Monthly Archives: May 2008

It’s Like An Old Friend Just Died.

I know that I promised to talk about my experiences making a student documentary called “Golden Grillz & Satan Likes Puppies” but something tragic has happened. My computer died yesterday.

It’s not like I have never lost a computer before. In fact, I am on my third home PC because my seven year-old eMachine finally died and went to wherever dead PCs go. Some say the scrapheap but I like to think that it has been released from its earthly bonds and is sitting in a field much like the Windows XP Desktop wallpaper. You know the one. Green fields and a lovely blue sky…

Anyway, PCs come and PCs go. Sure, we lost quite a bit of family stuff including all of my daughter’s digital pics and her iTunes library. Fortunately she still had most of the pics on her SD card and I was able to reload her iTunes from her iPod. Not as easy as it sounds. You have to sort of trick the computer into thinking that the iPod is an external hard drive and make it show the hidden files and then start loading things by hand.

But, as frustrating as it was, it was just another dead PC. I got a new one several days later. Another eMachines, this time with Vista. Microsoft Vista is not as bad as all the critics want you to believe. What is bad, as far as I can figure, is that it’s not Windows XP. And we hate change. I am no computer engineer and I am not a hard core gamer so my computer gets used pretty much like every other computer. For e-mail, the occasional casual game and some multi-media stuff like online video and some music. And for that, Vista is just fine. But I digress.

The computer that died was my school issued Apple iBook G4. It was a 14 inch laptop with a 1GHz G4 processor, somewhere around 640 MB of RAM. It was loaded with everything I needed to get through the day. Microsoft Office, Keynote, Final Cut Pro, Photoshop, Remote Desktop, Mac OS-X Leopard and some other stuff like video clips that I show every class. It was the first Mac I ever got my hands on and it was the start of something big.

My iBook allowed me to use a real live professional non-linear editing program. Before that, most of my editing was done tape-to-tape. It introduced me to Photoshop and it was love at first sight. So much of what my class is and so much of what we do is on that poor dead computer. I knew it was starting to die so I started to make back-ups of the important stuff like the iTunes library and most of my Photoshop files and a good chunk of my Microsoft Office documents and I have a mobile lab of eight newer and faster iBooks and I can use one for my very own, but it’s not the same. I really do miss my old iBook. Eight years is a pretty good lifespan for a laptop. Especially one that has been everywhere I have been.

It could be the hard drive or it could be the software or it could be the logic board. I don’t know and probably never will. School systems don’t like to spend money. So the little iBook that could will go into a pile of broken equipment that I keep in the storage closet. But before it went in there I cleaned it. I have no idea why but I used lint-free tissue, some alcohol and Q-Tips and removed all of the smudges, scuffs and dings and other badges of honor before I put it on a shelf.

I’ll put in a request for a replacement, maybe a Macbook Pro or an iMac. The requisition will be logged in, misplaced, found, sent back for clarification, resubmitted, lost again, re-resubmitted and then I will be told that it is “Up for Bid.” At that point, eight months to a year after the initial request, no one will remember ever having been asked if I can have a new classroom computer.


Classroom Video Part Two: Getting Started

If you mention classroom video to the average parent you bring up visions of some old 16 mm movie clacking away on a rickety old projector or, moving forward a decade or two, a VHS (remember those?) running on a 19 inch TV mounted up on the wall. The topics ran from PBS specials to hygiene movies. I personally loved the school bus safety movies. Lots of action and blood. Today, we run our classroom videos from DVD and use a dedicated player or a computer. But classroom video can mean so much more.

Using video production in the classroom can be fun, entertaining and meaningful for students no matter what grade they are in. From K through 12, making a video can impact student achievement and raise student interest in just about any subject. All it takes is a little equipment.

In my class we make our own videos and we don’t have a huge budget so we make do with consumer grade equipment. The kind of stuff you can buy from Circuit City or Best Buy or, for that matter, Wal-Mart. It gets kind of scuffed and some of it doesn’t even make it through the entire school year but it works well enough for us.


I am not a technical kind of guy. I am what you might want to call an end-user. I like what technology can do but I have absolutely no interest in how it works. I started editing video in 1979 and have worked in TV stations around the south ever since. I can’t talk at length about frequencies and diodes and other techie topics but I am absolutely dedicated to the creative side of the business. But as far as I’m concerned, computers work by magic.


