Camera and gear management in the classroom…

This topic befuddled me when I first began teaching. I mean, the idea is to have gear for each kid – where did this sharing notion come from?

Well, I’m into my seventh year and I know the drill. Our most precious resource – our children – are in a perpetual state of getting the short end of the stick. I know my class is an elective and not the guts of what they need to know (although the organizational and critical thinking skills they learn are essential to life after high school). But as a newly departed English teacher, I know the essential classes are also feeling more than a pinch.

So – when the concept of shared gear was first presented to me, I faced the dilemna of what to do. Buy a few really good high end cameras so the kids could learn how to use good equipment and have professional results – OR get a bunch of low end cameras that still had the essentials and get gear into as many student hands as possible.

I believe in learning hands-on, so it was a hands-down decision. At my first school the principal had already purchased a beaut of a camera (Sony three chip 900) and he managed to pull together the money to get a series of Canon ZR camcorders.

At my current school after the requisite purchase of the impressive cameras (principals have a thing about impressing folks), I got ten Canon Elura 100s, which have manual controls and mike inputs/headset outputs. This was reduced to 8 with some sticky fingers and no lock on my office door within a year, but now with a security cage and an additional five cameras I picked up on the cheap and two purchased by our Digital Media Club, there are enough for the class.

So – we have cameras. The first year at McNair I got to tripods after getting some essentials to start up the program – and regretted the flimsy ones I got at the last minute. Not one survivor after the first two years.

Now I have five Velbons – four 607s and one older Videomate II.

Mikes – again, I went low-end. Ten dollar Sony stick mikes with mini-jacks to plug into the cameras. As I go along I plan to purchase lav mikes and better quality stick mikes/cables.

Five 20 inch reflectors for basic lighting lessons and later use in the field on stories.

Organizing the students is next. I’ve seen other schools without enough gear share a camera with ten or fifteen students. Lots of book work there and not enough hands-on. I’ve seen less of a stretch with five students to a camera. That means two students are watching most of the time. IF you can cobble together enough cameras (and don’t forget digital still cameras shoot pretty decent video, as do the Flip and Aiptek brands), the ideal seems to be two or three. I’m stuck with three, so that one student is the producer/reporter, one the editor/camera assistant, and one the cameraperson. They are supposed to rotate with assignments, so everyone has a chance to do each.

Regarding checking gear out – KISS. And I mean really simple. I have a composition notebook labeled “GEAR.” On each page is a day and date – when it’s time for students to head into the field, I open the cage and check out gear (or my TA does this) by writing down the name of the student assuming responsibility, the number assigned to the gear (E2 would be Elura 100 #2) or just USB for USB cable/FW for firewire cable, mike for microphone and trpd for tripod. When students return the gear, we just cross out their name and the gear.

At the beginning of the year on the front page of the notebook I make a list of all major gear and its condition, so this year I have Eluras 2-8 (numbers 1 and 9 went missing/presumed stolen) with notes about which ones need a bushing so they can work on tripods, which ones are having tape problems. No note means no problem.

About ten minutes before class ends, I call “TEN!” and ask for cameras to be returned. Five minutes before the bell I call for computer shutdown and for students to be seated. I do a camera count and make teams turn off and clean up around their workstations right before the bell rings – do this often enough and they will clean up automatically. They can’t leave if the station isn’t clean/computer turned off.

If a student’s camera is still downloading/capturing I’ll usually tell them I’ll take over and complete the download and put the gear away when it is done.

I’m always looking for ways to improve…and have heard of folks using index cards and more complex systems, but this seems to work for me right now. And if you’re just starting out, it’ simple enough for you too.

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