Saturday, April 5, 2014

Want to challenge your students? Ask them to make a film.

Film-Making: A wonderful mix of creativity, collaboration, and organization

This Thursday evening marks the 10th anniversary of the Student Film Festival at the Compass School, where I teach high school humanities. I vividly recall the moment I conceived of the film-making course.  I had been at the school for a couple years, and it was near the end of the year. The school was immersed in a week of independent student-chosen projects, and I watched a group of several 11th and 12th graders work on a short film based on one of the popular TV shows of the time, Survivor.  I was struck by how much fun they were having. They cast their science teacher as the leader, filming themselves as characters challenged to make it out of school alive. The final product was fun, and it got lots of laughs at the end-of-year presentation.

I wanted to harness that excitement, but I also wanted to challenge my students to make something non-derivative.  I also love movies.

The next spring, the science/technology teacher and I launched a six-week elective. Knowing nothing about film-making myself, I had easily convinced my tech-savy colleague that if he taught the technical end, I could teach the writing and film analysis part. I would help students generate ideas for screenplays and analyze films in order to inform their own. With his experience as a photographer and tech-guy, he would teach them how to shoot wisely and efficiently, how to frame good shots, and how to edit (we use Premiere Pro).  So, an interdisciplinary course for 11/12th graders was born at Compass.

Since then, I have watched the popular course challenge students like perhaps nothing else I teach. One of the challenges is that the whole course takes place in six or seven weeks, and they make two short films in that time. I provide a few lessons on what makes a good story (including the theory that there are only two stories in the whole world) and the screenplay format, and then we work on generating ideas for their scripts (see my earlier post, SnowGlobe for some of the prompts). We discuss scenes and short films in class, and they watch and write about films as homework.  

As they're in the midst of the screenplay writing process, they're simultaneously thrown into camera work, including the creation of a short silent film to try out the idea of telling a story visually.  Three weeks into the course, they pitch their original scripts, and then quickly began to cast and seek locations with their four-member production crews. Finally, one of the keys to the success of the course is the public exhibition of the films in a evening event. The public venue, even if it's just at our little school, raises the stakes.  I even invite a few local film-makers to act as judges. The students' pride and gratification at seeing their stories come to fruition on screen, with a rapt audience, is powerful. 

Like any course, different things challenge different students, but in their final reflections, most students point to the hardest thing of all--organization. To produce a film, they need to constantly think ahead, create (and revise) a schedule, communicate with outside community members (for acting and locations), and deal with forces beyond their control (weather, sick actors, etc).  If they don't have someone in their group who naturally keeps track of costumes, props, and details like mic batteries, they learn quickly the need to keep a list and a storage place. They also need to immerse themselves in the messy creative process with peers who they didn't necessarily choose to work with (though we choose groups carefully). I've watched this assignment of creating a film throw some of my brightest, most motivated students.  I've also watched many diverse groups pull together their different skills, and create some powerful, beautifully shot films. 

The beauty of the course is that students are at the center of the work, and they take complete ownership. In the end, I just stand behind them (or sometimes in front of the camera), push a little, and provide some guidance as needed; my role is the coach rather than the teacher.  They are the leaders/artists/teachers.  (see the Coalition of Essential Schools Principles: 

A senior in the course last year, who had been at Compass since 7th grade, spoke eloquently at the film festival Q and A session about how he saw the film-making course as the ideal culminating project for his secondary education, for it involved all the skills he'd been honing for years: communication, creativity, technology, problem solving, collaboration and organization.  (see his group's film below)

So, I encourage teachers to look around and watch what students are excited by. Then harness that energy. Create a course that will require them to take ownership of a challenging, interdisciplinary, creative task. Then step back and watch the learning happen.

Here's a good article about the importance of the arts in schools.  The author posits that companies need people who can problem solve, collaborate, and tell a story:

Finally, here is a 13 minute film created (in about 2.5 weeks) by a group of four 11/12th grade students in 2013    (warning: some car violence)