Teacher Showcase: Screencasting Beowulf with Bethann Seifert and Jessie Minard

Make ancient literature modern with Bethann Seifert and Jessie Minard as they use screencasting for student discussions of Beowulf.

How do you make a 1000+ year-old poem engaging for high school seniors? Try bringing it into the world of YouTubing! At Northview High School, that’s just what Bethann Seifert and Jessie Minard are starting to do with Senior Literature. The students in the course are recording themselves in collaborative screencasts to discuss the language elements of Beowulf, that yearly rite of passage for Sylvania seniors. What is old is becoming new with a simple trick that leads to a significant learning change.

It all started when Bethann and Jessie’s students were reading selections from their online textbook, Collections. The digital version of the stories they read offer “Close Read” audio recordings of two or more students discussing the literature being read. The discussion is obviously staged and models talking about literature in an analytical fashion. After hearing the recordings, Jessie suggested they assign short collaborations like these to their students as assignments. She reasoned that students should not be passively listening to these recordings, but creating them.

Bethann coaches students during the development of their video.

Enter ClipChamp. The online tool offers free webcam recording on a Chromebook. Students can create an account through their school Google logins, record through their webcam-enabled Chromebooks, and download the videos into their Google Drives. It’s simple.

Bethann began class by reminding students of a critical discussion they had completed the previous day on the themes of good and evil conveyed by the language of Beowulf during the climactic battle between the hero and his nemesis, Grendel. Then, she explained the day’s assignment, to record a screencast with a partner discussing those ideas, with reference to the poem. Bethann posted instructions for ClipChamp on Google Classroom, asked students to find partners, and allowed them to spread out into empty neighboring classrooms to work with less noise.

Students work on the screencast content.

What was remarkable was how quickly the students forgot about the technology and got to work.  Discussion erupted from a dozen partnerships about the ideas of good and evil. Books opened as they looked for line references to discuss. Notebooks came out as students started writing scripts for their screencasts. Only after the students felt comfortable with their ideas and discussion flow did they begin to record. Because the students had worked so diligently on the idea development and planning, Bethann and Jessie agreed to find time in a subsequent class for completion, but about half of the class finished by the bell anyway. They downloaded the videos to their Drives and uploaded them to Google Classroom to complete the assignment. Success!

Student work continues.

But the assignment was not just another check in a box. Something different had happened here. Bethann and Jessie gave their students an opportunity to see critical exploration of a story as a collaborative and verbal endeavor. The National Association of Colleges and Employers found that verbal communication skills were the most vital, according to employers. In our effort to build 21st century skills, communication is a goal, and the verbal dimension of that goal is clearly crucial. The screencast assignment answers that need where a written paragraph does not.

Even more delightful than that benefit were the smiles and laughs from the students as they completed the assignment. One partnership noted that their video was ready for a YouTube channel. Another talked about “crushing it.” In our modern culture, where the democratic force of YouTube gives the old-fashioned power of television broadcasting to anyone with a computer and a camera, students feel at home with screencasting viewership. Their jump into production endows them with a power that feels good.

This first attempt was a prefatory test for Bethann and Jessie, but with its success, the screencast will become a quick and easy assessment, offering students a distinctly modern method of engaging with literature, not matter how ancient.

Author: Alexander Clarkson

After ten years of teaching English language arts at Southview High School and three years at McCord Junior High School, Alex is the first digital instruction specialist for Sylvania Schools. He moves from building to building helping teachers reach and engage their students through digital learning.

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