RSA animation in the classroom

Inspired by the RSA Animation method of presenting information, my grade 11 IB History class decided to try it out on some Russian History. Specifically, we wanted to illustrate a historiographical dispute on why Tsarism failed in Russia after 300 years. What follows is a step by step account on how to pursue this method of communicating an idea.

  1. Your students will need to create a “storyboard” that will look something like this:


The storyboard is essential. It will require the students to illustrate their ideas, with appropriate written captions. The image above is a partial outline of our RSA Animation.

2. You will want to post this storyboard on a wall, cabinet, etc.. where the artist who will be drawing the images for the film can easily see it. Keep in mind that owing to the nature of RSA animations, the artist remains in a fixed position during filming. S/he will be using the storyboard as a template for the final product. Be extra thoughtful in terms of storyboard placement.

3. It is now time to mount the camera that will be used during filming. We decided on an overhead mount, as you can see from the image below. However I have also heard of students doing RSA animations on the whiteboard, which would require a shoulder mounted camera, or a camera fixed to tripod and placed on a table. Be sure the camera battery is charged. And remember to have an SD card or USB cable handy to transfer the video to a computer after filming. Good lighting is also essential.

4. You are now ready to create. For this stage, you will need LOTS of paper, that you will want to tape end to end, like a scroll. One student will need to drag the scroll across the writing table as the artist draws the images. You will also want to have several markers of different colors ready. Here is our crew in action:

RSA Script

You can see from the above picture the camera mounted overhead, the script, and the white paper posted on the cabinet to the right of the student is the storyboard.

5. It is now time to edit. Provided the filming was completed in one clip, the work is relatively easy. More likely, there will be several clips cobbled together. It is essential that the sound overlay matches the drawing. We used imovie, and our editor was able to speed up the drawing so that it matched the speaking. Here is the final product:

The student feedback on this project was very positive. Most importantly, the tedious, repetitive process of creating the video made for solid retention of concepts, events, people, and dates. Overall, a thumping success, and I must confess to feelings of pride when I watch the video. A lot of effort goes into the creation. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do….

The right to know? A lesson on the freedom of information

As the incarceration of Bradley Manning has surpassed one thousand days, and the buzz surrounding wikileaks amplifies daily, it seemed like a good time to incorporate themes relating to “freedom of information”  into the classroom. I have thus far done it twice, in grades 9 + 10 Humanities, and the results have been very positive.

The plan:

As the kids are arranging themselves into their seats, the following video plays (begin at 1:55) on the whiteboard. The crackling of the walkie-talkies, and the subsequent gunshots, guarantee full and immediate attention:

When the video of soldiers firing on Iraqi’s, titled “collateral murder,” ends, stop the video and pose the following dilemma to the class:

“Imagine you are in the military and you have access to top secret government documents. You discover the video clip we just watched. You believe it is an act of murder, a war-crime. Do you release it to the public”?

Have the students discuss the dilemma in pairs, or small groups. Give them 3-5 minutes and have them present their ideas to the class.

The results in my class were mixed. Some argued they would keep them secret, others that they would release, others that they would release, but anonymously, others that they would release, but upon their death, to avoid incarceration.

I then returned to the video, to provide a context for the dilemma. After the students learn a bit more about who Bradley Manning was, why he released the documents, and why he was turned in and accused of treason, we return to the debate. Many students changed their mind after learning more about the context. (We also discussed the source of the documentary, to see if the documentary was favoring one side of the debate over the other. I recommend you do the same.)

This lesson, however short, ignited discussion on profound and important themes:

  • Should “freedom of information” have its limits, and if so , what are they? 
  • Can a “patriot” love their country, but very much dislike their government?
  • How can someone be an “informed citizen,” if they only know part of what their government is doing?
  • Does a tax-payer have the right to know where their money is being spent?
  • Does revealing troop movements put national security at greater risk than the waging of the war itself?
  • What, precisely, does “national security” even mean?

To connect this event to the past, we will next be studying Daniel Ellsburg and his leaking of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970’s. We have already discussed the Vietnam War, and have some knowledge of the U.S. bombings and invasion of Cambodia from 1969-75, which D. Ellsburg made public.

Ultimately, my grade 1o will be doing a class debate on the motion: “True democracy requires citizens to know what their government is doing.” They will need to support their arguments, both those in favor of the motion, and against, with reference to B. Manning and D. Ellsburg.

So, if you are looking for a timely lesson, touching on social media, democracy, citizenship, freedom, history, ethics, law, and other significant Humanities concepts, give it a whirl! And please let me know how it goes…

Student Led Assessments Revisited

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog on student led assessments, boasting on how I let my grade eight students design their own assessment. I was feeling quite proud of myself for “letting go” of the ties that bind students to the interests and whims of the teacher. (I was also feeling quite proud about the students, and still do, for the idea and result was positively gangster). But my self-pride was soon dashed when a fellow teacher commented on my post with an innocent, ego-withering question: “did you let the students assess the work themselves?” Well, … hmmmm… I err, you see…   The truth is I had not, in fact the thought had not even occurred to me.

Having mulled over the idea of letting students assess their own work for a few days, I tried it out on my ninth graders. The project was a video collaboration, and the students were asked to first give a mark for the project as a whole, and second to give a mark for each student in the group, according to their contribution. The results were surprising. I discovered that in many cases the students were more severe judges of their own work than I was. Roughly 80% of the students gave themselves lower marks than I had intended on giving them. Moreover, the comments students provided as justification revealed a mature understanding of the project– critiques of the transitions, cinematography, the impact of certain juxtapositions. I was impressed. The final mark was something of a negotiation between what I felt was appropriate, and the students self-assessment.

I will definitely, definitely encourage more student assessments in the future. However, I have decided to limit these to formative assessments, rather than summative. For the marks that can make or break a students academic trajectory, I’m thus far unwilling to transfer the responsibility to the student. I suspect this would be a recipe for a flipped-out parent, and a very uncomfortable meeting in the principals office.

Every time I’ve transferred control from myself to the students, in the form of designing assessments, and assessing those assessments, the results have been incredibly positive. I highly recommend this to any teacher out there agonizing over the prospect of “letting go.” Try it out, you’ll be glad you did…