Making Movies Happen
After my first year at Williamston High School, I was labeled as one of the writing teachers within the English department. I was given some degree of freedom with how I wanted to explore and develop new ways of teaching writing. There were two significant struggles I constantly faced with what seemed to be little reward: motivation and voice. All too often, my students shot strange looks my way as I grew increasingly excited about assignments and they grew more and more disengaged with what was going on in class.
I had made use of technology with my students before, mostly in the form of blogging, which I had hoped would help to address the lack of motivation I was seeing. My students enjoyed the concept of working in digital space, because it gave them freedom to work from anywhere if they chose to, but aside from that, it seemed to be just another assignment to them. Then, in the spirit of trying new things, I had my students create digital videos exploring an issue in the news. The students took to this assignment like none other. The students worked hard and were incredibly creative with the videos they made. I wanted to find a way to better tap into this energy.
I began looking into the possibility of teaching a class that would focus on video creation. Though they create a different final product, the steps of video creation follow the steps of the writing process. Instead of having written text, there is a video text. In creating this video text, which involves both visual and audible components, students engage in both old and new literacies (Sylvester & Greenidge, 2009). Students involved in this class would take part in a type of project-based learning. Project-based learning is known for promoting student responsibility and accountability as well as promoting social interaction (Bell, 2010).
Instead of creating videos that would only be viewed by our class, I looked for an outlet that would offer a wider audience. Williamston High School had been doing video announcements for as long as I had been teaching there, a program run by the Student Government Association (SGA). After speaking with the SGA advisor, I was given the green light to put together a pitch for our administration that would take the daily announcements and turn them into a class.
Bell, S. 2010. Project-Based Learning for the 21st Century: Skills for the Future. Clearing House, 83(2), 39-43.
Sylvester, R., & Greenidge, W. 2009. Digital Storytelling: Extending the Potential for Struggling Writers. Reading Teacher, 63(4), 384-395. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.
Video for Voice
A student, Harris, talks about her experience as part of the Williamston Digital Broadcasting Project. Harris explores topics of audience awareness, feedback, creating voice, and the recursive nature of the production process.
Pitching the Product
Like so many projects I start with my students, this one began with my own desire to play with and explore digital video production. As a result, the Williamston Digital Broadcasting Project was launched.
Announcements at Williamston High School
Gathered and typed by vice principal
Gathered and typed by students
Read by SGA volunteer participants
Read by Mass Media class members
Shot and aired live
Prerecorded and edited
The “old way” was not the most efficient use of time. So I pitched an alternative to my administrators:
There is no need for the responsibility of daily announcements to fall on the already over-taxed administration and a few students who regularly volunteer their time before school. With proper hardware and software, we can create a much more professional announcement program and begin podcasting as a form of community outreach. This model will allow the meaningful incorporation of 21st century literacy practices while highlighting the qualities
and attributes of Williamston High School.
Yeah, I practiced before I went to that meeting.
In my personal opinion, there is nothing better than a Mac when it comes to working with video. But Apple products were hard to come by in our PC-dominated district. Once the principal was onboard with the idea of the project, he called in the district technology director to help work out some of the logistics. Being in a small county suddenly played to my advantage, and I was asked questions that I never expected to hear: “What do you need to do this? If you had your realistic dream setup, what would it be?”
“Four Macs, Blue Snowball microphones, and a hard drive camcorder.”
“Done.” As a bonus, they even tossed in two copies of Final Cut Studio, a delightfully complicated software toolset.
I also needed a converter to run the lines from the computer into standard AV lines so it could be plugged into our school’s networked television system for broadcast.
In addition to the technology, I wanted a set and some lighting. It is amazing how easily a set can be made by simply building a wooden frame and tacking on some cheap, white bed sheets. The lighting was a little more complicated and took some time to figure out.
The early lighting setup was comprised of a series of leaning floor
lamps. It was time-consuming and challenging to get the lighting to
behave in the way we wanted, especially since it was decided that using
rear projection onto our background would be a fun element. As a result,
many of the early videos were very dark.
Eventually, we used four simple clamp lights found at the hardware store
and covered them with kitchen wax paper and mounted up to a simple
To make our daily setup even easier, we creating a lighting rig by mounting some of the extra wood from our background build to the backside of the overhead projector cart we were using as a computer stand.
