

Typical pitch

3. Storyboard
This is part of the process where there is a shift from text to visual. There needs to be “added value” to the story. The storyboard is almost like a comic strip – it provides an idea of what the film will actually look like. Only then should students start on a script and begin thinking about possible music and visual effects. And we know what kid are going to do with that, right? They will have that “Powerpoint experience” – all the bells and whistles. The music and visual effects need to add to the interpretation, not just be “shiny.”

There doesn’t really need to be any tech here at all. This could even be simple stick figures on typing paper stuck to a wall.

4. Film Production / Synthesis
This is where kids really start messing with the tech. Tools are making it easier. Part of the problem is picking the right tool. It can be as simple as narrating over a PowerPoint slide deck or something more advanced. Even web-based options are available.

Mark suggests using Photo Story with younger kids and Windows Movie Maker with older. I’m a Mac guy so I’ll throw iMovie into the mix.

Be aware that you will need to manage this process. Where will files be saved? How will they access the tech? When are things due? Kathy and Mark also both suggest that there needs to be what they call a “premiere” event where kids can show off their films and awards are handed out.

Part of the process will obviously include an assessment. Teachers ask Kathy and Mark to “rubric this up.” And so they did.In fact, they created multiple rubrics to help measure student progress along the way. This also helps teachers to slow down or speed up student progress.

documentary rubric

Sample rubric

Kathy and Mark have just finished what Kathy is calling an “award-winning book.” It does have tons of useful stuff and walks you through this process step by step. What I like about all of this is that it clearly supports historical thinking  and literacy expectations.

Get the book and more information about the process at what is surely an award-winning web site. There are standards alignment stuff and a few examples. But what I really like is the link to what they’re calling Digital Docs in a Box. These are primary source collections that focus on a specific topic and question that you and students can use during your research. Pretty awesome!

kathy mark

Award winning authors Kathy and Mark with some random book stand

C4 Framework alignment? This is the type of project that incorporates all of the four elements – Collect, Collaborate, Create, and Communicate – but at it’s core, this project focuses on the Create element.

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