Kids, the Ken Burns Effect, and American Slavery — Students Become Documentarians
The history of slavery in America is glossed over in many classrooms. Some educators and textbooks give it little more than a cursory mention as a "reason for the Civil War." Is it possible to learn something from the "peculiar institution," an institution mired in feelings of guilt and shame? Is it possible to effectively teach a subject that makes some adults cringe? YES!
In fact, kids as young as 4th graders can independently use the techniques of filmmaker Ken Burns to highlight the most difficult or sensitive topics and make their audience hungry for more. My students have been using a program called Microsoft Photo Story for years, but it wasn't until I met Columbia professor Steven Mintz that we realized the power of Ken Burns-esque documentaries using primary sources. Read on for great resources for making digital storytelling the cornerstone of any history lesson.
Courtesy of Library of Congress
The "Ken Burns effect" refers to zooming in or out of a photo or panning across a picture. A few years ago, such effects were perfected with expensive cameras, but today anyone with a great slide show program or moviemaking software can achieve the same results.
Watch the first few seconds of an example of Burns' footage in this tribute:
Now watch an excerpt of a Ken Burns' mockumentary by 4th graders:
Ready to Get Your Ken Burns On? Stick to a Few Guidelines:
1. To conquer a colossal or intimidating topic, start with a great character. Enable your viewers to empathize.
I used to work for a television newsmagazine. When discussing the best way to cover a topic, my boss loved to say, "Every great story starts with a [great] character." He was right. Intriguing real-life characters and their triumphs and tribulations sold our show to advertisers and the American public. You can use great characters to make one of the most despicable issues in American history easier to investigate while creating insatiable appetites for social studies.
2. No footage of past events? Use a photo. Use primary sources.
Scroll down for my favorite resources.
3. Use effects wisely and sparingly.
In an interview with Poynter's Regina McCombs, Ken Burns stated, “We live in an MTV generation, and a YouTube generation in which everything has to move, everything has to be frenetic as a video game. We struggle to think that we’re adding meaning by doing these movements, but of course all we’re doing is moving for the sake of movement, which is no meaning whatsoever. . . . At times you want to move in a slow and deliberate way that reveals something new — that’s telling a story, right? You tilt up [on] somebody and there’s a surprising aspect to their face, or you tilt down from a face and find out that there’s a gun stuck in a waistband — [this is] storytelling."
4. Once your students have completed their research, make sure they create storyboards or draft corresponding text for each photo or document. Storyboarding ensures your students have a clear beginning, middle and end. The selection and order of images will also dictate audience emotion.
5. Don't forget to cite the sources of your copyright-free online images or audio. See the National Archives' General Information Leaflet, Number 17, for assistance.
Get the "Ken Burns Effect" using Microsoft Photo Story. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History has a free pdf for using Photo Story in the classroom. Microsoft Photo Story is free and is already loaded on most PCs. Each motion in the program is customizable and the text is unlimited.
Animoto is great for exciting 30-second videos and can be used on a PC or a Mac. Sign up for an educator's pass and you'll get to create full-length Animoto videos free for six months! Your educator's pass is good for 50 students or co-workers.
- American ingenuity, determination, and courage in the face of injustice
- The birth of racial ideologies and the systematic use of ideology to ensure free labor for a nation
- African Homelands and the Middle Passage
- Slavery, genocide, and its use throughout history