From Storytellers to Moviemakers: Silent Filmmaking In the ESL Elementary Classroom

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When I was first invited to bring moviemaking into the ESL classroom by my employer Veronica Lu,  I was thrilled and overwhelmed. I studied film in college and I regularly participated in indie festivals with friends. I loved filmmaking as a hobby, but to implement it in the classroom sounded daunting. 
        There was just so much to cover. 
What makes filmmaking especially challenging is capturing good audio. Good audio? Who is this guy?
        I know. Right?
        You're probably, saying to yourself, "You're a teacher, man! Not Martin Scorcese, for Peetsake!"
         You obviously haven't met too many film school dropouts. We are notoriously picky and have developed the strangest hang-ups about filmmaking. Besides, bad habits weren't something I was about to pass on to my students AKA budding filmmakers!
         Now, back to the show.
         Ironically, It has been said that audio is what often separates good filmmaking from the unwatchable. Not to mention, that good sound equipment is complicated and expensive. 
The obvious solution was to simplify...
      In order to do so, I asked myself, “Which kinds of filmmaking would allow students to tell entertaining stories without sound?”  
I did some pinteresting and I read about other teachers praising lessons about Silent Films! Voila! This initial lesson plan idea seemed like a perfect match for my students for a lot of reasons.              

      First, it allowed the students to develop their visual story telling skills—looking closer at how moviemakers use framing and camera movement to tell stories without words. Secondly, since the first group of students I worked with were all English language learners, silent films took the pressure off of them to write and memorise heaps of dialogue. Another bonus was the use of silent film styled inner-titles allowed the students to learn key phrases that were visually explained within in their stories. Third, it gave them a historical context for the birth of hollywood filmmaking. Coincidentally, The Artist had just won an Academy award so the students were already familiar with this particular style of filmmaking.
I am convinced that after seeing what we accomplished, any class can successfully complete this mini-unit with proper preparation and a growth mindset. Since the first time I have run this mini-unit in Taiwan, I have successfully delivered it in to two other classes in Canada, proving that with a few adjustments silent filmmaking can be tailored to different classes and timelines. Watch our reel of finished projects and feel free to leave us your comments of encouragement. 

For teachers who are interested in reading how we did it: click here to read our story.

I also provide some suggestions for how to attempt silent filmmaking with your own class:

Learning to be in “Kahoots” with Tech: Applying new learning to an old game

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About seven years ago I taught a grade 3/4 class at an International School. I was given a time slot that my class was allowed to use the computer lab. I used to struggle with this period on my timetable, known as “computers”. It was that dreaded time when students used to try to persuade me into playing non-educational games.  It was also nerve-racking because the gaps in their abilities and experiences with technology were vastly different. Computer Class version 1.0 definitely needed a tremendous upgrade. 

In my quest to redefine this block on my timetable, I had no choice but to get rid of it. In its place, I challenged myself to try to implement some new form of edTech as often as I could. No longer did I waste time lining up my class, marching them down the halls to an outdated computer lab. Instead, the computer lab came to us. I rallied parents together and asked them to help me find used lap-tops, iPads and cameras. I found purposeful ways to gradually bring tech into all subject areas, not just the period known as “computers”. The students loved these new changes and they were working together to take ownership of the class.

However, lessons soon lost their spark and students sometimes got frustrated with me or the technology. I remember once leaving and wondering whose quest we were really on.

Upon reflection, I asked myself,

“That app seemed so promising. Why didn’t it work?”

“What support could I have provided to make the tool easier for my students to use?”

“Well, that was a flop. What could I do better next time?”

I came to the realization that the mistake I made was thinking that technology IS the lesson. I had successfully brought tech out of the computer lab but my brain was still thinking in terms of that dusty old room.

