Wanna See The Movie?
The year that May, Qudia, Amari, Everardo, Joslyn, and their friends were in first grade, they made a lot of movies with our little digital video recorder. In this resource, you will find stories and reflections from the kids and me about what happened when the children controlled the camera. You will find out what they recorded and how they see school. In addition, you will find out how these movies became texts for learning, tools for assessment, and how these everyday practices created a culture of composition in our classroom.
To get started let’s think together about what composition means.
The New London Group (1996) supports a “pedagogy of multiliteracies,” which “focuses on modes of representation much broader than language alone.” What do you think about that idea? Would the New London Group, you think, consider the video above a text? Would you?
New London Group (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66 (1).
As classroom texts, the documentaries became embedded in our classroom culture. Using these texts in everyday ways made both the stories and the idea of ourselves as composers a valued and normal thing in our classroom. When I was talking to a colleague about this video, he commented that no one in the videos is surprised that Everardo was coming around with a camera. I can see that, too. This documenting thing wasn’t a week long or even unit long project for us; it was something that evolved and changed over time but was a consistent presence in our room. In the same way that our daybooks (writer’s notebooks) were ingrained in our school lives, pulling together our thinking and learning across all parts of the day, all content areas and activities, the camera threaded together our social learning. Being a persistently collaborative and communal tool the camera told our collective learning stories.
Working from behind the camera is a participatory activity. The camera in your hands means that you are making decisions about what viewers will see and hear (and not see and hear). Camera and pen are not so different mediums. It’s all the composition of stories and that necessitates (however consciously) the writer to participate in the conversation of genre, form, craft, sociality and action. For Everardo, in this page’s documentary, the camera mediates his social activity as he goes around and talks to everyone in the room, a thing he didn’t often otherwise do at school. With a classroom culture that values composition, specifically composition in progress, composition as an evolving, rolling entity, Everardo finds a space to engage in the composition of a story that matters. As the digital reader follows Everardo’s classroom trail, we write with him in movement the script of what it means to be in first grade, what it means to be in school.
Self Portrait of a Videographer
That’s Amari. And this has to be one of my favorite video clips. In fact, in writing about first grade documentaries today, I have watched this one at least 17 times. In its four seconds of footage, it sort of says it all. The camera circles around… you see for a moment and hear the kids and the classroom. And you hear me, acting in that moment for the school institution…”5 minute warning”… then the camera circles back around to Amari. She is forming and is formed by the social identity of our classroom. With the camera in her hand, circling around the social world of first grade, she is participating in the composition of a classroom story.
Digital Ethnography as Classroom Texts
The documentaries included here became classroom texts for us as we used them in a variety of ways in our daily school lives. My friend, May, will help us out here by providing several examples. Check these out by clicking the subheadings in the box to the left.
Be the Question
Be the Literature
Be the Revision
Be the Mini Lesson
Be the Question
Another way that one might use these kinds of documentaries is to engage in critical dialogue about dominant narratives. Interestingly, the presence of the camera itself created some poignant texts to work with in this way. Joslyn and many of her friends seemed to turn “on” digital personalities when the camera was around. This was a really interesting window into how they saw the digital world. Commercials were a popular play scenario when the camera entered the scene. This created an opportune moment to talk in accessible terms about the commodification of learning and literacy. With Joslyn’s infomercial to mediate that conversation, the kids could enter some challenging and complex discussions.
Josyln’s video could be an entrance point to dialogue about this genre. Looking at other infomercials of the kind that Joslyn mentored after, we could ask questions like:
“Why does the infomercial person want you to call?”
“What do you think the infomercial means by reading?”
“What do we think reading is?”
“Who gets to decide what it means to read?”
Be the Literature
After reading Patricia Polacco’s Chicken Sunday, the kids and I made our own hat shop, and May shot this video of the play story. As the children either watched it on the camera screen (which they liked to do immediately), on the classroom computers, or at circle time, our version of Chicken Sunday gained value as a reading text. Since we used some of the same reading response strategies with this documentary clip that we used when reading trade books, like those of Patricia Polacco, our own stories gained new status as learning texts.
Be the Revision
May really liked to play weather person. She recorded herself or had someone else record her, and then watched these to think about her story. Watching herself, she would then recreate the weather story with new ideas. The video text was a draft for her to work with to revise her pretend play. See a photo of one of her revisions below.
Be the Mini Lesson
May took this video during writer’s workshop. Then later during a mini-lesson, we used this as a point of reflection. Reading this video text together, we looked back at how Karina, Juan and Amari were engaged in writerly activity. We talked about what was working for them in that moment and what challenges they were facing. This put both May and the writing group in positions of authorship and teaching.
Another lens that seems really productive is to look at these videos in terms of assessing what kids know and are able to do. With video as the data, I get more of the context and more of the movement, spatial configuration and emotion that comes across in motion pictures. This is a drawback too, since with all of that information, it can be overwhelming to think and talk about.
Still given just one video, like Joanna and Joslyn’s above, I can look deeply at what children know and do in a given context. For instance, one of many possible analyses is to see this as documentation of Joanna and Joslyn’s literacy learning. Here I have documentation of oral composition of a story, ability to take on the voice of characters, and ability to create a collaborative and linguistically hybrid text.
This clip alone provides data I can endlessly analyze, use to invite further reflection from the learners, center family conference discussions around, and use to support thinking about curriculum and instruction for these children and others.
Even more politically powerful is that these videos are made by the children. So in assessing their learning, I am basing analysis upon what they are choosing to show me. This move pushes at dominant assessment practices that place the locus of power in testing companies, state and district agencies, or teachers alone. With student made documentaries as data, students and teachers together can create rich contexts and narratives through which to talk about student learning. Socializing assessment can happen if decisions about what counts as data moves from top down models to collective decisions between students and teachers.
Smudging the Final Cut
Our class video camera was variously passed, tossed and dropped around by the kids and me over the two years we all learned together. In reflecting on our time as video-ethnographers, the tool itself is becoming quite a symbol for me: an icon of how young children can engage in social digital composition. The camera passed pretty freely around our room. It would be really easy to focus on that image of the circling camera moving with digital tie dye action around our learning. But it is not as simple as that… you can hear me in the background of some videos saying things like “5 minute warning” [to clean up and go to lunch], and that kind of school discourse absolutely defined our classroom, too.
Camera and warning are both socially situated tools that bring with them power dynamics. Our classroom, while I like to think of it as one of those free-flowing, whole language type of places, was not really free of the dominant narratives of school. I, as “the” teacher, still made more decisions about time, space and activity—even if they happened to include a lot of “progressive” type choices on my part. Still, putting this digital tool into the children’s hands and into their control created a counter narrative, a story of school in which the children made decisions about the time, space and activity shown on camera.
The documentaries, especially as a collection, represent a dialogue with and counter to dominant narratives. And this is just the place that I have been messing around in my thinking with my UNC Charlotte Writing Project colleagues. Supported by our group’s thinking about all of this, I see how our first grade learning was constructed within and sometimes spoke back to narratives of school, in which individual students follow a learning path created and assessed by authorities and mediated by canonical texts. Through these documentaries, we differently defined what it means to make knowledge at school but always our knowledge making happened within larger constructs that variously defamed, ignored or supported our activity.
And so the image of a dented and bent up camera is a much more accurate symbol of the pushing-back, resistant nature of this work as opposed to my hard-to-let-go whirling, hippie image of digital commune.