Award-Winning Teacher Mark Bridges Engages Students with Video

Critics say television can mesmerize the viewer into a passive torpor. But this Cambridge teacher’s educational technique is a far cry from deferring to an electronic babysitter.

By Peter Alexander

It’s not uncommon for people to fret about the amount of television children watch, but Mark Bridges is an unabashed booster of using television in the classroom.

Bridges is vice-principal at William G. Davis Public School in Cambridge. Until recently, he was vice-principal at Westmount Public School in Kitchener, where he also taught. His creative use of non-commercial cable programming in his lesson plans recently won second prize in the Arts & Enter-tainment channel’s national Canadian Teacher Grant Program. He has won awards from the program three times, including the grand prize in 1998. “I’m a firm believer in video usage... using short one or two-minute clips that bring more life to your lessons,” Bridges says. He carefully integrates these video clips with individual and group activities for students in ways he determines are relevant to the curriculum. The result is that the activities and video stimulus can work together in support of specific learning expectations.

Even if an expectation in the curriculum does not appear to relate directly to the use of video, Bridges maintains the creative teacher can still use video to great effect. For example, he mentions the expectation in Grades 3 to 5 that students will be able to “identify and restate the main idea in a piece of writing, and cite supporting details.” A teacher might use a newspaper article or textbook excerpt to assess student learning. But Bridges also likes to show a video clip to generate three key ingredients for learning, what he calls “Impact, Inspiration, and Interest.” He combines these with a variety of non-video activities that together support the learning expectation.

T H I N K I N G      A B O U T      T H I N K I N G

For example, in a lesson he developed on the theme of Thinking About Thinking, Bridges used a biographical video clip of Albert Einstein. “Instead of just talking about Albert Einstein and some of the things that fall under the topic of reasoning or critical thinking, why wouldn’t I show them? That clip really set the stage.” As a result, “Students are so ready for an activity; they seem recharged. They seem awake and ready to go.” This can increase students’ interest in a subsequent writing or reading activity that Mark may use to assess progress on a learning expectation.

The challenge for a teacher is to find stimulating and appropriate video clips. The source might be a program taped from a cable television broadcast, or a school can gradually build up its own video library through taping or purchasing. He uses various cable channels’ broadcast schedules and printed synopses of programming to plan what to tape up to six months in advance. After taping, Bridges previews the program to find a clip he thinks will have an immediate impact on his students, inspire them over the long term and interest them by being topical or relevant to their world.

“You’ve got to take some time to make sure that it’s a clip that really gets to the heart of the curriculum and the expectation, that really furthers the expectation, or else it’s just an empty clip – why use it?” Bridges might typically take 15 minutes to skim through a 60-minute video and home in on the clip he wants. “You can develop your skill at being able to go through a video and start seeing how it can fit into an activity,” he says. Teachers who share ideas and feedback with each other on what video material they have found most useful will also find they can save time by collaborating.

K E E P      I T      S H O R T

He has some advice for teachers experimenting with video. First, keep the clips short so student interest doesn’t flag. “If you go past about five minutes you’re going to start getting diminishing returns. You don’t want the clip to have the opposite effect, and take away motivation.” Shorter clips also leave more time for instruction and allow the teacher to get into the next phase of the lesson. Second, “Make sure what you’re showing them is relevant to their learning, and make sure that what you do in follow-up to your use of video is relevant.”

Although finding the best clip can be a challenge, Mark enjoys the creativity this lets him add to his lessons. “There’s a lot of freedom in what you can choose to do, and that’s the beauty of it. One thing that is so apparent to me is no matter what theme I’m doing from the curriculum, what expectation I want to get across, there are clips that you can use for just about anything.”

He recommends teachers start off slowly. “Commit to using one video clip a day.” Build in variety, and don’t assume video won’t work with some subjects. For example, when a colleague suggested that mathematics didn’t lend itself to teaching with video, Bridges set about to disprove this. He decided to use a virtual tour of the New York Stock Exchange, with included a discussion of percentages, shares, statistics and so on in a multiplication context.

M A R K E T      M A Y H E M

“I showed them clips of all the mayhem of what happens in the stock exchange.” Bridges would pause the tape and talk about the various things the numbers meant. “I had them more interested in that lesson than I would have without video. I know that. I’m positive.”

During two hours of instructional time, Bridges may use two or three video clips and perhaps an audio clip, sprinkled among related group and individual activities. He makes sure to limit his own talking – no more than seven or eight minutes before moving to a new activity.

“Don’t underestimate the impact a clip may have, including negative impact.” For example, in a lesson with students in Grades 3 to 5, Bridges wanted to talk about violence in the world. “I chose a clip that showed a police officer investigating a violent situation. It didn’t overemphasize the violence, it alluded to it. It was legitimate for Grades 3 to 5 to hear about violence, but not directly to see in a video clip something inappropriate.” It’s evident watching Bridges in the classroom that video is just one facet of the talents of a skilled educator. He is warm and engaging, adept at eliciting student participation. His lessons are filled with support and encouragement for his students, emphasizing everyone’s ability to make a contribution and make the world a better place. The video clip isn’t the centrepiece of his lessons. Rather, it’s a catalyst for a series of activities and questions for his students that keep student learning thematically or conceptually linked, but require the application of different techniques and perspectives.

For more information, Mark Bridges suggests teachers contact Cable in the Classroom at 1-800-244-9049, or visit their web site at This non-profit organization can put teachers in contact with colleagues in their area who can offer advice on how to use video.

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