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Academic Spotlight: The Basics of Strong Video Lessons

A few weeks ago, we shared one core component of our vision for remote learning: the strategic importance of identifying when asynchronous or “on-demand” teaching is most effective—and what components of instruction work better in live, synchronous interactions between students and teachers.  As we create our own video lessons—and curate the best of those from within the resources aligned with our curriculum—we’re also learning a thing or two about what it takes to make pre-recorded lessons worthy of our students.

In English Language Arts, we’ve leaned in at the network level to create video lessons that span phonics and read alouds in the lower grades to vocabulary lessons, explicit knowledge building, and retrieval practice in the upper grades. In math, we’ve been lucky that our careful choices of curriculum, Eureka (ES) and Saxon Math (MS), offered strong pre-recorded math models for each and every lesson.

Four key elements we find in effective video lessons include:

  • They are “content first” and prioritize the most important content.

In this brief introduction to sixth graders’ study of Pam Muñoz Ryan’s novel Esperanza Rising—one of our favorites—veteran teacher Katlin Singh zeros in on just two ideas—historical context as an aid to understanding a story, and the literary device of personification—and two examples that are key for understanding the novel’s first pages: the Mexican Revolution and the personification of Mother Earth.

Although unhurried, Katlin’s lesson packs significant, useful information into a very short seven minutes. And while the material Katlin provides comes directly from the Reading Reconsidered curriculum, she makes strategic decisions as to what questions to ask and when to pause her narration. She’s also made a thoughtful choice to supplement the embedded non-fiction in the unit with analysis of visual resources—a depiction of Mother Earth and a period photograph from the Mexican Revolution. This strategic decision-making replicates the procedures that she, or any highly effective teacher, might use with their in-person students.

As adults who experience Zoom fatigue know all too well, attention during screen time is a precious and finite commodity. So getting right to content—and prioritizing key content—is more important than ever. As you can see in the first two minutes of  this ELA lesson—from St. Mark the Evangelist-Harlem’s third grade teacher—Kelly Quinn dives right in.

She focuses students’ recall of the previous day’s 20+ minute lesson on one nugget: the difference between vertebrates and invertebrates. And she points students to a workbook activity to help them remember different types of vertebrates. She’s not reviewing just for review’s sake; she’s setting students up for the focus of the lesson she’s beginning, in which students will learn to distinguish cold-blooded and warm-blooded vertebrates. In similarly focused fashion, she teaches a single vocabulary word next—constant—because constant body temperature is the most important distinction students will be asked to make.

Mark Twain is often given credit for a quip—”I apologize for such a long letter—I didn’t have time to write a short one”—that can apply to learning videos along with letters. To produce short video lessons like the ones sampled here, all between seven and 24 minutes, takes much more preparation than may be evident from the finished product itself.

  • They shine with the teachers’ touch.

Enjoy a minute of what it’s like to be a “fabulous first grader” learning from Becca Anderson:

Teach Like a Champion calls what Becca does here “dissolving the screen”—when the warmth and personality of a teacher shine through so meaningfully that it is easy to forget you’re watching a video, and not a live interaction.

That warmth isn’t just reserved for greetings; note how Becca thoughtfully enlarges the circle in which she appears so that students can see her mouth making the “oo” sound more clearly. Similarly, Katlin Singh demonstrates an age-appropriate consideration of sixth graders when she is transitioning to the read-aloud. She prompts students to get their materials, and she gives students two options for following along.  She says “I personally prefer to read on paper as opposed to a screen, so I would choose the student packet, but please choose whatever option works best for you.”

All three of these teachers: Becca, Kelly, and Katlin really exude joy in their teaching.  As a remote student, it may be difficult to feel that everyday sense of community that’s such a hallmark of our schools, but these teachers mitigate that through their tone and their warmth.

  • They have production values that reinforce learning.

No one in our network has a home video production facility to create studio-quality videos. But small things can make a big difference with relatively little effort.

Because it is so important to deliver lessons that are succinct, precise, and engaging, we’ve found it crucial to script video lessons and get feedback on them. So the most important production value all of these videos possess is their economical, deliberate language. These teachers move from thought to thought and from slide to slide in a way that embodies in video form a core belief our schools embrace: every minute matters, and it matters even more when it comes to screen-based learning.

The use of simple technology tools like Loom and PowerPoint, combined with this intentionality of content, is a key element of the production that enables warmth, because students are seeing as well as hearing teachers, just like in school.

Other simple considerations matter: the lighting and minimal background noise in the videos makes it possible for students to focus on the teacher. And the video navigation is age-appropriate; Becca pauses within the video to give first graders time to respond, but Kelly rightly assumes third graders are a little more adept with the computer controls, and she directs them periodically to pause the video while they write a response.

None of these considerations are gratuitous, and all reinforce the learning that is so precious in these videos.

  • Videos utilize impactful routines and systems. 

In the classroom, we may think of systems and routines for getting work done primarily as an aid to the order necessary whenever groups of young people gather with a task to do. But an individual student watching a video still benefits from predictable patterns of content delivery and student engagement. These videos share similar routines to others from the same teachers. As a result, students aren’t distracted by how the teachers are reaching out to them, and they stand a better chance of being able to focus on what these teachers want them to know.


Maximizing the affordances of remote learning involves more than just these four steps. Teach Like a Champion’s new book Teaching in the Online Classroom is a strong resource for more tips and suggestions, as Kathleen Porter-Magee shared with Education Next. But we’re finding that concentrating on these fundamentals first—driving videos with precise, high-quality, crucial content; including a warm teacher’s touch in each video; ensuring a baseline of production values; and utilizing impactful routines means that effective remote learning materials are also manageable for our team of educators to produce.

There’s no denying it: remote learning feels and is different, for students, teachers and parents. But if you close your eyes and just listen, you wouldn’t know that these three lessons are being delivered asynchronously.  Their warmth can make you feel like you’re in the room with that teacher.  And the laser-focused content maximizes the precious time students have to learn. So while these students may be remote, the quality of the work that goes into these mirrors and indeed often exceeds that which goes into in-person instruction.

Maggie Johnson is Vice President of Academics for Partnership Schools.

John Bacsik is Director of Professional Development for Partnership Schools.