Deconstructing a Video Essay

Most students don’t like writing essays. But whether they realize it or not, many students actually enjoy watching essays on YouTube. For this project, students will take a look at three video essays and deconstruct them. In other words, they’ll find the structure within the videos to discover how it matches (or at least resembles) written essays.

If you’re not familiar with them, video essays are usually between 3 and 30 minutes long (although the best ones are under 10 minutes) and consist mostly of a narrating voice over a series of clips (or possibly still-images) relevant to the topic. The speaker may not show their face at all, but if they do, it’s only for a short period of time. The featured clips are usually muted or at a lower volume to serve as visual input while letting the voice-over serve as the primary audio input, through sometimes the narration will stop for a moment while the clip’s audio is brought to full volume, which serves the same purpose as a quote in written essays. Here are some of the channels I personally enjoy: Vox, The Nerdwriter, and It’s Okay to Be Smart, just to give you an idea (these ones are more intellectual, but that’s not necessarily a requirement for video essays). Also check out Cheddar, or Middle 8 for music topics.


The Selection

This project will take a bit of work from the teacher up front to verify the quality of the videos essays (and that they are actually essays)

Before you tell your students about this project, ask them what YouTube channels they watch, or what some of their favorite videos are. Some of the answers might be centered more around entertainment, so ask them about videos in which someone talks about their opinions, or someone explains something. After you’ve made notes of their preferences, (and when you’re not in class anymore) take a moment to watch some of them to see if they follow an essay format.

If you don’t believe your students currently watch video essays, you can simply ask them what topics they enjoy listening to other people talk about. This could be sports, movies, fashion, politics, technology, or virtually anything! Once you know everyone’s topics, try searching for that topic + “video essay” (e.g. “pop music video essay”) on YouTube, then make note of a few videos that you think are well-executed. When you actually begin the project, you can then give your students a list of those videos, divided up by topic.


The Breakdown

Students should watch 3 videos and write or type an outline for each.

The students should break the video into parts, so they’ll need to keep an eye out for transitions. From what start-time to what end-time is the introduction, or the hook? What is the thesis? How many arguments or pieces of evidence does the narrator use to support their claim? And what is the takeaway for each one? How much time is spent on each support? What do transitions between supporting elements look like? How does the narrator wrap it up? With a summary, a conclusion, a fun fact?

As the teacher, you may want to review essay structure before students begin (but if you’re confident in your students’ critical thinking abilities, then maybe just wait to see what they come up with). And you should probably model a video essay deconstruction for them so they know what to expect.


The Assessment

Once they’ve finished, students should see how those outlines compare to the typical essay format. They should also see what they three videos they watched had in common.

And finally, did your students enjoy the videos they watched? If so, perhaps they should re-think essays; maybe they’re not as boring as they once believed!

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