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Drawing the Connections: Making RSA Animate-style Videos in Class

Drawing the Connections: Making RSA Animate-style Videos in Class

Written by Paul Bogush
January 09, 2013

Fall semester 2012 was coming to a close, and I noticed some important skills that my middle school students were still struggling with in my social studies class.

In particular, they were having trouble making connections between things that they read, not only across multiple sources but even within a single source. They were seeing each paragraph, each sentence as an individual disconnected fact. My guess was that this came from years of “read the chapter, answer the question, spit the question back” instruction that didn’t require them to put the facts together into a story and make connections between them. I wanted to say: “It sounds silly, but yes, what you are reading in the third paragraph happened because of what happened in the first paragraph.” I knew that if they couldn’t make connections, they would struggle in making argumentative points and supporting those points with information from the text they read.

This was particularly apparent when it came to our textbooks where it seemed that the words they were reading were just that…words. If they read Benjamin Franklin traveled to France, in their heads he just magically appeared there. If they read George Washington crossed the Delaware River, they never pictured a boat…or even water.  I watched as my students used the textbook to play a matching game with the questions they received for classwork or homework. One student actually told me that he was having trouble because in the past he would just write down everything from the paragraph figuring that some of it had to answer the question.  With this approach, obviously my students struggled with summary too: taking something long, and making it short…getting right to the point.

As I thought about these problems, I decided that making RSA Animate-style videos would provide a context for working on these skills.  RSA videos invite students to visualize their information, make connections, and re-tell their facts in a story that has a very tight story line that flows: skills that transfer nicely to any traditional essay. I decided to plan this project around a very straight forward topic—the Louisiana Purchase—and to examine it in a very straight forward way so that the processes of making connections would be the central task. I also decided to use the textbook as the main source.  I have faced the reality that the kids will be reading a social studies textbook and anything I could do to make it less scary allow them to read it more fluently will be a huge help in the next 4-8 years of their life.  I was really pleased with the results.

Over the next few pages, I walk though the process of creating these videos in detail and invite you to contribute your own experiences with making RSA-style videos. In the meantime, if you haven’t seen these particular videos, visit the links below that will take you to some professionally-made videos that have become popular with educators. This will give you a picture of what we were striving for in our project as well as some sample videos to show to your classes should you decide to try the project yourself.

Step 1: Framing the Assignment

I wanted to open the unit by emphasizing the skills that we would be working on rather than the technology itself. I am a firm believer that teachers should never slap technology onto a unit without purpose.  If the unit does not need it, then it is probably best to leave it out. Teachers really have to start off by asking ourselves, Why?  Why is this tool or method necessary for the success of this unit? So I wanted to begin my unit by answering that for the students. Here is the opening of my assignment handout:

Get to the point…
A great story teller once told me that you should never tell the audience the “point” of your story. Youshould let them figure it out and whatever they interpret as the “point” is correct. She said that is is ok to
let an audience walk away with multiple interpretations of a story.
Sometimes you need to “Get to the Point” and this project is one of those times.
Here is your problem…you need to tell the story of the Louisiana Purchase and at the end of the story itneeds to have a crystal clear point. Nobody viewing the story should miss the point. A three year oldlistening to your story while jumping on a pogo stick should be able to get your point. Get my point? We will do these stories in a style made famous by RSA Animate.
(Full PDF at bottom of page)

After discussing the assignment, we watched several RSA Animate videos to get a feel for them. We watched those linked to the first page of this resource as well as some student samples. We noticed how they were made and the clarity with which they focus on ‘getting to the point.’

I’ll admit that at this point it was still hard to figure out how we were going to go from information in a textbook to an RSA Animate style video.  I was very honest with my students that I had needed to learn to make these videos too and that we would figure out how to do it all together because there was no template out there for us to follow. But clearly the next step would need to involve reading the material and planning out the content.

Open RSA Animate assignment-Louisiana-Purchase.pdf

Step 2: Reading and Mapping the Text

After studying the genre of RSA Animate videos, we dived into our textbook discussion of the Louisiana Purchase. The first work they did was to simply read the pages in the textbook. I made them put their notebooks and pens away so that they could not take any notes as they read. The reason for this was that I wanted they to get the whole picture first, instead of picking it apart and re-writing everything that they read.

Next they made ten “steps” as in a staircase, and placed one point on each step. Each step had to connect to the one prior to it. They were able to have no more than ten, no less than nine. This was not random, I did this beforehand and determined that based on what they read, 10 was the appropriate number. When a kid asked if they could have 14, I knew they were watering something down, and if they asked if they could have 6 I knew they were missing a point in the story. By having ten I actually somewhat dictating what they would write without them knowing it.

