How the pandemic + video essays helped my students find their voice
Every year I teach juniors and seniors how to write college admissions essays. Mostly, I work as a sounding board, brainstorming with them ways to augment their unique and individual voices in the college process. This year I spent more time and energy on how to write the infamous “Why ‘X’ University?” essay topic than ever before. Students were uncomfortable writing about themselves (as many of us are) and required some extra practice with reflective writing to develop their voice. I bought the classic black and white composition notebooks, and each week students responded to a different prompt such as "Why do you want to go to college?", "What is the most significant challenge our society faces right now?", "What is your favorite extracurricular activity and why?", "What types of situations or conversations give you energy?", always with the goal of leading them back to the “why?” essay. They would write 1-2 paragraphs during 10-15 minutes of class time and then share their writing with the rest of the group. I didn’t want them to overthink or over-edit their writing but we belabored the topic for months. I simply thought “practice makes perfect.” And then, in a flash, the global pandemic threw us fully into the realm of remote learning.
SATs canceled and AP exams moved online. College tours and visits? Postponed. Spring and summer plans? Canceled. With so many variables in the college process, I focused on an area where students have total control: their writing. With all of our classes now virtual, I decided to try some new tactics. When we were forced to cancel our college tour trip, I asked students to visit 3 colleges or universities of their choice virtually. I asked them to research in great detail the academic, financial, and personal aspects of each institution. I gave them a long list of questions to answer in order to guide them through this virtual visit. Afterward, they were asked to make a video essay about the institution they liked most, including 1) the reasons they chose it and 2) why they thought they were a good fit for the college. Essentially, I had asked the students to create a “Why ‘X’ university?” video essay. And it finally clicked!
Students struggled to put pen to paper, but their voices came through loud and clear in these videos. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I have observed this generation's comfort with creating YouTube videos, Instagram Live, Facebook Live, Snapchat, FaceTime, Marco Polo, and so many other platforms that it feels second nature to be “on screen.” Unlike myself, my students were not afraid to be on camera. In these videos, they spoke naturally and authentically, unburdened by the self-consciousness they had shown when facing a black sheet of paper. These rising seniors had, unanimously, concluded that making a video was easier than writing an essay for three reasons that had to do with tone, the editing process, and audience.
Think for a minute about the videos and memes shared on Reddit, TikTok, and YouTube. I realize, for my students, much of their experience with home-made video content is often playful. Through video essays, they felt they could speak informally about themselves. Contrast this with the kind of writing they’re most familiar with: school essays which is much more formal. Using videos allowed them to take a more playful, authentic tone rather than the perceived pressure of a formal writing exercise.
Once the record button was pressed, students would keep going even if it wasn’t perfect. They would improve their way through, often with great results! They knew they could always go back and edit it later but, while recording, they let the creativity and momentum continue flowing. So often we are blocked in our writing because the editor’s voice turns on too soon. By using video, they were not self-editing as they created. Editing became a sequential not concurrent step. These students discovered a way to honor their creative voices by creating space between the writing and the editing process.
The video essay had been paired with a research assignment. Students reported that by extensively researching universities beforehand, they felt better prepared to make their videos. When writing essays, the “comments” are focused on them, and the feedback they receive from a teacher or peer is intended to help them improve their writing. Whereas in this exercise, videos were not meant to be critiqued. They were intended to make a connection between the student and the intended audience (admission officers) for a mutually beneficial purpose of demonstrating “fit.” It seemed easier to make this connection through video perhaps because once they hit that “play” button, they instinctively know to put themselves in the shoes of the viewer.
I had tried to convey for months these same tips for writing supplemental essays but to no avail. But when we changed the medium and put students in front of a camera, it just clicked. The videos were all different, which reflected their unique interests and personalities. These students had found their voice, a challenge even for experienced writers.
We all have something to learn from each other. As we explore new techniques of teaching and learning in the digital space, our motto of “everyone’s a student, everyone’s a teacher” has really come to life for me. I will certainly share with future students the lesson I learned from this Coronavirus cohort: the next time you are stuck writing, try putting down the paper or closing the laptop and, instead, reach for your smartphone and start recording.
Janan Sabeh is the Director of College Counseling and Internships at KLS. She has supported hundreds of students through the college process and is passionate about helping young people navigate their path through high school and beyond. Janan came to Khan Lab School from the Middle East where she was formerly the college counselor at King's Academy, a liberal arts boarding school. She is currently leading KLS's work on developing a mastery-based transcript in partnership with the Master Transcript Consortium (MTC). She is excited to introduce Khan Lab School and it's first graduating class to colleges and universities all over the world.