The concept of placing video cameras in school classrooms has been in the news recently. Most of the snippets seem to involve groups of parents concerned with what those scurrilous teachers might be doing to taint the chaste purity of their children’s minds. Things like mentioning events that actually occurred in history, or possibly making reference to works of literature, or teaching them, read and enjoyed by millions of people for decades. You know – radical stuff like that.
I have experience with the idea of a video camera in the classroom, from a totally opposite direction.
Back in the mid-1990’s, a grant program was announced. I think this one was from the largesse of Boeing, but it could have been any large company. These came along every once in a while, and offered teachers various ways to improve their classroom with books, or technology or other items – items that could be deducted from corporate tax loads. Unlike just giving teachers more money, for example. OK – fair enough. This particular one allowed the use of some amount of money on anything that could fall under the broad heading of “technology.”
I had an idea that I thought was brilliant. To be fair, I thought all of my ideas were brilliant. Many were…not. But this one – oh yes.
I wanted to have a wooden shelf constructed on a wall that would hold a video camera and a tape or several that would cover the entire day. I wanted to use a wide enough angle that the entire classroom would be shown, but most importantly, me.
I don’t think too many people would want to watch several hours of me teaching, but I did. In those days, I taught four or five English classes a day (four if I was the head of the department), all in the same portable, and in a classroom not used by any other teacher. Each day, at least two of my classes would be using the same curriculum, and often a curriculum that I had created that was not taught by anyone else.
What I wanted to investigate was how my teaching in the morning differed from my teaching in the afternoon. Student attention and energy changed during the day, and it seemed to me that mine probably did too. Every once in a while, some time spent observing might give me some real insight. Most days I would just rewind the tape and use it again.
I did some fun stuff on this sort of thing toward the end of my career, seeing if I could find ways to make the afternoon classes more active by getting the students moving out of their desks more often, for whatever reason I could create. I also began experimenting with differing styles of music playing as the students entered the room, in order to see if I could manufacture an attitude of fun and willingness to get involved at the very beginning of class. This was interesting and successful, but I retired from teaching before really solid results could be codified.
I had other planned uses for the tapes as well. Let’s say a student was not doing well in my class. Why? Might be me. Could counselors look at a tape or two and get an idea? Most counselors only got to see students one on one, or in small groups. Would they learn anything from watching one of their students in a larger setting? Could parents be useful here?
I’d already learned that students born after about 1975 had no fear of video cameras. They were all used to being taped while performing at family get togethers and holidays. And sports – oh wow – sports. I had been told that the worst day of the week for varsity football players was…Monday. The coaches had spent the entire weekend watching videos of Friday night’s game, and the players got their “grades” on Monday, with video proof if they disagreed.
I was amped up by my fine idea, and it fell apart almost immediately. When I mentioned my idea to colleagues, they were appalled. They seemed terrified of the thought of anyone seeing them at work, which I thought was really odd. Perhaps I just liked to show off? I actually enjoyed being observed. One year I had a small extra stipend for my willingness to be observed by anyone at any time with no warning, which was used by the in-district teacher training academy from time to time. I found a row of ten folding chairs down the side of my classroom, filled with young teachers – on the first day of school! I really enjoyed the occasions for the rest of the year when I was actually teaching something.
I also encouraged administrators who needed to evaluate me to come on in at any time. Most teachers scheduled their evaluations for a day and class where they knew they would be at their best, which is intelligent and practical. I think mine was essentially the work of an overly large ego.
Then I discovered that any student referred to as “special ed,” required, at least at that time, parental permission to be taped – every time. Not sure what the rationale was, and I do not know if that still exists, but that was that.
So, nothing ever came of it.
I learned some of the downsides later when I taught two semesters of a class in stand-up comedy. I had some prior personal experience with that. Some of the assignments required the students to stand and deliver a joke they had written while being taped. The final exam was a three-minute gig written by themselves. Since they were high school students, and had some flair for comedy, some of their stuff was excellent, and also highly inappropriate for school use. It occurred to me, eventually (I can be slow), that I was filming material that could easily end my own career. That is why I only taught the class for one year.
The irony is that writing jokes was the only class activity I taught in 31 years where students really grasped the concept of editing, re-writing, and occasionally abandoning an idea that just would not work.
Oh well. I still think the idea had great potential. An easier version today could be done with a smart phone videoing the class. In today’s supercharged culture of criticism and mass denunciation, however – maybe not.
Copyright 2022 David Preston