Image originally uploaded on 2012-12-31 16:03

Under each step I asked them to place three facts supporting their “step”. We talked about how without support the steps would collapse, and without connecting them a listener would “fall through” and not get the story straight. They had to label each step before writing the supports, and needed to support each step with at least three things. At this point after reading the story, creating the steps, and then evaluating which facts to use for support, they had processed the information three times. As I listened to them trying to figure out which facts to use, I could hear them making decisions based on what happened in prior steps, and what was needed to make the next step make sense. I was excited that they were starting to make connections.

Step 3: Drawing

Introducing the assignment and combing through the text to make our staircases took one day in class. On the second day, we began to work with illustrations. The goal was to figure out how to visualize each supporting fact. I asked students to have to have at least one image per fact. They also had to figure out what types of captions and labels they would need.

Many kids were concerned about their drawing ability, so I told them a story about a bobcat sitting next to three bushes and then drew a very simple picture of a bobcat sitting next to three bushes. I drew an image. “Now what do you see in this image? A bobcat and bushes right?”, I asked them.

Image originally uploaded on 2012-12-31 16:22

I then told them a story about a rabbit sitting next to three giant heads of lettuce and drew the same picture. I pointed to the “rabbit” and asked them “what is this?” The whole class said “rabbit”. Then I pointed to the “lettuce” and the whole class said lettuce. So I acted a bit confused since it was the same picture and they had just identified the animal as a bobcat…ah-ha moment. People will believe anything you tell them Everyone became more comfortable.

Then I made a big mistake: I told them to make their drawings very simple.  Some students made them too simple and took so little time to draw that when the film speed was increased some drawing were barely visible. The next time I do this project, I’ll work on getting them to draw more deliberately.

You can see some of my students’ initial drawings by clicking on the images in the box at the top of the page.

Step 4: Dress Rehearsal…sort of

On day three, I made a decision to have them sketch out their entire drawing from start to finish before writing their script. This ended up being a good decision. They really needed to see what their final product was going to look like, and the activity added a jolt of excitement into the project that made them pay more attention to their scripts the next day. I came to the conclusion that it is absolutely necessary to devote a full day to practice. After watching the dress rehearsals, I say that there was no way they could have one from little pictures to doing this for film.

Many students sketched their drawings out on small paper before going large…something I would require next year since it really helped to do a quick version first before going big. When they did a full scale practice some used roll paper and some used whiteboards. I like the idea of having them do it on a large sheet of paper, even though they might eventually do it on a whiteboard. On the paper they could see everything they had drawn and could look back to remember where they were going. On the white boards, it was easy to erase and forget, though the same impact could be had on a whiteboard by telling them to not erase anything.

The practice day was seriously orchestrated chaos at the video at the top of the page illustrates. When they were done many groups went back and edited images to make them fit and flow better.  The kids that did it on paper simply rolled it up so they could use it the next day; kids who did it on whiteboards took pictures with their phones.

Step 5: Record the Videos

The day we recorded the videos was simply wild. Everyone knew that we had just this one day to record, so teams could not start over very many times. The average group took about thirty-five minutes to get together, set-up, and record. Upon reflection, the filming went so much better than I anticipated. We really had no idea how to do this so everyone figured it out as we went along.

What they did learn is that even a very tiny camera starts to get very heavy after 20 minutes, so teams started to set-up in some very creative ways. Each class took the best ideas of the previous one. We especially learned that is it important to zoom in and focus on what was being drawn.  If an artist was drawing a person, the person should fill the the camera screen. We also learned the importance of staying as still as possible…and I bet you can’t guess why. If a camera person moves ever so slightly while filming, even so little that when you watch it you barely even notice it, when we increased the speed of the film 5x…the movement became unwatchable.

Luckily what saved us is that on YouTube you can click on enhancements, and then stabilize.  Without that feature most of the videos would have been unusable.

youtube_stabilzeSome groups did start using tripods as I have two in the class.  A huge difference is seen in the final videos that used tripods, but the camera was not able to move as freely…so still undecided what to do next year.

Finally, it was important to stress to the kids that they could talk during the filming and give directions and think out loud since the audio in these videos would eventually be replaced by voice over scripts.  Many groups tried to be very quiet out of instinct, but there was no reason to mute conversation.

Supplies we used on filming day

Filming did require supplies, but the supplies were actually easier to get than I thought. I was able to use cameras that 3M donated ]to our school system, but I think between smart phones and students bringing in digital cameras from home, we would have been covered. At least a couple kids in each class used their own camera or phone.