Now I realize, the newest app, software or educational game does not teach the child on its own. In actuality, the digital tool needs to be properly aligned by the teacher in meaningful ways to advance students' learning. What I mean by alignment, is carefully considering the content, skills and character traits I want my students to walk away from the lesson with. Susan Drake in her book, Interweaving Curriculum and Classroom Assessment (Drake, Reid & Kolohon 2014) refer to the core elements of a curriculum as the KDB framework. (The know, the do and the be). In the book, Drake et. al are referring to curriculum design but for the purposes of this blog I’m going to attempt to apply it to an edTech tool, while demonstrating how my thinking towards edtech has shifted over the years. (This is a relatively new thing for me so here it goes!)

Let’s look at an old favourite of mine, the game-based learning website, Kahoot! I used to love this tool and used it quite frequently in an ESL setting.

The Know - Any. The content is modified according to the teacher. The teacher inputs multiple choice questions and then the students answer them in a fun quiz game show like environment. The teacher can even add visual content such as pictures, graphic organisers or classroom anchor charts that can assist students. There was even a beta feature of adding a youtube link for videos. 

The Do - Multiple choice test taking. (Read. Comprehend. Predict. Eliminate. Select.) Lower-order thinking. No HOTS here! The game also rewards quick reflexes (Quicker players get higher points) which can be a bit of a downer for the students who like to think and talk it out.

The Be - “Good Little Test Takers” - This is what I struggle with most. The game itself rewards students who memorize and regurgitate information quickly. Using this app might imply this idea that the teacher values the “good little test takers” of the class. Essentially you might be promoting the idea that knowledge is finite and limited. Students who like to think, pair, share may not love this experience as the clock is ticking and the pressure is on. Kahoot! does not really promote critical thinking or collaboration which a lot of teachers are looking for in an app or website these days.

According to Teachers Know Best: What Educators Want from Digital Instruction Tools, (, 2014) Kahoot! may check a couple of boxes on what the teachers are looking for in an app. I’ve included a screenshot of the framework for the Gates Foundation's (2014) findings for what teachers expect in an app.

If we were to compare Kahoot! to this criteria in Teacher’s Know Best!

Does the digital tool…

Deliver Instruction? - No.

Diagnose Student Learning? - Maybe
When used as a very broad diagnostic assessment tool it has the potential.  It can give the teacher a rough idea of what the class knows. Due to its high pressure fun quiz game environment I would definitely not recommend it as a reliable individual assessment tool. (Duh.)

Vary Delivery Method? - Yes.

Tailor Learning Experience? - No.

Support Student Collaboration and interactivity? - Not really.
If the teacher invites the students to sit in teams and discuss the answer while sharing the iPad, it may bring about some collaboration. Unfortunately, I have found that the reality is the stronger test takers on the team dominate the situation out of fear of losing to other teams.

Foster Independent Practice? - Depends.
I have invited individual students to make their own Kahoot! quiz and play with the class. This is a little higher on the ol’ Bloom’s Taxonomy but it takes a lot of time to implement properly on a larger scale with more students.

The Bottom Line: Kahoot! is easily modified, making the alignment with your content an easy box to check. It is also FREE and highly engaging. Even the students who normally struggle with multiple choice like this tool because they can get immediate gratification from seeing the answers. They can also allow an elbow-partner to help them choose. Recently,  it has become a “sometimes tool” for me because it doesn’t differentiate for all learners or promote the kind of learners I want my students to be.

Now that I have brought technology out of that dusty computer lab, I see how important it is for teachers to take the time to properly consider the pros and cons in choosing an appropriate app for their class. I have dedicated myself to taking the time to play. Playing with the technology helps identify the purpose the app serves and prepares me for potential pitfalls my students may have. I also strongly consider what kind of learners it may foster.

I can now ask myself, “If I bring this technology into the classroom--What kind of people am I implying I want my students to become?”

In 2016, I hope to develop a new (or revise an existing) assessment tool that can quickly assess and rate the educational value of technology for busy teachers — let’s face it, there are a lot more of these tools to come.

Drake, S. M., Reid, J. L., & Kolohon, W. (2014). Interweaving curriculum and classroom assessment: Engaging the 21st century learner

Gates, Bill and Gates, M. (2014). Teachers Know Best: What Educators Want From Digital Instructional Tools, 33. Retrieved from