It’s time at last. You’ve been going through your monotonous lesson plans and the same-old collection of essays and tests over and over again. You want to try an alternative assessment, an interactive interest-driving twenty-first-century-skill-developing may-the-education-gods-smile-down-upon-me project. You want to spice things up with a video project.

Sensational call. If writing is the communication medium of the present, then video is the medium of the future, right? Wrong. Video is the medium of the present. If you want to start talking future, then strap on your Virtual Reality headset with me and let’s go engage in a chat-room that’s literally a room. Video is now—it’s available on everyone’s phone with sophisticated software available for free in the app store or pre-installed. Your students need to be learning how to communicate using video. And so again, great call with this alternative assessment idea, you’re helping them!

I think it’s so important I threw italics in that last paragraph four times.

Now here’s the thing—if video is the medium of the present, it’s imperative that it be taken seriously. And right now, education isn’t doing the best job in taking videos seriously as an educational tool. For some of my first video projects, I used it as a throw-away project. It was a goodwill collector from students,  “here’s an easy A and you’ll get to hang out with your friends and have fun.” You tend to get very hastily done work in which students are constantly giggling (not that that’s always a problem), pieces of footage that go on for waaaay too long, some students finished way before others, and a blooper reel that is twice as long as the actual content.

Students need to be trained to make effective videos. And that starts by teachers taking the art of filmmaking as seriously as the art of writing. Film is the language of the present.

That won’t happen overnight of course, and filmmaking still has a huge advantage in that it’s perceived by students as recreation, like the Snapchats they send lipsyncing to Culture Club songs (just kidding, wanted you to forget what decade you were in for a second). We can’t get rid of that perception either. One of education’s biggest hurdles is that it’s still perceived as “work,” a barrier that prevents students from getting into the flow states of self-exploration and discovery. Video production is one of those few arenas that isn’t yet perceived as work, so let’s make sure that students are still having fun while they learn.

Building the Right Format

So, while you’ve written for your entire life, you haven’t made videos, and you don’t know how to take it as serious as “the art of writing.” That’s okay! You don’t need to be an expert filmmaker to teach the fundamental process of filmmaking effectively.

To start, be aware that much like writing (and most means of communication), efficiency is paramount. One of the biggest flaws I see in teachers assigning videos is that they ask that the videos be too long. I suggest structuring your assignment in seconds, rather than minutes, and assigning video projects somewhere in the ballpark of 30 to 90 seconds. Yes, this sounds short in real-time, as a student could in theory complete a project in a minute, just leave the camera rolling and get done what needs to get done. That’s why I highly suggest building in an additional restriction: the five-second rule.

No one shot (or cut) should be longer than five seconds. This rule forces students to consider multiple camera angles and keeps the piece visually interesting.

A cut is simply the switching of camera angles in a video, hitting the stop button and switching to a new angle to record. Cuts are the fundamental grammar of filmmaking, the sentence of a video. When students become more advanced, they can start putting together scenes (the paragraphs), but this is an advanced tactic and one that novice filmmakers aren’t prepared for. So start with having the students write good sentences–getting good individual shots–to create a consistent, effective scene-paragraph. If the maximum time of a cut is five seconds, then that means students need to hit “record” and “stop” at least twelve times in a one-minute video, which pushes students to consider their angles and timing, which we’ll get to shortly.

But now that you’ve got an outline of how to structure the assignment—a 60-second video following the 5-second rule, perhaps—we need to outline the process. Most students hear “video” and just pull out their phone, start recording, laugh a lot and redo a few shots, and then call it a day. You need to turn it into a process, which is as follows…


Students should brainstorm first. However, you do not want students to get hung up on this part of the process. Students should develop an idea of the story they want their video to tell, and then start mapping it out and getting more specific. Along the way, they should be refining their ideas to what’s realistic—what locations they’ll be filming in, how many actors they’ll need, if there are any props that will be necessary.

I typically have each student write their own script, as it’s a valuable form of writing that often gets overlooked. I think this video by Indy Mogul does an excellent job illustrating how a script is much more than just dialogue. It assigns the five elements of a script as “slug line (INT/EXT, location, Time of Day, other details [like moving], Action/Description, Character Name, Parentheticals, and Dialogue)”.

Require your students to include all of these elements. Many students of mine will try to slip out of writing a script with the line, “But there’s no talking in my video!” This screenplay format shows how there’s much more to a video than the lines of characters, and there’s plenty of room to paint a verbal picture for your viewer through your script. And in a film without talking, the next piece of the pre-production process becomes all the more critical.

Storyboarding and Shot Lists

Storyboarding is a complicated, intimidating word (stories and boards? sounds like a lot of work…) that simply means drawing what the shots of your film are going to look like. Storyboarding is not the time to be a good artist. It’s a time to consider your camera angles, and how your shots flow into one another. Students should simply draw stick figures (that’s what I do, anyway) and begin considering their shot types—close-ups, wide shots, etc. (here’s a good lesson on the five basic shot types). Artistic students are welcome to provide as much detail as they’d like, but it’s not a necessity at all, and assessing storyboards should simply come down to thoughtfulness in the shot type. Ask, “why a close-up here instead of a medium shot?” Keep in mind that there should be a storyboard for every shot of a video (some of which may repeat, however—a scene of dialogue may go back and forth between two camera angles, and a student can shortcut that accordingly). This means that in a one-minute film following the five-second rule, students should be drawing at least twelve storyboards.

