Friday, March 2, 2012

Class movies: The best unit I never taught

Well, tomorrow will be the big day. Our character education assembly on Compassion will be presented to the school. A month ago I could never have anticipated the results or the transformation that I would see in my students as a result of doing this project.
It all started with one short brainstorming class about how to present our trait ....
A small group of students said they wanted to do a movie. A few others joined them. Then a second group spoke up - they also wanted to do a movie. Another group asked if they could do a Prezi. Yes to all.
They also undertook to involve the whole school by having each class nominate a student and teacher to get a compassion award and receive a certificate. Finally two girls asked if they could get two additional girls in from another class to do a dance video using Kelly Clarkson's song “Stronger.” Yes, I said.
But, I was already worried. The makeup of the groups was not "ideal" in the eyes of a teacher. My first decision: Step in? Prompt? Politely rearrange? Well, for better or worse I decided to keep my hands off the reins. In the final analysis, the movie and Prezi team memberships successfully went beyond pre-existing peer groupings with no direction from me.
And then the work began. I have to admit I provided virtually no instruction. Periodically I wrote the production schedule on the blackboard for the students to look at while they ate lunch. On their own, they held planning, writing and production meetings for the videos, began shooting video, working in the lab and at my desk on the Prezi, and writing the event script. There was a constant stream of inquiries, students seeking feedback, information or providing an update. I also did a bit of troubleshooting on computer equipment solving compatibility issues.
The project also involves presenting the final works in a fully-equipped theatre with the students running all lights, sound and the computer themselves. Our rehearsals have been scary. Everything has run so smoothly that I am worried we will have jinxed something for tomorrow.
I was amazed at the results and at their personal accomplishments. Staff throughout the school began commenting randomly about better focus and behavior from several students. Here is a short list of observations.
1. Trust. They had to trust each other to write, act and accept direction from peers. One group openly acknowledged in their scripted remarks that they had to overcome problems, but then “kicked them” and went on to success. It went far beyond the type of leadership and teamwork that would be expected from students of this age.
2. Curriculum. These young people were adept at using media to conceptualize and tell a complex story. Their work with technology, writing and acting went far beyond the grade 8 curriculum. Our children are growing up with a keen sense of narrative structure and video/film techniques. What role should a grade 8 teacher play in taking them further with this skill set? 
3. Teacher, director, sage on the stage. Absent for the duration.  Hard as it may be to believe, I had no role. Twice I intervened about behavior. In one case, students had been rude to another teacher over use of space. The second time, due to some horsing around and wasted time, I asked the video groups to inform me of each location and participants before departing to shoot each scene. All work and interpersonal problems, some quite serious, were resolved by the students. The hardest part was not stepping in to “facilitate,” a role I have often assumed in the past.
4. The Prezi group created a 15 minute tour de force of inspirational quotes and videos. They read each slide aloud. They also wrote a lengthy script paying tribute to all those receiving compassion certificates, using the words of their classmates who had nominated them.
5. No school equipment was harmed in the making of these movies.  In our school we do not have the equipment to do a project or this. Students made all the videos using their personal equipment. One young man showed a side that we had not really seen before. On his own time and using his own laptop and software from his father, he edited one whole movie. This took at least two weeks. When I went to ask him if he could possibly do the second one, he said, "Yes, no problem, it will hardly take me any time now." In two weeks he had taught himself Sony Vegas and was using it easily. The sum total of equipment used was one iPod Touch, one small Sony camera, and an Acer laptop.
And, it must be said, the MacBook Pro belonging to the French teacher to get the video off the Sony camera in a useable format. It then went straight to the student’s Acer.
6. Students caught working. Outside the English class, teachers told me they looked the other way as my students continued working on story/script outlines instead of their assignments.
7. Dance dance dance. The dance group used a netbook and speakers to view the video and teach themselves all the steps for the entire song, and they practiced for two weeks. One day I saw them practice non-stop for an hour and a half straight. They used the foyer of the school so they could be supervised during this time. The movie groups used the whole school. The Prezi group used the lab, my desktop computer and the computers in the library. How wonderful that students had the chance to show that they are kinesthetic learners, with suitable content and a strong work ethic.
8. Link to past students. It was so interesting to see that this year's students wanted to watch and review two movies available on You Tube made by former students of our school who are now in Grade 9. These former students have done all the work on their own, not as school projects. We have a really talented and dedicated group of young people growing up in our towns and villages.
9. Next steps. A few challenges. I really want to look at the media curriculum through all the grades for ideas. I want to do a second project with these students this year.
If we are really lucky, I will be able to get some Mac equipment of some shape and size so more students can edit.

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