Students want to take an active role in their world. They want to be involved in real things and have their voices heard. Creative projects offer students a platform to engage with their world and make statements, have the opportunity to present to real audiences, draw reactions, and gain feedback from those audiences as well.
In my 8th grade English Language Arts classroom students read short stories and texts around the topic of identity. After reading a handful of short stories from authors like Sandra Cisneros, Toni Cade Bambara, Esmerelda Santiago, Gary Soto, and Amy Tan, to name a few. After our close reading, analysis, and reflections students do some exploration and research into their identity and diverse cultures. Students are provided with a choice board to select a culminating writing assignment that is compiled in an anthology with Book Creator.
When students know that they have the opportunity to make a statement that will be heard, it can bring a highly focusing, motivating, and potentially satisfying aspect to learning. Each of the activities on the choice board results in the student producing an authentic learning product curated in a class anthology. Choice boards embrace student voice, choice, and agency.
Student Authors with Book Creator
A key focus of our active learning and critical thinking classroom is that the student produces as part of the
learning experience. As students create their learning products, they are researching, communicating, writing, speaking and listening. To showcase our creative works students writing is compiled in a class anthology using Book Creator. Book Creator helps facilitate the sharing process and collaboration is easy when students add their writing to our class anthology. Students know their finished products will be shared with their families and the school community and this makes a meaningful learning experience.
This unit and activities are meant to celebrate students’ diverse cultures and heritage. When students share their photos, memoirs, and dishes they can begin to appreciate all the richness in all of our cultures and can find similarities among us. This helps to help create an classroom and school environment where students feel their voices and stories matter.
For Teaching and Promoting Social Emotional Learning
I have taught a media literacy elective to seventh and eighth graders for fifteen years. During that times, movies were a fuel for reading, writing, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. Students analyzed Disney films for their portrayal of sexism, ageism, classism, and racism. Students took on a cause that they were passionate about and created public service announcements and short documentaries to raise awareness and call to action. Students analyzed the features of the classic Twilight Zone episode and the current Stranger Things to identify elements of suspense and storytelling. But you do not need to be teaching an academic class specific on media literacy to bring movies into your classroom as a teaching tool for social emotional learning. Utilizing short films in any classroom can provide mini lessons and conversations to address social emotional learning with children and adults.
Currently, I am kicking off the week with “Movie Mondays” in my middle school literacy lab where students view a short film and extract themes and key ideas the first fifteen minutes of this academic support class. These films become teaching tools to support close reading skills, critical thinking, and social emotional learning.
Here is a list of a dozen short films available on Youtube, TedEd, and Vimeo that promote SEL themes and topics. Be sure to preview the films before you show them with your students. You know better than I do what is appropriate for the students in your classroom.
Being “different,” Accepting Others who are Different, and Building Empathy
1. I Have a Visual Disability and I Want You To Look Me In The Eye – NYT Opinion – This short documentary is part of the New York Times Op-Doc series and was created by James Robinson, a filmmaker from Maine He uses his personal experiences to shows what it feels like to live with several disabling eye conditions. “Using playful graphics and enlisting his family as subjects in a series of optical tests, he invites others to view the world through his eyes.” This video is a powerful essay on seeing and being seen, how we treat others who look different.
2. A Conversation on Race – New York Times Series – Started in 2015, The New York Times created eight videos that included testimony of people talking about race, ethnicity and gender. These short films focus on identity in America.
Perseverance & Promoting Growth Mindset
3. One Small Step by TAIKO Studios – This animated short film tells the story of a young girl and her quest to become an astronaut. Viewers see her perseverance, dealing with set backs, and then reaching her goal.
4. Hair Love by Sony Picture Animation – Hair Love, an Oscar®-winning animated short film from Matthew A. Cherry, tells the heartfelt story of an African American father learning to do his daughter’s hair for the first time. The movie also addresses cancer and how a family copes when a parent is sick. There is no dialogue and the images themselves are powerful for making inferences.
5. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance Angela Duckworth’s TED Talk – University of Pennsylvania professor and author, Angela Lee Duckworth describes her job teaching math to seventh graders in a New York public school. She quickly realized that IQ wasn’t the only thing separating the successful students from those who struggled. Here, she explains her theory of “grit” as a predictor of success.
6. The Boost Students Need to Overcome Obstacles TED Talk by Anindya Kundu – How can disadvantaged students succeed in school? For sociologist Anindya Kundu, grit and stick-to-itiveness aren’t enough; students also need to develop their agency, or their capacity to overcome obstacles and navigate the system. He shares hopeful stories of students who have defied expectations in the face of personal, social and institutional challenges.
7. Pip Goes to Guide Dog School By Southeastern Guide Dogs – In this animated short, Pip enters canine university in order to become a guide dog. Although he does not meet the guide dog standards, he shows grit, diligence, and tenacity to become a guide dog. Despite not passing the guide dog test, once outside in the “real world” Pip shows his strengths and ability to be a lead dog.
8. Instructions for a Bad Day – Shane Koyczan – Shane Koyczan is a powerful Canadian poet. His poems address topics of bullying, self regulation, cancer, death, and perseverance. Also check out these other poems, “To This Day Project ” and “How to Be a Person.”
Designing a Better World + Encourage and Guide Positive Social Activism and Social Awareness
9. Man vs. Earth by Prince Ea – Prince Ea is a spoken word poet and his videos on YouTube address key themes of acceptance, social action using the power of language to communicate his message.
10. Plastic Bag directed by Ramin Bahrani – Plastic Bag is a short film where a Plastic Bag goes on an epic journey in search of its lost Maker, wondering if there is any point to life without her. The Bag encounters strange creatures to be with its own kind until it ends up in the North Pacific Trash Vortex.
