Oct 12 2006

Students Embrace the Art of Filmmaking and Broadcast Journalism

Video technology helps engage students in filmmaking and broadcasting.

Teachers are using their students' love of MTV, Nickelodeon and Hollywood to spark interest in school.

Educators have long shown videotapes as a vehicle for learning, from World War II documentaries in history class to Shakespeare’s plays in literature class. But now, rather than just showing films, schools are teaching students to make their own.

With video technology becoming less expensive and easier to use in recent years, video production is a growing trend in schools. Schools are incorporating video production as part of their curriculum, either as a standalone elective or as part of a semester project in one of the core subjects, such as English or social studies.

For example, York Community High School students in Elmhurst, Ill., recently produced a short film about a troubled teen who was thinking about running away from home. And at Bethel High School in Spanaway, Wash., students are producing a monthly news magazine that is broadcast to every classroom via closed-circuit television.

The trend is also gaining momentum internationally. This semester, junior high students at Ralph McCall School in Airdrie, Alberta, Canada, are filming scenes from books they’re reading in English class and producing skits that show the concepts they’ve learned in math.

Videomaking not only exposes students to potential careers in broadcasting and filmmaking, it also can force them to demonstrate that they understand the materials they’re currently learning, among other educational benefits.

“It provides a creative outlet for kids,” says Dave Venetucci, a broadcast communications teacher at York. “They learn to work cooperatively in groups and learn time management skills, producing quality work on deadline. It’s important critical thinking.”

For schools looking to get started with video curricula, teachers will need camcorders, computers, video-editing software, microphones and tripods. Although spending $300 or more for camcorders and anywhere from $85 to $1,000 for video-editing software may appear steep, the equipment today is far cheaper and simpler to use than it was 10 to 20 years ago, notes Kristy Holch, an analyst with InfoTrends Research Group in Norwell, Mass.

Gaining Popularity

In the 1980s, there was no video-editing software. Everything was done on hardware, and it was a slow, arduous process. If you edited an hour-long tape and wanted to make a small change 10 minutes into the video, you’d have to reedit the remaining 50 minutes of the tape. In the early 1990s, video-editing software arrived, allowing people to make quick edits at any point in the video, but the cost was in the tens of thousands.

Now, with advances in hardware and software, creating high-quality videos is more affordable, easier and less time-consuming than ever before, making production accessible not only to teachers but also to students. While some teachers have degrees in broadcasting, many others are self-taught.

“Video production used to be something for professionals only,” Holch says. “Now it’s accessible to everybody. In just the last two years, the software is a lot cheaper and more user-friendly.”

School administrators and teachers also benefit. Some principals, for example, prepare video announcements and air them through their schools’ closed-circuit television. Student teachers record their lectures, so they can critique their own performance, says R. Steve Parr of Bethel High School.

Social studies teachers also have recorded students’ oral presentations and displays of history projects, so future students can get ideas of what’s been done before, Parr says. Similarly, first-aid teachers have recorded their in-class demonstrations on treating injuries, so students who missed class can review them later.

Educators from affluent and low-income communities alike say recent budget restrictions in school districts have made buying technology for teaching video production more difficult. They say they’ve always operated on shoestring budgets, getting parts of their video production budgets from school districts, grants and donations. To pay for equipment, some teachers even charge students a small fee to take the class.

York’s Venetucci, whose broadcast communications class is an alternative for students who don’t want to take speech, says he has cobbled together technology over the years from school funding and grants.

His school recently moved to a new campus with a TV studio for video broadcasting classes, and it also boasts closed-circuit televisions in each classroom. Students this spring will start shooting daily newscasts of the school’s announcements. Venetucci is working to secure a public access channel on cable, so his students’ work can be broadcast 24 hours a day. But to do so and to take full advantage of the school’s new TV studio, he needs more equipment.

Venetucci currently has a mish-mash of video equipment compiled over the years: VHS and digital video camcorders, Apple iMacs and G4 computers, and iMovie, Final Cut Pro and Final Cut Express software for video editing. He even uses an old Mac computer as a makeshift teleprompter.