We used 12 whiteboard markers, which by the end of the day were trashed.  White board cleaner was a must! We went through two bottles, or at least some kind of cleanser because so much writing was done that in between classes we really needed to totally clean each board. Another thing that we figured out is that paper towels and whiteboard erasers simply didn’t cut it after a while. We took some sweatshirts that had been in lost and found for months and cut them up. That might have been the best idea of the week.

I had a big roll of white paper that we used that a student teacher left behind ten years ago!  The big roll paper used for bulletin boards would have also worked.  We used the white board in class—you could fit three groups at once—and I also had a sheet of shower board at home that I cut into four pieces.  We also went through a bunch of masking tape.  The kids needed it to tape up their practice sheets from the following day so they were easier to follow.

UntitledIn order to manage a full day of shooting with multiple classes, we established a checklist and place to return everything. You now how it goes…first period accidentally walks off with one marker, second period 2 more markers, by last class you have one marker.  So I had everyone freeze before leaving and then someone would go through the check-list to make sure everything was back where it belonged.


Step 6: Write the Scripts

Scripts are absolutely necessary. No one could work through the next day without one. Even the students who knew their story by heart had to have a script.  Simple reason why: we had only enough time the next day to have each group come in and do one take. And their one take would be challenging. When they would come in to record, they would have the experience of sitting down and watching their video running 5-7 times faster than when they originally recorded it, as is the RSA style. They would have to be able on the fly to go faster or slower to keep up with the video.

So although writing the scripts after doing the drawings seems counter-intuitive, I discovered it was a good idea to write the script after recording the images. Doing the images first allowed students to visualize what they were going to write about, better understand it, and allowed the scripts to flow better and sound more like narration rather than essays. In writing the scripts, students could take their supporting details under each step and flesh them out with the emphases of the drawings.

While the students were writing the scripts I spent the day processing the videos. At my school, we don’t have very good computers. The 2gb of RAM on my computer was not enough to process a twenty minute video quickly.  Although these would eventually be two minute videos, the original files were around 10-30 minutes long. The videos were shot at 720p, which resulted in huge files—too big to put into movie maker and have the students watch and narrate at the same time. In addition, if we tried to watch the files at 5x speed the computer would freeze.  So while they wrote the scripts, I placed each video into moviemaker, sped it up 5X, and then rendered it into another file.

With this process, each video took roughly 15 minutes, a full day’s work to do. To give you an idea…using a simple school laptop with 2GB of  Ram, each minute of video took one minute to get loaded into the video editing software, and then 2 minutes per minute of video to render as a movie.  Again…cruddy laptop.  Almost every laptop in the world that has more than 2GB of Ram and would do this process faster. If you have a similar situation, one idea is to take lower quality video or do larger groups so there would be fewer videos.  If you have better computers, this probably wont be that big of an issue. Also keep in mind that you might need a universal card reader to get the videos off of your camera or cell phones.

universal reader

How to Speed Up the Video

One of the keys to the RSA Animate style is to speed up the pace of the drawing to match the pace of speech. In this video, I show how we managed to pull that off with our videos. The result is a video that moves at 5 – 7 times the actual recording speed.

Step 7: Record the Narration

On the sixth day of the project, we recorded the narration. In my school, given the schedule and the need for coverage, I decided to have us do the recording in a single day. If you have the flexibility to spend more days, I would recommend that: one day for practice and two days to record groups with multiple takes. However, the reality for me was that one day was the most I felt I could devote to the recording.

Because we were short on time and quality computers, I had a crazy set-up.


I had two computers hooked up.  I had two videos set-up when the class walked in.  One group would be recording using one, then I would switch to the other.  While the second group was recording I would save the first movie that was narrated and then load up another video on that computer.   It is very important to remember that you need to mute the volume in the original video so that their narration is the only audio.  So looking at the picture above, the students are recording their narration on computer #2, and up on the screen #6 their is video playing at 5x speed.  I used a very simple microphone #5 that I threw into the middle of the table.  While they were doing this, computer #1 is saving the narration from the last group. I then will load up a video for the next group on #1.

So how to switch between the two computers?  I had a microphone #3 and speakers #4 hooked into the computer the girls are recording into, and as soon as they were done I would flip the microphone and speakers to computer #1.


To get the video up on screen I had to take the cable that ran to the projector #1 and simply switch it to the computer being used to record.  Since my desktop computer obviously does not have a monitor directly connected to it, after you disconnect #1 from it you would have to reconnect the monitor #3 to where #1 was so that you can see what is happening on the desktop while kids are recording using the laptop.  Easier than I made it sound! The recordings went smoothly, some kids came back during lunches to either re-do it, or to do it again because they simple kept making mistakes the first time.