12. How to Be Alone by Sindha Agha New York Times Op Doc – How do you handle being alone? This documentary was created during quarantine and COVID. The director shows viewers how she is dealing with isolation and loneliness, her longing to interact others and lessons learned from arctic explorers.
Have a favorite animation, movie short or documentary that promotes social emotional learning? Share your ideas in the comments section.
I use films and the media as a text in my classroom for reading, discussion, and teaching points. Social emotional learning is at the forefront these days to help students develop as human beings. There are many tenants of SEL and four overarching themes include: promoting growth mindset (self awareness and self management), supporting mindfulness and building relationship skills, responsible decision making, and promoting social awareness.
Here are some of my favorite films that address themes within social emotional learning that can be utilized in the classroom as a teaching tool
Being “different” and accepting others who are different:
The pandemic has brought to the forefront mental health of students and teachers. Social Emotional Learning. Research shows that creativity can be beneficial for mental health and can help build critical skills such as empathy and introspection. As Kathryn Fishman-Weaver writes in an article in Edutopia (2019), “Creating art is a practice in both communication and empathy that affects the storyteller (in this case, the student artist) and the person viewing the story (peers, teachers, and counselors).” Creative communication and expression elevates learning experiences and can drive social emotional learning (SEL). As the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning CASEL notes, SEL – “involves managing emotions and achieving personal and collective goals, showing empathy for others, establishing and maintaining supportive relationships, and making responsible and caring decisions – is an integral part of education and human development.
SEL is more than a buzz word, it is vital to students emotional, social, and academic success in and out of school. Here is is a lesson I do with my students to promote creativity, project based learning, and social emotional health.
Comic Creation & Script Writing Illustrating a Community Problem
Objective – Students will be able to understand the elements of storyboarding and map out an issue in the community using storyboard and digital comic creation tools to inform and persuade others. Students create digital comics or storyboards to highlight a problem in their community and encourage positive social activism among students.
Description – This lesson encourages and guides students towards social activism. By asking students to brainstorm the problems in their communities they are embarking on an authentic challenge and project based learning opportunity while using social emotional skills of communication, decision making, and social awareness. Students have a voice in the topics they care about. Students are taking charge of their own learning.
The storyboard is a powerful tool in the classroom for meaning making. A storyboard is a road map and guiding influence for story making. Michele uses storyboarding for comprehension and creativity in her 8th grade English classes but this activity can be adapted for any content area. In this activity, students create a storyboard that highlights a problem in the community using comic creation tools like Powtoons, StoryboardThat, Bitmoji and BookCreator.
ISTE Standards for Students
3. Knowledge Constructors – Students critically curate a variety of resources using digital tools to construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others.
4. Innovative Designer – Students use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions.
6. Creative Communicator – Students communicate clearly and express themselves creatively for a variety of purposes using the platforms, tools, styles, formats and digital media appropriate to their goals.
Short Documentary Films and PSAs
Hook: Post the following question for students to brainstorm and respond to: “What are the issues in your community that need to be brought to the forefront and exposed to seek change?”
Mini-Lesson: Storyboarding helps filmmakers to outline a story visually before going to production. Just like writers outline and use graphic organizers to map out the direction of their writing, before a film or even commercial begins production, the visual elements of the film are mapped out using a Storyboard. Studiobinder defines a storyboard as, “A visual representation of a film sequence and breaks down the action into individual panels. It is a series of ordered drawings, with camera direction, dialogue, or other pertinent details. It sketches out how a video will unfold, shot by shot.” Film producers might use a professional artist to help create the visual layout on a storyboard. Many storyboards are works of art themselves. The teacher should showcase examples of famous storyboards. This article from StudioBinder provides many).
Today we are going to create our own storyboards to highlight a problem in our community you wish to change. Think about how you can effectively showcase this problem in a way that draws attention to this matter. As a director, you have several elements to consider when preparing your storyboards. You first need to evaluate your topic and break it down into shots. Then, as you plan each shot panel, ask yourself the following questions:
What is central to this frame?
What needs to be communicated in the frame?
What type of shot (close-up, wide-shot, establishing shot, and so on) do you need?
What is the shot’s angle (where the camera is shooting from)? Is it a high angle? A low angle?
Let’s get started. You might use the storyboard templates I have provided or feel free to sketch out your ideas in your notebook.
Active Engagement : At this point, Students begin sketching an outline how they would present their topic and issue to others using a storyboard template (to be provided). As students are working on their storyboards they can also “research and gather information from multiple sources as they deepen their search for finding answers to their questions about the real world problem committed to.” (Laur & Ackers, 2017)
Allow students a choice to begin the storyboard by hand before moving to an online platform. This might take more than one class period. Allow students the necessary time to complete their storyboards and share with their peers for feedback and revision opportunities. If students are uncomfortable drawing by hand, using comic creation platforms like Powtoons, Storyboardthat, or Bitmojis and Bookcreator, students can create their own original stories in comic book form.
Variations & Differentiation – Teachers can provide sentence frames or word banks to help students with the dialogue and writing. Utilizing digital storyboard platforms like Powtoons or Storyboard that provide students with templates and stock images depending on the needed adaptations.
For an added challenge, students can follow up their storyboard by filming their ideas. Students can create a Public Service Announcement or Mini Documentary using iMovie or Adobe Spark to showcase this problem.
Culturally Responsive Teaching Connection: As this activity hinges on students choosing a social issue in their community and world, a cultural connection is built in through the current issues from homelessness, endangered species, racism, and pollution. The topics are generated from the student and driven by student inquiry. Students take ownership of the issue and their project as well.