I also thought YouTube was for cat videos and people with too much time.
Boy, was I wrong.
Now, I start class with a short video (under four minutes, generally) every single day. This unit's playlist has dozens of videos that were shown in class, most of which I didn't make.
So what changed?
A few things. I started delving into the world of online video and YouTube content creators because of my interest in John Green and his brother, Hank Green. They have been video blogging (vlogging) on YouTube since 2007, when they went for a year using video instead of any textual communication (emails, texts, etc.). Since then, they have added over a million subscribers, and have one of the most amazing online communities anywhere on the internet (called Nerdfighteria, with individuals being called Nerdfighters - basically, instead of being made out of flesh and bone, Nerdfighters are made out of pure awesome).
I saw thousands of teenagers interested in music, literature, politics, news stories, and even in helping make the world suck less. The central tenet the Vlogbrothers and Nerdfighteria promote is that our job as humans is to understand each other complexly. Humans, especially those growing up in this rapidly changing world, are used to seeing black and white, but often fail to see the much more complex tapestry that makes up human experience.
As a literature teacher, that idea resonates with me. I read so that I can understand what it's like to be someone else, living a different life. I read so that I am connected to people with whom I could never otherwise be connected. I teach reading so that my students can not be limited by what they see, or what they experience, or even what they are.
Exploring the Vlogbrothers led me to a variety of other channels. If you're interested, here are some of the other channels I now subscribe to, here are some of my favourites: ViHart, WheezyWaiter, ZeFrank1, ZeFrankenfriends, Schmoyoho, TheGregoryBrothers, CrashCourse, Hankschannel, HankGames, KidPresident, gunnarolla, MentalFloss, Pewdipie, TheArtAssignment, TheLizzieBennettDiaries, TheFineBrothers, CGPGrey, Veritasium, VSauce, SciShow, MinutePhysics, PemberleyDigital.
I subscribe to some of those channels because they are EXTREMELY POPULAR. For example, Pewdiepie, a Swedish video gamer, is the #1 most subscribed user on YouTube. If you think that's weird, watch this video of him playing a game called Happy Wheels. Well, don't watch it if you are offended by swearing. He does that a lot. But he also is pretty funny. And that is what our kids are watching. I want to be watching what they are.
I may never show his videos in class, but I do think it's important to understanding our students.
Some of those channels make content that is outstanding, like the reimagined Jane Austen stories on Lizzie Bennett Diaries or Pemberley Digital. Some of them are science content, like V-Sauce, Veritasium, SciShow, and Minute Physics. And some are just awesome and educational, like Crash Course or Vi Hart (if you hate math, watch this. And then repent of hating math. I showed this video months ago, and I still find fractals filled with elephants on papers).
Those videos are the ones I show because it says to my students:
- I care enough about you to understand the world in which you live
- I am interested in a lot of things, and I spend time learning when I'm not in class
- There are amazing things on the internet that can teach you anything you want
- I value other voices and other talent
- There are people who can explain something or tell a story in a way that I never could match
On the practical side, here's some benefits to the strategy:
- Students hate missing the opening video. That means they get to class on time
- It gives me time to take attendance, pass out papers, and get everything set for class
- It helps students settle into the routine
- It gives them something to write about in their daily writing warmup
Now, I also use longer content. For example, in this unit, we have been studying the brain, how we learn, and how education can best meet the structural, psychological, and cultural challenges of adolescence. I could have learned all of the content in the half dozen TED Talks we watched, and designed lessons with scaffolded note-taking and worksheets, and given multiple choice assessments on that information.
Or I could let the expert talk, and use it as a chance to teach students to monitor their comprehension while listening and how to best handle note-taking. Plus, it allows me to take my own notes during the video so I can model how to do that best. And, I take notes every time I watch the video, which shows them how much my notes improve every time I watch the video.
Now, I don't think that my job is to just teach them how to sit down, shut up, and take notes. In fact, if that's what education is, then we're failing our students completely. However, I do think that note-taking is something that everyone needs to learn, and every teacher assumes another teacher has taught already. Spending this much time taking in content and working on producing notes that accurately capture the information in a way that's useful to the student is totally worth it to me. It builds the skills they need when they start taking on more responsibility for their own learning.
In this first trimester, the goal is to help them learn how to do all of the things they will need to do when they are more self-directed. As Andrew and I have learned, throwing students into a self-paced autonomous environment right away is ALWAYS a failure...and especially at schools where the culture is one where spoonfeeding is accepted and expected. So we teach them the basics. Kind of like boot camp. Only more fun.
That's another key to the whole "using video" strategy. It's fun. You know what's not fun? Taking notes. But when they are learning to do that with engaging content, it doesn't feel as soul-crushing. Plus, we know that students can't really sit still for the entire hour-long class period. Having short videos provides frequent breaks so they can help manage their attention and time on-task. When a student knows that they will get a break in five minutes, they are able to worry less and learn more.
Fundamentally, using videos - both as short warm-ups and as longer content-delivery-systems - comes from the belief that when students see what life is like for something else, they will start caring. Video gives them a much wider world to explore, and that gives them the opportunity to experience something they never could have on their own. Literature still have a place, but I think English teachers have an opportunity to use this newer medium to teach many of the same skills and content we do for literature.
And that's pretty awesome.