We added music just messing around to one and what we found was interesting.  I think the music is necessary because the kids simply are not great script writers yet and the music makes it more interesting.  It also helps fill in the dead air when they got stuck or had nothing to say.  Because they did not see the videos before narrating they had no way of knowing how long each step would be, and I only had time to make each video 5x faster than normal, so if we had time we could have messed with the speed, or even changed the speed throughout the video, but again we had 5 minutes per group.  The music also helped block out the background sounds of feet shuffling, sniffles, and doors opening and closing.  We just threw a bunch of songs into a folder and just slapped on into each video.  Again if we spent more time I think choosing the right music and matching it to the action would have been awesome.

Step 8: Enjoy the results!

By the holiday break, we had 17 videos finished. The rest were basically “finished,” we just had to wait until after break to pop the music into most of them and upload.  Above is a playlist with the completed videos.

As I reflected on the project, I could imagine a number of tweaks and fixes that would make everything go more smoothly the next time around. Here’s my initial list:

Things I wish I did…

  • Had more rags available
  • More cleaner
  • No more than 8 groups per class
  • Have the kids be more complex in their drawings, and draw more slowly.  There is no rush while filming the drawing.
  • Have kids write key words on board that match key words in script to make it easier to glance up and see where they are
  • Fix cameras on tripods, music stands, anything!
  • Give better directions for camera people
  • Have each video end with a zoom out so that entire board could be seen
  • Add one more day to go a little more deeply into the research and writing about the implications of the Louisiana Purchase. Also, take the time to go over each group’s drawing and scripts in more detail…the fact that I didn’t do that is why you hear almost every kid say things like “Haiti.”  Modern name, not historically accurate.
  • Keep in mind, this was our first time, so I kept it simple, maybe next time each video focuses on one aspect of the Purchase, like the Constitutionality of the purchase

This is an activity for any class, not just social studies.  Almost any obstacle you can think of can be overcome: even if you paired your kids up and each pair did one step and did only one video per class.

As the project concluded, the class and I talked about how no professional would have worked under the constraints we did. You can read about how one professional did her film through the links below.  My kids did an incredible job considering the time and supplies they had.  Imagine if they had a chance to practice their drawings twice!  Narrate once, check for sound, and then do it again…I could go on and on. We managed to put this together during a series of roughly six 45 minute periods where after directions and other business from me, the teacher, students  had about 35 minutes of work time each period.  This was also done with incredibly mixed classes.  My kids are super, but we are from average town America.  If we could do it, so can you and your kids.

So if you made it this far, you have got to try this.  Come back and leave some advice in the comments.  I feel like I need to do this for at least three more years before I have a good handle on it!

Finally, I have a little policy in class…never have the kids do something I have not done. If you want to see how mine turned out…and what I learned from doing the assignment, follow the link.


Always Try It Yourself

I have a little policy in class…never have the kids do something I have not done. This time, I wasn’t able to make my own video at the same time as my students were making theirs. The process was difficult complex and there was too much for me to do in class to make it work. I did, however, make my own video after they did theirs.

I must say after doing mine that I was awestruck by what the kids could do in 6 class periods.  Seriously…I attempted to try and follow somewhat the same rules: doodle out pictures, one take for filming, no editing of video, one take for narration.  I finally felt so guilty while filming that on my 10th take I just kept going despite mistakes. It took me at least 2 hours to film, and you can see how many mistakes and little things I still needed to fix.  I probably spent an hour narrating, and even after multiple takes, you can hear problems.  How they filmed in 30 minutes, and did on average one take for narration I will never know.  I was impressed by what they did during the unit, but after doing my own, I am amazed. Now after doing this myself, I can really put myself in their shoes and will make many changes for next year.  Two simple things…have them make two-three doodles for each fact, have a second day of dress rehearsal and write the script during that day, and then record on next day.

My own attempt resulted in the video on the first page of this resource. If you go back to watch it again, you will notice the green lines around the outside of the video.  What was in the viewfinder was not in the final video.  In the viewfinder the green lines were not visible…another lesson learned.  I also realized that just like the kids I made simple spelling errors under pressure (Did I really spell Napoleon wrong!?) and I made simple historical mistakes just like they did.  I was wondering why so many kids wrote and said Haiti in their videos when we learned that the area was called SaintDomingue at the time. And there I am doing it too; even though I had planned on writing Saint-Dominque I still wrote Haiti!

Above is a video with a look behind the scenes at my filming. I had to erase in between pictures because I had no camera person and needed to stay in a fixed position.

Good luck with your own videos!


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