Any paper can work for this (though remember for your students to be drawing their frames in wide-screen, not squares or vertically, as that won’t accurately represent their shots!). A quick Google search will provide you with some downloadable options like these, I like ones where I can write notes underneath the frame to allow my words to make sense of my horrible drawings. I should give the app Paper 53 a plug as well, my students who use iPads storyboard with this drawing app, and it has a nice feature of allowing you to quickly scroll through frames to give a nice sense of what the video will look like.

Next is the creation of a shot-list. Filming your script chronologically may not be the most efficient, as characters may return to different locations. You may also want to specifically film on a sunny day, and if you get one, you want to make sure you film it. So have students take their scripts and break the shots down into the locations they’ll be filmed at. Have students list which shots they need to get, that way they can show up at the location and know what they need to get (and not need to worry about missing a critical line of dialogue).

Using this shot list, have students determine how many actors they need, who will be acting, and where they’ll be. This also gives us time for a quick little diversion…

Should Videos be a Group Project?

I don’t like this question (though I wrote it). As teachers, I think we break projects down into this binary of “individual projects” and “group projects,” making sure that kids don’t even look at each other in the former and saying “anything goes” in the latter (even sometimes giving all students the same grade regardless of how much work goes in by the individuals, saying “this is how it works in the real world”). Instead, I’d like to see education move in general toward a more collaborative model in all of our projects, with some projects simply being more collaborative than others.

This is a project that needs to be collaborative—it’s rare that you can make a video alone. However, I don’t think it needs to be a group project. When I have my students make videos, I like to have every student responsible for their own project, and then have each student get their own half hour to work on their video (and if it’s not their half hour, they should be acting in or helping others). Because although filmmaking demands collaboration, the acts themselves often tend to be individual. I find scriptwriting and storyboarding to be processes that almost need to be done alone (however, for best results, students can bring their scripts and storyboards together and then see the elements of each they like best, sometimes combining ideas, sometimes with other ideas being better just by merit).

If you’re nervous about having every student in the class make a video (another reason to keep the time limit down, you don’t want to watch twenty 10-minute videos!), give each student a role. Make one the cinematographer, one the screenwriter, one the editor, etc. Although these pieces can have different amounts of work to them (and they’re all important skills, so I hate to not give each student a chance to become proficient at all of them), it gives your students a sense of importance and also begins to show them the multiple career opportunities in production, as well as the specialized nature of roles.

Now that our diversion’s over…

It’s Time to Film!

Things change once your camera’s out and you’re shouting, “action” (well, I never shout “action,” but still). Despite all of that rigorous planning you did, you see the shot ideas that just aren’t working, or the lines of dialogue that aren’t funny anymore. Here is where it’s okay, and critical, to improvise on the spot.

No amount of planning can properly prepare you for a shoot, it’s a flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type action. Encourage students to experiment and try different camera angles or styles. Use pre-production materials as a guide, but not an infallible one. The act of making those materials should allow students more comfort in improvising. As they’re now more fluent in their work, they should be more able to make these critical decisions on the fly.

Remind students about continuity and to stay on schedule, as time can quickly begin to get away from students. Also remind them not to spend too much time watching what they’ve filmed as they’re doing it, that there will be plenty of time for that later, in…


Here’s where students can bring their work to life. Have them consider graphics and titles to introduce their video and characters and special effects or filters that come preset with editing software. But the most important lesson is the most basic—make your video as efficient as possible. Select the right cuts, switch camera angles at the proper times, make sure there isn’t an awkwardly long (or awkwardly short) pause at the end of cuts. It’s an art getting that right and takes lots of focus and practice, and most students take it for granted.

Consider having students include music (though you’ll need to balance inspiring your students with songs they love and honoring copyright law) and sound effects to bring it to life and make it smoother.

Then export it, and share through either Google Drive or YouTube (consider unlisted, so the creator’s work is private unless you have the link). And you’ve completed your project!

This entire process sounds rough, a lot of work, a bit like an entire unit of its own, and maybe just not worth the time and effort. But I implore you, please go through with it. If you were trying to teach a sophomore how to write an essay from scratch, it would indeed be a lot of work, and that’s where the majority of today’s students are. But they don’t need to be. The first video students make may not be award-winning, and may also show them retaining a lower amount of content knowledge than they would have with a traditional essay, which may make you feel like punting the whole thing.

Don’t. It’s going to take students making multiple videos to get good at the medium, and to get good enough at it that the process becomes automatic and an emphasis can be made at the content. They need to practice this, as it’s a highly effective means of communication that will benefit them the rest of their lives.

Maybe even as a foundation for when they start making Virtual Reality projects.