State-of-the-art technology or not, his students have produced some good work. Along with the short film about a teenager contemplating running away, some students last year produced a baseball documentary on the rivalry between the Cubs and White Sox. Both projects were packaged together into a 30-minute show that was broadcast on a public access channel last summer, Venetucci says.

Students try every role, from directing and operating the camera to serving as news anchor and editing, and they eventually settle on duties they feel most comfortable with, says Venetucci, who studied broadcasting in college.

Danielle Suits, a senior at York, says Venetucci’s broadcast journalism class is one of her all-time favorite classes.

“It’s not like science where you take notes and that’s it,” she says. “This is very much hands-on. ‘This is how you do it, go do it,’ and that makes it fun.”

Challenging Students

Bethel High School’s Parr says his students are eager to use the technology. Most kids produce work that’s fun, from music videos to parodies of the Jerry Springer show. Others tackle more serious subjects, such as a video tribute to students killed in a car accident. One enterprising student made skateboarding and rollerblading videos as a promotional tool to get corporate sponsors.

“What I discovered in teaching art for 20 years is that students complain that, ‘I can’t draw. I can’t paint. I can’t make art because I’m not talented,’” says Parr, a self-taught videographer who produces wedding, corporate and sports-highlight videos in his spare time. “You put a video camera in their hands and it’s a tool they can use. They can communicate and tell their stories. It’s not drawing or painting, but you can do it artistically or in a journalistic manner.”

Parr’s students—who use digital video cameras, Apple computers and Final Cut Pro—produce daily newscasts, with two news anchors reading school announcements. They also produce a 20-minute news magazine that’s shown throughout the school every month.

Other video stories range from features on upcoming dances to hard-hitting journalism. For instance, students produced a news story about the school cafeteria’s new cash register scanners that didn’t work the first few weeks of school, resulting in long lines and frustrated students. The students do the work, and Parr serves as the guide and troubleshooter.

“Kids don’t see things the way [adults] do, so it’s important to hear their viewpoints,” Parr says. “They like seeing themselves and having their friends see them. I see the pride on their faces when the shows run.”

In the 1990s, when he taught junior high, Parr held bake sales and sold calendars to raise funds for his video classes. Now a vocationally certified high school teacher, Parr receives Perkins grants that range from $4,000 to as high as $12,000 a year. He recently purchased a DVD burner so students can create video yearbooks.

At Ralph McCall School in Alberta, teacher Gary Bell is beginning to use video as part of class projects. This spring, he plans to have his students act out scenes in books they’re reading and produce videos on doing math, such as algebraic equations.

“By producing a little math video, they will learn the math concept,” he says. “And by re-enacting scenes from a novel, they will demonstrate their true understanding of the novel, and show whether they understand the characters’ plights, growth and the climax.”

One advantage of using video in the classroom is its ability to grab students’ attention and keep them interested, Bell says.

“The tech factor is such a huge motivation for them,” he says. “You’ve engaged them because they get to play with toys. That’s half the battle, engaging them.”

Getting Started in Video Production

Although classes on video production are widely available, many teachers tutor themselves, especially if there are financial and time constraints.

“A lot of information can be gleaned from the Web and from software tutorials,” says Gary Bell, a teacher at Ralph McCall School in Airdrie, Alberta, Canada.

Before using video in classrooms, teachers should know the basics of video production, such as equipment use and editing, so they can help students with routine tasks such as adding music to videos.

“Do research and go through a period of learning. Have an open mind and don’t hold high expectations the first time you do it, because it’s a learning process,” Bell says. “Find colleagues who have done something similar and talk to them about what they’ve done and how they’ve solved problems. Those people could be mentors.”

If teachers prefer taking formal courses in video production, many community colleges offer low-cost classes. Additionally, regional education organizations, such as the non-profit Computer-Using Educators Inc. in California, often sponsor video workshops.

Be patient as you seek money for technology, Bell says. Sell the school administration or district on the idea. Seek grants and donations. Consider charging students to take the class.

What do you do when you can’t trust kids with a pencil sharpener, much less a $700 video camera? Teach them responsibility.

“Say, ‘Look guys, we can do a cool thing. But the first time someone screws up, we’re not going to do it anymore,’” Bell says. “Most kids won’t want to disappoint.”