Skip the Essay: Have Students Make Prezicasts
let’s face it: Telling your eighth graders that they have an essay due next week provokes the same reaction as when my wife reminds me taxes are coming up.
Sure, general schoolwork dread is part of it, but I think
students feel that writing an essay is outmoded. Few jobs—
except for a couple of positions at Harper’s or The New
Yorker—exist for essayists anymore, so students are not
being entirely unreasonable when they ask why the standard five-paragraph essay is so important.
I respond to such questions in a predictable way: The
essay is a tool that allows writers to present their thoughts
in a clear and structured way. Even if students are right—
that the essay is not the exact product that they will be
asked to create in the “real world”—writing one remains
an invaluable process for organizing and communicating
an argument. The essay is not the end of learning but the
Yet, in answering these questions, I came up with another:
If the essay is a means to an end, is there a better way to teach
the same skills? After years of playing around with Prezi as
a way of organizing and presenting my own thoughts, and
of using screencasting to make quick explanatory videos, I
recently combined both tools to create “Prezicasts.” Think of
it as a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup for the digital age: two great
tools that work well together.
In my unit on U.S. governmental structure, I asked the
students to make three-minute Prezicasts explaining the
relationships between the three branches of the federal
government and evaluate the pros and cons of this system. My teaching partner and I saw significant levels of
engagement and learning compared to previous iterations
of the unit, which culminated with a standard five-paragraph essay.
Nuts and Bolts
Putting a Prezicast together is simple, once you are comfortable using both parts:
Prezi ( www.prezi.com). This presentation tool replaces the
standard sequential slide format of PowerPoint with a kind
of unbounded whiteboard. Users place text, images, videos,
or graphic objects on the Prezi workspace and then link
those elements by defining the order of elements the viewer
will see. It is a wonderfully creative tool that many use now
as their preferred presentation software. It has other po-
tential uses in the classroom too—for example, as a note-
taking tool, mind-map creator, or organizer.
Screencasting. Like a screenshot, but in video format, screencasting allows users to create a video file that records what
is being shown on the user’s computer along with voice narration. From a student’s perspective, it is as easy as hitting
Record and Stop. There are dozens of screencasting applications, but I recommend two. If you are a Mac user, screencasting is included in Quicktime X. If you are a PC user or
just want a web-based program, I recommend Screencast
-o-matic ( www.screencast-o-matic.com). It is free, has
many cool features, and is simple to sign up for and use.
Bringing the Two Together
Students simply make a Prezi and then create a screencast
while they click through their Prezi. For my social studies
class, I have students complete the assignment in four
1. First, I created and distributed a Prezi template with
sections for the Constitution, as well as the executive, judicial, and legislative branches. In class, we
did a thorough reading of the Constitution, using the
original source to understand each branch’s role and
powers. Next, we undertook targeted WebQuests to
address particular questions regarding the branches.
Throughout the unit, class discussion and direct
teacher instruction helped students fill in their Prezis.
In the beginning, most stuck with the structure provided by the template, though as the unit went on,
students added additional vocabulary and elaborated
2. Once students collected the notes on the Prezi, I gave
them a series of prompts that required them to organize their Prezis in a new way. Along the lines of a
mind map, I specifically asked them to make a visual
representation of the three branches that showed the
powers that each branch had over each of the others. In prior lessons, I spoke of the federal system as
having three sides, so it was not surprising that my