We now have four whole camcorders as part of our classroom set. All four of them use a format called MiniDV. You want to stick with MiniDV if you plan to edit your videos rather than just showing them through the camera. We have three Canon ZR-930’s and one Panasonic PV-GS300. The Canons are very basic cameras with one extra benefit. They have an external microphone jack which allows students to plug in a wireless mic and boosts the audio quality immeasurably. Well…actually it is measurable but…never mind. The Panasonic is my favorite. It has three imaging devices instead of a single device, optical image stabilization and a pretty decent microphone. The video that comes off of this camera is great in terms of color saturation and clarity.

Of course a tripod is a requirement. It has two main functions. It reduces camera shake and reduces user fatigue. In other words, you can set up a tripod for hours and it never gets tired and it never gets shaky. Try that with a 9th grader. Look for one that is strong enough to hold the weight of your camera but if you’re using a consumer level camcorder, a twenty to thirty dollar tripod will work just fine.


As mentioned a little earlier, you want a camcorder that uses MiniDV tape. Not only is this becoming the standard format, it is just easier to work with when it comes time to edit. You will want to use a computer to edit in a style of editing called non-linear editing. It’s just easier to fix mistakes and the old linear, tape-to-tape equipment is expensive, slow and getting harder to find.

So you’re going to need a computer. We use Apples because Macs come out of the box with everything you need to download and edit video, create podcasts and author DVD’s. PC’s come with Microsoft Movie Maker which is a decent but somewhat limited editor. Other software is available and I have used Pinnacle Studio before with great success.

Then What?

Well, that’s up to you. Try to think of the video in terms of a text or an essay. Every movie a student makes is like a mini term paper. It requires thought, planning, research and some technology skill. Add that to the fact that kids just love TV and you can’t miss. Just give the class a topic, assign some jobs and let them run with it. It might encourage them even more if you post some of their work someplace like Teacher Tube. My class started an after school project with some local artists and filmmakers and their documentary ended up being shown around the city to great reviews. It was called “Golden Grillz & Satan Likes Puppies.” More on that in the next post.

Wow…Where Does the Time Go?

I sort of forgot that I was a “blogger.”

I started this because I wanted to stretch myself as an educator and as a writer and because I was out of books to read. I thought that forcing myself to write on a regular basis was going to be a great exercise in…well…something. So I started a blog. Or web-log, if you prefer. I think I’m too old to hip stuff up by making contractions out of it. Anyway, I was going through some old files on my computer trying to give the thing a data enema and I came across an interesting bookmark. Turns out it was mine. I had all but forgotten my own web-log. Last time I was here was January 30, 2008. And as I sit here on May 1st of the same year I have to wonder: Where did the last 2 months go?

The world has apparently kept turning and, since I’ve had to start cutting the grass again, the seasons have kept changing but it has been such a blur that I can hardly remember any of it.

Let’s see…My son broke his elbow at school and had to have it reconstructed at the expense of my insurance company. It took 15 staples to close up the hole the doctor made in his arm and he has been in a cast for almost three weeks now. The pins used will stay in his arm until “they start to bother him.” Thanks Doc. The school’s response?  They are threatening to fail him because he missed too many days. You see, if a student in Tennessee misses more than 4 days, the school can fail him or her or force the student to make the days up in an after school program. And they wonder why we have so many drop-outs. Anyone have the name of a really good, really sleazy personal injury lawyer?

Gas has gone up to the point that I am starting to worry about getting to work. I have a pretty long commute. Long enough that I have to change my oil every six weeks. You do the math.

I read a story on the ABC News web site about a 14 year-old kid who snapped due to some bullying he was forced to endure. Young Brent Clark was tired of it and took a knife to school to deal with the bully. The bully was out of school that day and Brent went a little nuts and took his frustration out on a female classmate. He didn’t hurt her but he scared the crap out of her and let her go. The next morning his mom looked in his backpack and it was filled with the kind of stuff that kids think will help them kill all the kids the bug them. A gun, some knives and the ubiquitous duct tape. The parents took Brent to the police and they promptly arrested him and held him for months at a juvenile detention facility.

The reason this story got to me was that Brent says that he never intended to kill anyone. He just wanted to stir them up enough to call the police. When they arrived, Brent was going to rush out “shooting so the police would just shoot him and end it.” It wasn’t an attempted school murder rampage, it was an attempted suicide. It made me sad and angry. Something has broken in our perfect little society and I wish I knew what it was.

And lots more stuff happened along the way. And then I rediscovered my web-log. I gave it long critical look and did not like what I saw. Too disjointed and too technical. I’m going to revamp it. If I remember to.

So, to all ten of you who have actually been here, I will strive to show up more often. I might even finish the Video in the Classroom series. And I plan to talk about my experience at the Magnet Schools of America National Conference. My presentation was called “Golden Grillz & Satan Likes Puppies”.

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