If Frank W. Baker helps us think about how useful theatrical visuals can be in teaching the close reading and careful analysis skills critical to understanding literature (like To Kill a Mockingbird), we need to remember that informational videos can be just as helpful as we take on both literary and informational texts in all of our classrooms (not just in language arts).
For example, we used a brief Associated Press clip about Guantanamo Bay from YouTube to remind our young students about the connections between Al Qaeda, Guantanamo Bay, and 9/11 before teaching an editorial (an informational text) by Stephen Jones (published in The Wall Street Journal) about his experience defending Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. (Note: If your school or district blocks YouTube, there are browser plugins that allow you to download videos to your desktop. This is a good practice to follow in general; since the video file will already be on your desktop, your lesson won't be at the mercy of any video streaming glitches.)
The editorial, about the importance of good defense for politically unpopular clients, helps students see Atticus’s defense of Tom Robinson in Mockingbird as part of a continuing debate about whether everyone deserves a good lawyer. But while the article provides accessible background about Timothy McVeigh (whom the students haven’t heard of), it assumes background knowledge about Al Qaeda and the Guantanamo defendants (which is only fuzzily present in our students’ brains).
And as with many texts that can seem remote and unexciting, the Jones piece has no obvious hook for students. Why should they care? How can they find an entry point into the text?
We used a quick, engaging clip from the AP (1 minute) about the conviction of Bin Laden’s driver to create that hook and set the stage. After the clip, we asked a few leading questions about the clip. Did they think the driver was guilty of serious terrorism charges or was he just a driver? Did they think he could get fair treatment through the military tribunal system, or did they wonder, as did his defense attorneys, about the issue of a fair trial? Students can be used to watching media passively, so presenting the initial questions to them can be key in getting the discussion going. And sometimes, it’s important to show a video clip more than once (or repeat the clip after you’ve asked the leading questions). It’s easy to forget how much is going on even in a brief media clip, with visuals, various voices, as well as information that’s unfamiliar to our students.
In our lesson, after the brief discussion of the AP clip (about 3 minutes), the students were quick to condemn the driver as guilty and dismissive of the concerns about a fair trial and even legal defense for people like Bin Laden’s driver. The clip and the discussion set the students up to take a stand and they did.
Unlike Baker, our goal with the media clip wasn’t to cultivate close reading and critical analysis. It was to prime the students with some basic information and get them to feel invested in the topic, which was achieved when they took a personal stand.
Once the students had taken their stand, they were set up for success with Jones’s editorial, which argues precisely the opposite point. The informational text, at this point, wasn’t remote and abstract to them. The media clip had allowed them to form an opinion about the issue, and they were ready to read more. And of course, more reading allowed them to refine and reformulate their earlier ideas and to see connections with Mockingbird.
So, use media clips to prime your students with background information and motivation -- especially with challenging informational texts!