Let’s face it: Telling your eighth graders that they have an essay due next week provokes the same reaction as when my wife reminds me taxes are coming up. Sure, general schoolwork dread is part of it, but I think students feel that writing an essay is outmoded. Few jobs—except for a couple of positions at Harper’s or The New Yorker—exist for essayists anymore, so students are not being entirely unreasonable when they ask why the standard five-paragraph essay is so important.
I respond to such questions in a predictable way: The essay is a tool that allows writers to present their thoughts in a clear and structured way. Even if students are right—that the essay is not the exact product that they will be asked to create in the “real world”—writing one remains an invaluable process for organizing and communicating an argument. The essay is not the end of learning but the means.
Yet, in answering these questions, I came up with another: If the essay is a means to an end, is there a better way to teach the same skills? After years of playing around with Prezi as a way of organizing and presenting my own thoughts, and of using screencasting to make quick explanatory videos, I recently combined both tools to create “Prezicasts.” Think of it as a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup for the digital age: two great tools that work well together.
In my unit on U.S. governmental structure, I asked the students to make three-minute Prezicasts explaining the relationships between the three branches of the federal government and evaluate the pros and cons of this system. My teaching partner and I saw significant levels of engagement and learning compared to previous iterations of the unit, which culminated with a standard five-paragraph essay.
Nuts and Bolts
Putting a Prezicast together is simple, once you are comfortable using both parts:
This presentation tool replaces the standard sequential slide format of PowerPoint with a kind of unbounded whiteboard. Users place text, images, videos, or graphic objects on the Prezi workspace and then link those elements by defining the order of elements the viewer will see. It is a wonderfully creative tool that many use now as their preferred presentation software. It has other potential uses in the classroom too—for example, as a note-taking tool, mind-map creator, or organizer.
To be fair, there is a learning curve with Prezi, and not all students will like it initially. I have found, however, that students get used to it, and most eventually appreciate the creativity it allows.
Like a screenshot, but in video format, screen- casting allows users to create a video file that records what is being shown on the user’s computer along with voice narration. From a student’s perspective, it is as easy as hitting Record and Stop. There are dozens of screencasting applications, but I recommend two. If you are a Mac user, screencasting is included in Quicktime X. If you are a PC user or just want a web-based program, I recommend Screencast-o-matic
. It is free, has many cool features, and is simple to sign up for and use.
Bringing the Two Together
Students simply make a Prezi and then create a screencast while they click through their Prezi. For my social studies class, I have students complete the assignment in four
- First, I created and distributed a Prezi template with sections for the Constitution, as well as the executive, judicial, and legislative branches. In class, we did a thorough reading of the Constitution, using the original source to understand each branch’s role and powers. Next, we undertook targeted WebQuests to address particular questions regarding the branches. Throughout the unit, class discussion and direct teacher instruction helped students fill in their Prezis. In the beginning, most stuck with the structure provided by the template, though as the unit went on, students added additional vocabulary and elaborated on concepts.
- Once students collected the notes on the Prezi, I gave them a series of prompts that required them to organize their Prezis in a new way. Along the lines of a mind map, I specifically asked them to make a visual representation of the three branches that showed the powers that each branch had over each of the others. In prior lessons, I spoke of the federal system as having three sides, so it was not surprising that my students chose a triangle to represent the system of checks and balances. This is a great stage to review student work to verify their understanding.
- After they organized their Prezis, I provided additional, higher-order prompt questions to extend their thinking. Once students had a handle on what the three branches were, where their powers came from, and how they interacted with each other, I asked them to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. governmental system.
- To complete the Prezicast, students simply opened their Prezis in one browser tab and opened the screencasting software in another. They pushed “record” on the screencast and then narrated the diagram that they had made on Prezi.
To guide the students at this stage, I provided assessment rubrics as well as technical parameters for the final version regarding time limits and preferred video format. I expected them to structure their narration like a standard essay: introduce the topic, assert a thesis statement, use evidence to support the argument, and conclude by integrating all the evidence to support the thesis. Students submitted the finished movie file and then posted the Prezicast on their own learning reflection blogs.
The Prezicast was a challenge for some. For example, most students wanted absolutely no verbal mistakes in their recording, and for some it took a dozen tries to get it right.
Make sure you let kids know that a few “ums” and “ahs” in the narration is not a big deal.
Still, the Prezicast is an effective tool for student learning. I noticed higher levels of engagement compared to an essay assignment earlier in the year. This impression was borne out in student feedback. One student wrote: “It was not the old long essay, but a new way to learn things, and I had fun while I made it.”
Another added that it was much more “creative and interesting” compared to typical assignments. A few students highlighted the fact that Prezi is so visual that it helped them understand the material and convey it to the audience.
Seth Blodgett, my teaching partner, agreed that the students were enthusiastic about the project and achieved greater understanding of the material compared to years past. Finally, students seemed to have a sense of ownership with their Prezis that they rarely felt with essays: “A Prezicast can show more understanding of the topic because you are explaining it with your own voice and words,” a student said.
Prezi was especially effective at helping students organize the material, both in the prewriting stage and the creation stage. Typically, students can have difficulty organizing their wide-ranging notes into a streamlined essay, but using Prezi at the early stages to collect the notes, assemble them as evidence, and even manipulate their location on the Prezi made this task easier. One student wrote that the Prezi allowed him “to see the visual relationship between different objects and topics,” and that it helped him organize his “paragraphs” better. Students often struggle to wrangle large amounts of notes into a tightly structured essay, but the screencast made it a smoother transition between notes, ideas, and expression.
Prezicasting now has a place in my toolbox to help students develop their perspectives on an issue; craft a persuasive, supported argument; and convey it to others. In this case, thinking about the essay in a new way increased student engagement in the process and helped with their organizational abilities. I will not abandon the essay, but I see the Prezicast as a complementary tool that approaches the same goal from a different angle: advancing students’ abilities to get their points across.
The author would like to thank his middle school colleagues, Seth Blodgett, Mark Burpee, and Pete Dohrenwend, for their help with this article.
— Justin P. Jacobson teaches eighth grade social studies in Tokyo at the American School in Japan. Read his class blog at blogs.asij.ac.jp/ss8jacobson.