For the second year now, I have had the students in my World War One/Two elective make "Common Craft"-style videos explaining different aspects of the First World War.

Without further ado, here they are:

Lessons Learned:

  • Have students help brainstorm video topics - I put a few possible topics on the board - "The Treaty of Versailles in Plain English", "Life in the Trenches in Plain English", "Spanish Influenza in Plain English" - and had students take it from there. My guys came up with some really good topics. Each team got to pick their own topic. All three videos this year turned out to be topics that the students had come up with themselves.
  • Pick teams (semi) carefully - Eric Langhorst, the teacher from Missouri who I stole this idea from (indeed, who I steal most of my good ideas from) suggests using teams of five students. Teams of three-four seems to work best for me. Last year, I decided who would be on each team and made a mild-mannered or slacker-y student the team leader. That worked pretty well. This year, I still picked the team leaders and let them pick the members of their team, one at a time, like for a pick-up kickball game. The idea was to give them a little more control and choice in their project (something I always try to do) and it seemed to work well, but as someone who was ALWAYS picked last for everything as a kid, it left a bad taste in my mouth. While I've learned over the years to try and ignore my notoriously unreliable gut-feelings, I think I'll go back to choosing the teams myself next time, perhaps with student input.
  • Use a tripod - I mounted my Flip video camera on a standard tripod. I put the tripod on top of a large table and tilted the head forward to not-quite ninety degrees. I taped down a large sheet of poster paper at the end of the table and used the zoom function on the camera to narrow the shot to the center of the paper. This let the students on each team spread themselves around three sides of the workspace.
  • Have students do a dry run first - Even teams who have been responsible and practiced their presentation tend to mess up in front of the camera (well, under the camera in this case). I let each team do a dry run before we actually filmed their project. That seems to have worked out well. At the request of the students, I sent other teams out into the hallway to ease the nerves of the team who was shooting.
  • Editing is Okay - My policy last year was to film each project in one take and put it online with no editing. The idea was to make students more attentive to details. This year, one of my students has a speech impediment and I ended up adding sub-titles. Under the philosophy of "In for a penny, in for a pound", I added a few more sub-titles in all three videos and trimmed a few seconds of "dead air" from the beginning and end of the movies. Also, an announcement came over the intercom as one team was just finishing, so I edited that out, as well. I tried to use a light hand with the editing, though.

All in all, I'm pleased with how this project went this year and I will definitely do more of these movies.

Your comments are, as always, welcome.


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.