From Spectators to Participants: Using Videos to Promote Engagement in the History Classroom

Malia McAndrew is an educator based in Cleveland, Ohio. She has taught introductory history material to a range of audiences, including middle and high school students, undergraduates, medical students, and incarcerated women. Malia believes that studying the American past can help us to think about the future we want to co-create together.

Malia McAndrew
Image Credit: Malia McAndrew

A few years ago, I noticed that my favorite Norton textbook came with a set of accompanying “Author Insight Videos,” short 2- to 3-minute recordings in which the eminent historian and textbook author David Shi explains major developments in U.S. history through a series of up-close monologues. At first, I primarily thought of these resources as a useful study tool for my students, as the recordings provided a clear overview of historical content in bite-sized segments. But I also liked that they humanized the author of our textbook. Around the same time, I began working with middle and high school students at the Khan Lab School in California. The school was founded by Sal Khan, the same EdTech innovator behind Khan Academy, an online platform that provides free, high-quality educational videos to anyone, anywhere. The students at the school knew “Sal” not just as a famous personality, but as a real person they regularly saw in the hallways or interacted with at school events.

All of this got me thinking two things. First, that far too often the people who create historical content are functionally anonymous to our students. They might spend hours, months, or even years reading a textbook without learning anything about the person who created it. And, second, I realized that my students could totally do this video thing too! A project was born.

Inspired by the potential of using video projects to promote higher-order thinking skills and increase learner motivation, I pitched the idea to my students. “There are plenty of books, documentaries, and other educational materials about U.S. history,” I told them. “But most of this content is created by adults for young people.” As a corrective, I challenged my students to write, edit, and produce a short educational video about a topic that resonated with them, in a way that they felt would best appeal to teenage viewers.

To begin their work, the students conducted basic research on their chosen topic, reading about it in the textbook and exploring it further though primary source documents. Next, they analyzed educational videos about their topic made by three different professional content creators. In addition to David Shi and Sal Khan’s videos, many students were also familiar with the “Crash Course” history series hosted by author John Green, as well as videos from a myriad of other video creators. (Note: not nearly enough of these resources were made by women or people living outside the United States, which only further emboldened my sentiment that our students were engaged in something worthwhile.)

After comparing and contrasting the ways in which at least three different online tutorials presented their historical topic, I asked my students to type up their most significant reactions in a shared team document. They got specific about how they felt the professional videos might help or confuse novice learners, and discussed what they found engaging, boring, and significant. They also considered who they felt had framed the historical significance of their topic effectively and who had missed the mark. Using their critiques as a guide, I encouraged the students to think about the goals they had for their own video projects. “Make it fun, informative, and unique,” one team wrote. “Keep the video both entertaining and educational,” another group weighed in.

As the research phase of our project progressed, teams honed in on a specific question that their video promised to answer. Questions ranged from “In what ways was the American Revolution a civil war?” to “Was Thomas Jefferson an effective president?” and “Who were the muckrakers and how did they change American history?” After settling on the central question their video would answer, teams had to identify the key people, events, and ideas their tutorial would need to cover to answer their driving question. I told students to imagine that their viewer was a smart and capable student who had no prior background knowledge in U.S. history. I also emphasized the important balance between being thorough and being concise.

From this initial thumbnail sketch we expanded out to a 5-slide deck that I called their storyboard. First, students came up with a hook—something that would grab the audience’s attention at the start of the video and make them want to watch the tutorial. They also needed to state their research question, set up the time period under examination, and introduce the important historical actors that their video would follow. If it made sense for the story they were trying to tell, I encouraged students to introduce a sense of tension to the video by explaining a barrier that people in the time period faced or a problem they wanted to change, fix, or overcome. The next segment of their video explained the ways in which the people in the past grappled with that problem in search of a solution. Wrapping things up, students needed to explain how the situation was resolved in both the short and long term. Finally, I also encouraged students to end their video with a “so, what?”—that is, to consider the historical significance of their topic and convey to the viewer (either implicitly or explicitly) why it was important for young people today to learn about this particular historical topic.

After completing the initial storyboard, students began drafting a full script for their video. As they worked on the writing process, I reminded them of the goals they had set for themselves and encouraged them to focus on both the content and delivery of their video. How would it help other students understand historical content? And how could they produce their tutorial in a way that would keep viewers interested? They conducted additional research, refined their stories, and practiced the art of an engaging delivery. Some groups decided to present their tutorials in the style of a podcast or talk show, while others planned to use voice-over narration as they presented animations, drawings, and other student-created content on screen. Some created skits (such as one about two 19th-century American women who held a whispered debate about the shortcomings and achievements of Thomas Jefferson). Some teams approached serious topics with a serious demeanor, while others went for a light and comedic tone. All presented their unique perspective on why the past matters to them today. In this way, their video projects became incubators of creativity and a place for students to meaningfully engage with the topics and ideas they were learning about in our textbook. Once everyone was happy with the script and they had performed a spoken dress rehearsal, I cleared the students to move on to the final stage: video production.

Here’s my secret: I don’t actually know all that much about the technicalities of video creation. Luckily, my students do. Many are not only keen observers of social media—its tropes, technologies, and trends—but also come to my class with experience critiquing, creating, and curating online content about the world around them. Through this project, I helped students repurpose their existing talents for the goal of making sense of the past. In all, it took my students about two months to make their tutorials, working on the project for about an hour or so every week. Of course, the project could be compressed or expanded based on preference and time constraints.

As a history teacher, I often get a bit sensitive when I hear people criticize history education, bash history textbooks, or speak disparagingly about things their teacher never taught them. What observers sometimes fail to appreciate is that textbooks aren’t meant to be the end of the story; rather, they serve as a starting point. Introductory-level textbooks and the introductory-level courses in which they are used are ways to introduce learners to foundational content with the goal of inspiring curiosity and future exploration. They are meant to engage the minds of young people in a conversation that has been passed down from one generation to the next and is continually made anew by every generation that engages with it.

Through our video tutorial project, I’m passing the mic over from myself, David Shi, and Sal Khan to our students. Though this activity does help students learn historical content (and I always tell them that the videos they create today will help next year’s students study), that’s not the ultimate goal. The project is a way for my students to find their voices. Through their video projects, they get to decide which topics matter, how to frame them, how to tell them, and what the meaning of the past is for all of us living in the present.

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