Anna Whitcher and Kieran Donaghy: Image makers in the future of ELT

In November 2014, at The Image Conference in Córdoba, Spain, we presented a short video called A Visual Manifesto for Language Teaching. Following the success of the conference, we were asked by the British Council's TeachingEnglish website to write an article about the film. In this brief question and answer session, we will explain the ideas behind the creation of the film, how we went about making it, who and what was involved and where we see video and film going in the future of ELT.

Why did we make this film?

One of the more popular questions we have been getting is why we made the film in the first place. A lot of what we have been experiencing in our own work and in our daily lives made us feel compelled to create something that combined words with images that could stand on its own without much explanation. While the ideas were based on what we have both read recently and both believe to be true about the world of images today, we felt we could communicate more with the careful crafting of a short film. There is so much information we have to navigate daily that we are all starting to take measures to reduce it and manage it better. In the film, we emphasize the need to pause, reflect and think about how to be more deliberate instead of just reacting to today's media overload.

Why call it a visual manifesto?

As many of us are seeing in education today, and not just in language teaching, there is still a divide between what our students and children are already comfortable with regarding digital media and what they are encouraged to use in the classroom. Some of this has stemmed from improper use or overuse without purpose, so we felt that by addressing the issue head on - the fact that we are not being deliberate enough in our usage of certain image-based tools and the processes involved - we can encourage a more open conversation about how to develop solutions that work for students and teachers. Through the film's narrative and the careful selection of images and video clips, this "visual manifesto" intends to guide the viewer through the process of what happens when you look more critically at images and how engaging in that active process with others often helps create an even better result.

What skills does the film highlight?

If we can effectively integrate the skills this new generation is acquiring naturally just through their regular usage of certain tools and devices, we will be able to expand the opportunities for learning in the classroom. It's about going beyond what the device actually produces and to what the student learns during the creative act. By observing this process more closely, we can practice those skills to an even greater extent and help students be more prepared for what awaits them in their future jobs. We felt that by encouraging actual image making and filmmaking in the classroom setting, students will be given even more of an opportunity to practice the skills they are acquiring from their own personal usage of image-making devices and learn that through collaboration, they can actually create something greater. We found that in our own process of making this film together - that we wouldn't have been able to make it without each other. In this digital age, we have to learn to be comfortable with this type of interdependency.

Who was involved in making the film?

One of the many wonderful aspects of working with images and film is that one enters into a world where there are many people who want to express their craft or be a part of something bigger just because they feel connected to it and want to express themselves. This is true of our students as well who are creating their own world of images and film just by default because they depend on it so much for self-expression through social media. We were fortunate enough to have some generous people in our lives who gave us permission to use their images and/or video clips for free, including ELT Pics and Brookemead ELT. We also are grateful to organizations like The British Film Institute and Powerful Voices for Kids who donated their footage. In addition, some of the images came from Creative Commons, an organization which allows you to use images and video clips for free as long as you credit the creators properly.

Did a publisher commission this film?

No, this film was not created or commissioned by a publisher. This was a labor of love by the two of us along with our video editor and friend, Erin Palmquist, who helped connect that last bits and pieces together.

How much did the film cost?

Many people were wondering what went into creating a short film like this. If we talk just about the basic cost, it was simply our time putting it together and the small fee we paid for music track we used. That's it. But it takes time, dedication and the support of like-minded people to make any kind of film happen. It's all about having a good team and believing in what you're creating together.

What is the future of image making in ELT?

Our feeling is that images, both still and moving, are going to continue to be the way our students and new teachers feel most comfortable expressing themselves with. Because of this, it's going to become increasingly important to pay attention to the role images have in our basic communication. Images and video are not going to be something that can only be produced by companies and people in power. As image making continues to become cheaper and more accessible, it is going to be the way we will create and recreate our own identity and establish our footprint in the world.

How do I start integrating film-making into my classroom teaching?

Don't be afraid! Integrating film-making into your own classroom is fairly straightforward with today's easy access to basic digital cameras and mobile devices. Many devices allow you to edit film on the spot, or you can use the film editing software that accompanies most computers. Embarking on your first film-making project can be a little daunting, so just make sure you take it in small steps so your students feel some kind of achievement in a short amount of time. Keep films short and simple with just a few basic guidelines. If you keep the requirements tight, students will be able to master some basic film skills and then apply more creativity to the next project. Encourage them to work together and give them roles, such as director, scriptwriter, camera operator, video editor and presenter. This role playing will give them a taste for what it is really like to make a film since it is all about teamwork. Some ideas for first short films (two to four minutes) include:

  • a chronicle of the history of their school
  • a collection of short stories about students' families
  • a documentary about significant people and places in their local community

How do you see yourself in this world of images?

Now that you've had a chance to read some background about the film and to think about filmmaking in your classroom, we invite you to take a look again for yourself at A Visual Manifesto for Language Teaching and see how it speaks to you. Our hope is that you, whether you're in the field of language teaching or have come from another discipline, will feel that some of the narrative resonates with what you've been experiencing, not just in the classroom but in your daily lives and that the process of filmmaking could be a start to helping our students make the connection between their outside world and their learning environment. We welcome your comments and hope this is the first of many conversations about how we can better manage the images we are seeing today. You can watch the video here:

Anna Whitcher is an editor, writer and producer of ELT materials and has a strong interest in film and its role in the language classroom. She graduated from UC Berkeley and has a Master’s in English Composition. She has taught ESL/EFL to teenagers and adults in the US and Europe.

Kieran Donaghy is a teacher, trainer and award-winning writer based in Barcelona with a special interest in the use of film in education. He works at UAB Idiomes Barcelona. His website on the use of film in language teaching Film English won a British Council ELTons Award for Innovation in Teacher Resources,and the most prestigious European media in education prize, the MEDEA Award for User-Generated Media in 2013. He is the co-author of Films in Health Sciences Education, and his methodology book on the use of film in language teaching for the Delta Teacher Development Series will be published in April 2015.

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