Jerry Fingal
A student at a laptop stares out the window

As an artist, Tim Needles has always written poetry. So, as an art teacher, it was a natural for him to merge words with visual arts in his classes. One result is video poetry.

But what Needles has discovered over 20 years of teaching is that video poems are a great edtech teaching tool. The process of creating and merging video and words stokes students’ creative fires while building literacy skills. They’re also versatile and can be used in all manner of classes, from social studies to science, and from elementary school to college.

Needles teaches art at Smithtown High School East in Smithtown, New York. 

“I always love when you're able to learn to use technology in a creative way and at the same time you’re learning how to write and maybe some other subject matter,” he said. “It’s a fun project to do. That’s probably why I’ve been doing it so long. It’s not just a great learning experience but kids really enjoy it.”

Making video poems involves putting together words and images into one digital composition. They can take many forms and there are many ways to go about it. Needles usually has his students write poetry and combine it with images or video they have taken. But they can be done with other people’s poetry and copyright-free images.

A good way to put the “A” in “STEAM”

Video poems aren’t just for art classes.

“It’s a nice way to incorporate creative visual literacy into pretty much any class. Obviously, it fits really well with an English class. Social studies classes really like it because they don’t always have the chance to work in something creative like this.

“Even in science, if you’re studying something like photosynthesis, by having students make art about it, you get a better sense of what they understand.” 

The process of creating the poems requires students to really understand the subject matter, Needles said.

“There’s a nice layered element of learning that’s happening regardless of what the topic is,” he said. “That’s the strength of a project like this.”

Start small and build from there

Needles suggests teachers start with simple poetry, like a haiku, and use whatever technology is available. As for images, nature is always good for visuals.

“That’s an easy way to start, and it’ll take one or two class periods,” he said. “With a smartphone, you can turn it into a visual poem pretty easily.”

Needles suggests starting with a four-frame-photograph poem and then build up to video and live action. The most complex ones are done with animation, which is hard to do in a classroom because it’s time consuming. But visual poems are usually short, so animation is still doable.

“If you have a class that’s really comfortable with technology, you can do something that’s really complex and layered,” he said. “And you can work in a number of different elements.”

For some of Needle’s students, visual poetry is just the start. They progress to podcasting and storytelling, then work in video and ultimately create their own short films.

“It’s a nice progression because it’s all driven by content and not technology,” he said.

And it's a great way to address the Creative Communicator standard within the ISTE Standard for Students. Standard 6b expects students to "create original works or responsibly repurpose or remix digital resources into new creations."

A fun, meaningful exercise

The video poems also offer creative benefits for students.

“I teach high school, so those students really enjoy creating video poems because it’s a chance to express some of their feelings in a new format,” he said. “It’s not only a great learning experience but they’re using the art to express some of their feelings and some things that I don’t know that they’re really even aware of.”

Poetry is infinitely adaptable and allows students to go in directions that interest them.

“The nature of poetry is that it has so many different forms and can play so many roles for people,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for 20 years and it’s always successful regardless of what the technology is.”

ISTE members interested learning more about video poems can watch the recording of Needles’ ISTE Expert Webinar  “Video Poems: Merging Literacy, Creativity and Technology.” 

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Jerry Fingal is a freelance writer based in Eugene, Ore., who specializes in topics related to education, technology and business.