VIDEOS: Classroom portraits

This month has seen very little activity with the development of the website but that doesn't mean that I have not been extremely busy with the production of content. Content creation requires a balance that allows just enough time for making interesting material while having a workflow that allows for the easy transference of that content onto the website. That is why I find those claims dubious on photography blogs that state, "You should be out there every day taking photos." Photos need to be stored, processed, added to galleries, etc. There is an important stretch of time where you do nothing. You need to think about how you want to put it together. You need to enjoy and be inspired by other people's work. You need to experiment with a new approach. You need to put down your toys and live life.

This month has been unique, in that, the school is holding a competition, of sorts. The first part is a basic photo competition. Each class is supposed to take 10 of their best photos of classroom activities, portraits, etc. The criteria was no more complicated that that. But my first thought was to make a slideshow with music and use much more than 10 photos.

With the iphone 6S, which can take live photos, I knew that I could capture some emotion in the moments that included movement. I'd have to transfer the photos into iphoto and them paste them into imovie. The hardest part was deciding which music to use. I could cut the mini-movie clip down to sync with the music or create interest.

I would search around the free YouTube archive. They categorize the music by mood. So I picked something bright. The children, even the teenagers, are incredibly photogenic. The hard part was convincing them that I could make something beautiful out of the photos. To share the vision, I made demo videos and showed the classes what I meant. I also had to teach them how the live photo worked and how I was going to use it. Eventually, I could get each class to agree to let me photograph them. I remembered that this is not an unusual problem. Photographers have got to learn how to engage and earn trust from the people they are shooting. This is what separates the great photographers from everyone else.


One of the dangers of doing 10 short videos over two weeks is that after awhile all of the videos look the same. I had footage and I had a workflow. But I didn't have a co-creator who gave me brutal feedback or had an independent approach that would shake up mine.

Still, I found that this activity allowed me to play around with techniques that I have been meaning to put to use for a long time. I knew that I wanted to make a time lapse video. But I wasn't sure how I was going to do this until time came to give students speaking exams.

I set my camera up on the ledge unbeknownst to the students taking the exam. I only had enough battery power to film a few students. The resulting footage was interesting to watch. As the students answered my questioned their eyes fluttered and heads shook as they scanned their minds for the answers. They demonstrated nervous ticks and all of the other body language that goes unnoticed during life at normal speed.

It didn't take long for me to watch this and hear classical music in my head. I wanted something with a steady pace that anyone could recognize as a a work of brilliance. I was thinking of Vivaldi, Mozart, and Bach. I settles on J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto.

As luck would have it, I came across this great article of about a photography app that takes the idea of filters to a new level. It is called Prisma and turns your photos into a fine art paintings. There is a large selection of styles. Each filter can be adjusted by intensity. I decided to give it a try and use it with my slideshows to add interest and allow them to play longer.

Every project had its own challenges. One of my teenage (13-14 year old) classes would not participate at all. So I made their disinterest a point of interest. As I pieced the clips together and edited it, I had a running commentary in my mind. This gave me the idea to add subtitles on the bottom of the screen. This class was a real struggle and as I posted some teaser images onto Facebook, I entitled it: When an immovable object meets an unstoppable force. The following video is among my personal favorites.

The subtitle text is as following:

Some teachers are going to struggle with getting their class to participate/

And some classes are going to struggle with a teacher that, well, is "that" teacher/

Because no matter how much they want to be left alone/

Learning language requires participation/

There is a side that wants to shine/

And a side that wants to hide/

With a sliver of time after the unit test/

We can look at a great book of poems/

And fight the teacher's every effort/

Until he tricks us into doing work by letting us draw/

We can actually let on that we are enjoying the process...a little/

Until we realize that the teacher tricked us into taking portraits/

And even managed to get us to read a poem

Another side of the competition was a talent show. The ideas was to use dance or song as a way of highlighting student talent. I dreaded the idea of preparing students for a stage performance. But that turned out to not be the school's idea at all. Rather, the talent needed to be uploaded into YouTube and then voted on by a committee. Only the handpicked finalist would perform on stage. This seemed much less stressful and the possible talents could include more than just basic songs and dances.

As I dabble in video editing, I know how the magic of editing can alter the appearance of things. Not claiming to be a real magician, I can have fun with it and give the students a chance to present something in English. I wanted these videos to highlight the students' English ability as much as possible.

