Small Screen, 12(1), 23-25, 1999.

When the Teacher's Away--A Video Option

Johanna E. Katchen


Those of us who have experience using video often tell novices that video is so much more than just a babysitter, a way to take a rest or give students a reward.  Indeed, we often end up working much harder to produce a good lesson that incorporates video.

If a teachers works in a school that allows/encourages conference attendance, for example, and that is flexible about how the teacher runs and makes up classes, then video make-up is an option as long as the teacher can plan ahead and make the video part of the lessons.  The teacher can videotape her lecture in advance or prepare video materials to be used with information/directions/exercises on paper.  Students may all watch together during class time (this requires an assistant to run the equipment and supervise the class) or students can complete the assignment on their own in a self-access centre.  The choice of how to do this usually depends on the logistics of the situation.

In December 1997 I was to attend a three-day conference in Hong Kong.  My second year Oral Practice class (a two-semester required course for students majoring in English) met on Thursday afternoons, and I would have cancelled it except that they would have holidays the following two weeks for Constitution Day (December 25) and New Year (January 1), after which we would only meet January 8 and then have a final exam on January 15.  My colleague teaching the other section, which met at the same time, had scheduled a quiz for his group, so it would be inconvenient for him to do a lesson with both sections together, as we sometimes do.  Moreover, because of the various schedules of the 23 students, it would be extremely difficult to reschedule the class for anther time.  Some teachers give outside assignments when they go away, and it was this option I decided to use, combined with video.

In my Oral Practice course, one of the themes running through it is (American) holidays.  In the first (fall) semester, we have activities for Halloween, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, and, depending on the calendar, (western) New Year.  I would miss the pre-Christmas class, but I could use a video with a holiday theme.  The ideal film seemed to be A Christmas Carol; students study English literature and read Dickens, and the story of Scrooge is part of English-speaking culture.  Moreover, I had a copy of the 1984 version directed by Clive Donner (20th Century Fox  Home Entertainment) with George C. Scott in the role of Scrooge, and I thought students would find this version more attractive than earlier black and white versions.  Scrooge has often been portrayed as a caricature of a miser, something unreal.  Scott portrays Scrooge as a real person, someone who started out rather normal but who, through a series of life experiences, became progressively bitter and selfish.  We feel sorry for him.

However, in using A Christmas Carol, there were still other points to consider.  While many of the students would be familiar with the story from TV, foreign films are shown in Taiwan with the original language and sound track and with Chinese subtitles added.  The version I would show had no Chinese subtitles.  To compound the problem, the English setting meant that actors would be approximating a somewhat old-fashioned British variety.  Students in Taiwan learn American English and many of them have a phobia about the comprehensibility of other varieties.  Therefore, I decided to minimise language problems by focusing more on other aspects of the film. 

The week before the film was shown, I spent a little time with the class discussing the main ideas surrounding the Christmas holiday and some background to A Christmas Carol.  Most students could tell me the basic plot of the story.  Then I gave students the assignment, told them why I would be away and how the class would be conducted (by my graduate assistant) the following week.  As students already knew the story and wouldn’t have to struggle with language in order to follow it, I asked them to look at other aspects of the film.   I wanted them to enjoy the film and the holiday ambience but at the same time have a reason for watching and to do a little critical thinking.  I reminded them that although it was primarily a speaking class, we sometimes worked on other language skills.


In class, watch A Christmas Carol.  (Note: there is a copy in the self-access lab if you would like to see it again.  There is also an older version of the film on the shelves.)  Then write a composition (at least one page single-spaced on the computer) on ONE of the following questions. 

1.  In the story, Scrooge has an experience (seeing the ghosts) that makes him change his attitude toward life.  Do you think it is possible for a person to change so rapidly?  Support your answer (whether yes or no) with reasons and examples.

2.  If you have read the story or seen another film version of the story, compare it with the version of the film you have watched here.  Be critical: what are good points or shortcomings of each version?

3.  Consider the language in the film.  Which speakers are easier for you to understand?  Which are harder?  Why?

4.  Think of the WAY the film was made.  Comment on things like camera shots and angles, how music was used, etc.  Give examples of certain scenes where the film-making techniques impressed you.  Would you have interpreted any of the scenes differently?  Why?

5.  Consider the representations of the three ghosts.  Do you think the way they are presented is effective?  If you were making the film, how would you make the ghosts look, speak, and behave?

Student Responses

All students completed the assignment and, by the tone of their writing or attached drawings and Christmas greetings, several seemed to enjoy it.  Most chose Option 1 (and included a few Chinese ghosts) to support the argument that people can change due to some “shocking” experience.  Only three students argued that “a leopard ever changes his spots” and such incredible things only happen in movies.  One student chose Option 2 and compared our 1984 version with a later version in which Scrooge is portrayed as a businesswoman.  The student preferred the latter because it was more modern and feminist, not scary, and used American English. 

Another student chose Option 4 and discussed some of the contrasting camera shots/portrayals in the film and also the music effects.   Three students took Option 5; all of them approved of the way the Ghost of Christmas Future was represented but they had suggestions for portraying the other ghosts.  Of the Ghost of Christmas Past, one student wrote the following:

“If I were making the film, I would make it as a child,—and yet not quite like a child, in some ways like an old man, an old man who has become no bigger than a child.  The hair, hanging down on its neck, is white as if it is with age, and yet the face is young.  It is dressed in pure white.  It is the Ghost of Christmas Past, and most of ‘things’ (people) in the past are old, at least they are not new, so in some ways, for example hair, like an old man.  On the other hand, it is Scrooge’s past, Scrooge’s childhood and adolescence; it means, it is young Scrooge, so the figure of the spirit may be like a child.  Furthermore, I will still present the kindness and tenderness of the spirit because Scrooge’s behaviours in the past are not as “scrooge” as those now.  In the origin, Mr. Scrooge is also a man with a kind heart and with love in his mind.  It seems that the mistakes he makes are forgivable.”

In 1998, I did not plan to attend a conference in December.  However, in mid-December I was summoned to attend an important meeting in Taipei City on December 24 at noon.  My Oral Training class began at 1 p.m., so once again I brought out A Christmas Carol.  Although I thought I prepared the students equally well the second time, the results were not as good.  Twenty-six of the twenty-seven students choose Option 1, and the supporting examples weren’t nearly as clever or well-written.  My colleague teaching the other half of the students in that “class” and I have often said that the 1997-98 class we had was especially talkative, energetic, and creative; and the results from this assignment may just show what all teachers know—that all groups are different. 

In addition to this assignment, I have asked students to watch, as part of their regular assignments, other videos on their own time, including videotapes of their own speaking performance.  Videotapes, like audiotapes, give us flexibility; teachers and students do not have to watch and listen at the same time in the same place.  As long as students are adequately prepared and the assignment fits in with the class, we can sometimes use the technology as a very professional “babysitter.”

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