When I first started teaching, I was hampered by my pride in my own creativity. I felt like everything I came up with for my students should be new and original and sparkling with impressiveness.

Now, ten years later, I enthusiastically rip off any good idea that isn't nailed down.

Some of the best ideas I've heard recently come from my counterpart in Liberty, Missouri, a teacher named Eric Langhorst. Last year, he was Missouri's Teacher of the Year and conveniently, he also teaches 8th Grade American History. I first ran across him via his podcast and his brilliant Break-Up Note lesson.

A couple of weeks ago, Eric podcasted and blogged about a project he had done with his students. They had produced short, CommonCraft-style videos about topics they had studied in class. (You may have seen CommonCraft's videos before - they take complicated topics and break them down into "Plain English". They are ultra-low-tech, nerdy, funny videos that really engage viewers.)

I've been a big fan of CommonCraft videos, but I'd never thought about using them in the classroom. My World War One/World War Two elective class had just finished studying WW1 and I had been looking for a good mid-course project for them. These CommonCraft videos seemed like a really good idea.

There are six boys in my class (I'd really like to try it with all girls someday - it would TOTALLY change the dynamic of the course.), so I split them up into teams of three and gave them several topics to choose from. We spent a class period watching "In Plain English" videos - both from CommonCraft and from the students in Missouri. I gave them another period to do research online and another period or two to put their material together. We only meet twice a week, so in total, they spent about two weeks working on this.

We filmed the videos on a table in my classroom using a Flip video camera, suspended by a goose-neck microphone stand. (This made the video footage a little bouncy at first, but now that we know about it, we can prevent that in the future.) The camera has a glossy finish and tended to shoot out from the microphone holder, until we put a piece of masking tape on the camera to rough it up a little. I'm going to look for a clamp attachment that I can screw into the microphone stand to hold the camera more securely next time.

Anyway, here are their movies, How World War One Started, In Plain English and Six Ways To Die In World War One In Plain English:





We've already gotten a positive comment on this video on Vimeo, the video hosting service we used to post it. The commenter turned out to be Lee Lefever, the creator of the CommonCraft videos, and a really gracious guy. My students will be SO stoked about that!

Let us know what you think.