So in this video, along with the usual slideshow, I had the students performing disappearing acts. With simple editing tricks, I can create the impression that someone has magically vanished. Again, I had to create a demonstration which I did in my home office. I then showed it to the students during the following week in class. This was a new idea for them and once they understood how the concept worked, they were excited to try.

Sometimes different tools make up for a lack of different ideas. That is a dubious claim. But I wondered what my DSLR could add to the situation. Not every situation calls for those capabilities. As it turned out, the classroom situation didn't call for a big Canon camera. It is bulky, slow, scares the kids, and in one instance, almost got knocked of a table by a careless teacher.  The one thing that stood out with the DLSR was the image quality. The only problem was that children,  used to having camera phones in their face since birth, are a little taken aback by a big noisy lens pointed in their direction. So I used it sparingly.

With this next class, I took portraits and made a slide show but I also make sure to show off a classroom activity. I often take extra time, while teaching songs from the book, to teach them how to dance. This gets them out of their seats, uses physical coordination, and lets them be social in a way they are unaccustomed to. I filmed it a couple of times on the GoPro so that I could cut between the students dancing with each other and the students dancing in front of the camera.

I had the most material for the kindergarten class. The kindergarten students surprise and impress me week in and week out. They are so bright. They quickly learn new words and are able to make simple conversations as well as any other class. Their rate of speech is slower and they look for more assurances from me but they can handle more material than I ever expected. Other teachers really need to see it to believe it. I often record activities in the class as evidence that my methods are working. Administrators, parents, and other teachers understandable don't pay much or any attention to what is actually happening in my classroom. They are content to learn that the students are happy, the parents want to sign up for a new term, and there is no animosity between the teacher and the assistant. As long as everything is running smoothly everything is okay. But I want to show them that things are far better than okay. In this video I have edited together an assortment of things that demonstrate what class is like at the school. They students are having fun, speaking, and doing lots of activities.

Although the adult class ended in mid-July, I thought it would be fun to make a video with them. Again, I demonstrated the idea by showing them sample videos. They grudgingly agreed. This short video is a little introduction to the class. I also recorded them as they were studying a small chart about the most popular languages in the world. 

I often have them take book material that is intended to test one skill and then use it to work on another skill. So for example, this was a listening text where they had to complete a chart. I then had them retell the facts and numbers related to the most popular languages. As you can see in the video, they were very nervous, have a hard time stringing words together to speak clearly, and dread having to do the work. Watching students struggle to have the basic comfort to engage with the language shows me that teaching needed be focused on the material. There was very little grammar that the students had not already learned earlier in life. They just forgot it because they never had the courage or opportunity to make use of it.

Having a camera in your face may wreck your nerves but I ma glad I have my students the opportunity to face that fear.

Perhaps my most ambitious project was with my best class. With this class, we took our book material about Amelia Earhart and made a news report. I have experience making such news reports back in 2013 in Yichang when my MacBook was new and I asked myself, "What is this little iMovie thing?"

We had not spent anytime studying the Unit when I proposed the idea to the class. We read the text, answered the questions, and jumped right into it. I was able to confidently guide them through the material because I had my notes from this unit that I had made from other classes that had already learned this material.

We had to film it twice because the students had three major issues with their performance: their voices were too low; their pronunciation was rough in some parts; they didn't not have the correct rhythm and cadence for English. By showing them these problems in the video draft, they were able to made the correct adjustments on their own. I then combined the best from the first and the second takes. There are some sections that I would want to improve upon. Rather than dwelling on this project, I believe that we can move forward and make future projects that will be 10 times better than this one.

I am really proud of them. Few classes can do what they can do. By pushing them they continue to make me feel that they can do more.

This project was a lot of fun. There was a great challenge in balancing the regular class work and exams with creating classroom content. I didn't hold much stock in the other component of the competition, the talent show. I personally think that the key talent that we should focus on is speaking English. That ability falls into the section of the competition called, "Eloquence of English." The class that read the Shel Silverstein poem showed how well they could speak English. The magic show might be on the border between talent and eloquence of English. I was less interested in parsing thedifference between those categories. I wanted to use this activity to pressure students to use their English. That was a success.

As I was thinking about the bigger picture, I realized quickly that the competition was not the point. At least, in my mind, these videos serve more as promotional material for the school. Prospective students can watch the videos and then decide to come to the school and be part of what we have going on here. Students are happy, doing interesting things, and coming away with English speaking abilities.

The next task is taking the XXGB of photo and video files off of my hard drive and move them onto an external.