In hindsight, we could have done this project on a much tighter budget by using existing computers in the school and free Microsoft MovieMaker. We also could have used a simple $20 webcam/mic combo, but some production value would have been sacrificed. And why go small scale when you have the opportunity to go big?
The Materials (Piece by Piece)
Background= wooden frame covered with the cheapest white sheets you can find.
Overhead Projector Cart= turned into a studio quickly and easily by simply setting an iMac on it and mounting a lighting rig to it.
Clamp Lights= with a simple cover of wax paper (the kind you use in the kitchen) harsh light is made soft.
Super Cool Coats= a quick trip to the local thrift store and we have uniforms for our anchors.
Blue Snowball Microphone= A fantastic USB mic. Viewers will tolerate poor video quality (to an extent), but not poor audio quality.
After recovering from my amazement that my school provided me with so many play-tools, I was faced with a real problem: no student interest. Call after call went out to the student body. Nothing. Then, after deliberating for a long time, our student body president agreed to be the first student in the class. I then recruited the librarian’s daughter who was scheduled to be a library assistant that period. These two students were the only students willing and able to be a part of the class the first semester. Then next semester there were four students signed up for the class.
Scheduling was a big issue. In order for the project to work the way it worked in my mind, the new mass media class would have to meet during the last period of the day. My schedule wasn’t set up to accommodate that and there wasn’t space or funding for an additional English elective. Fortunately, my administration graciously let me fiddle with the English department scheduling to put myself in an open slot during fourth period. Officially, this was my planning period, but it was also when I would “teach” the Mass Media course.
The only other real problem occurred when the school server decided that it no longer wanted to recognize the Macs in my room. It was a little bit of an ordeal to get them back up and online, simply because our technicians were not familiar with the Apple operating system. However, one technician was willing to learn the Apple operating system. Once he was able to identify the nature of the problem, it was quickly resolved.
A Day In The Life
Nearly every day in our Mass Media class was the same.
As soon as the students arrived, they went straight to work. One student would collect the new announcements submitted by teachers that day and begin typing the hard copy of the next day’s announcements that would be distributed to teachers and posted in the main office.
Another student would take charge of the set. This included moving the existing desks in my classroom and getting the lighting rig, background, and computer set up for recording. Once the announcements were printed off, they would be divided among the students present while a copy was sent to the office for copies to be run and distributed.
The Mass Media students would then shoot the announcements using the iSight camera embedded in the Mac or the handheld camera if they needed to be at a certain location in the school outside of our classroom/studio. While one student would edit the day’s content, others would tear the set down and return my classroom to its normal state and work on stories for the next podcast.
By the end of the class period, the next day’s announcements would be finalized and ready for the next morning’s viewing. On a day with only a few new announcements, the students could be finished within an hour. On other days, they needed the entire ninety-minute class period.
“Teaching” the Class
I have a hard time viewing my role in the Mass Media class as teaching. I more consider it to be a form of guiding. The class was driven more by product than anything else, as the students had to create five to fifteen minute videos every day.
I can only think of one traditional type of assignment I gave the students in the mass media class—to go home and watch the news, paying particular attention to the way the anchors speak. I encouraged the students to step out from their normal roles and create their “characters” for the announcements. Aside from that, I tried to keep out of the way. It was important to me for this to truly be a student production. The only times I intervened was when something was going horribly wrong with the content, delivery, or technical aspects of the announcements.
The students were a joy to work with and to watch grow. They went from timid and uncomfortable in front of the camera to fearless. They weren’t afraid to take risks and try new things with voice and editing.
What the Future Holds
Last year, we regularly discussed podcasting, but with such a small staff, regularly shooting and publishing a podcast in addition to the daily announcements became a bit harder than I had anticipated. We did get two podcasts done, though they were not very polished. Our goal is for podcasting to become a regular installment. We also hope to partner with the local cable company to broadcast our podcast on the public access channel.
A student, Ernest, recounts his experiences with the Williamston Digital Broadcasting Project and Mass Media class. Ernest describes how active involvement and visibility have impacted him as a student and how he sees school. In the process, Ernest realizes that through practical application, writing has become an important tool for him.