A few days before the big event, VIP passes are distributed to the honorees, video monitors are set up in lobby kiosks, and the red carpet is rolled out and positioned just so. Finally, the magic hour is here. The VIPs arrive in their best evening finery and are escorted into the theater, amid the sights and sounds of popping flashbulbs and thunderous applause.
But this isn't the Oscars. It's the Parkway Digital Film Festival, where K–12 students of the Parkway School District gather together with parents, teachers and friends to see videos they've made in and out of class projected on the big screen, just like at the movies.
Bill Bass, festival coordinator and one of the Chesterfield, Mo., district's 10 technology integration specialists, says he and other department colleagues were hired three years ago to find ways to incorporate more video into the classroom. In early 2009, Bass approached his supervisor, Parkway's coordinator for instructional technology, with a simple, albeit offbeat suggestion: "I said, 'What if we had a film festival?'" he recalls. The reply? "'Go for it!'"
Bass says the goal was twofold: to encourage students and teachers to use video in their classrooms, and to give students the chance to show their work in front of a real audience. The 2009 festival proved hugely popular, attracting 150 entries; this year, the number climbed to 250.
The Classroom Connection
There are rules, of course. "Every film has to be tied to something in the classroom," Bass says. While many videos are class projects, some come from individual students who make them after school, on their own time, just for the festival. Videos can be up to two minutes long and must be submitted by a teacher.
The teacher-sponsorship requirement is a first line of defense to "make sure that everything's appropriate," Bass continues. "The teachers ensure that the videos have a curricular connection and meet festival criteria. Then we go and look for copyright violations [and other potential problems]. Sometimes we go back to the kids and tell them we like their videos, but that they have to change something. We try to make it a learning experience for them."
Each October, Bass and his fellow technology integration specialists visit each of Parkway's 29 schools to explain the festival concept and to help kids and teachers get started. Students are given until March 15 to shoot, edit and submit their work to teachers, who then approve and upload the videos to a YouTube-like site developed specifically for the festival.
Once the entry deadline has passed, festival organizers review each video and decide which ones will be shown on the big screen at the festival and which will be featured on the kiosks stationed outside the theater. (The festival is held each year in the theater of a nearby college or university.)
The number of films produced by K–12 and college students that received awards in the 2010 U.S. International Film & Video Festival
"The festival gives the kids an authentic audience," he continues. "They're not just creating something for their teacher or classmates to watch, which really changes the game."
What's more, making a movie about something they've learned in school deepens students' appreciation for the subject matter. "Every one of them has a different relationship with what [he or she is] studying as a result," Bass says. "It's something they're going to remember, not something they passed by in their educational journey."
All in the Family
Lidia Goodman, library media specialist for Cimarron Springs Elementary School in Surprise, Ariz., hopes that by 2013, all of the school's students will move on to middle school with a digital portfolio in tow. It would include daily morning announcements they've filmed and other special projects that use video.
She's working on this goal in phases. Last year, for example, students read into a camera at a Family Literacy Night event, and their parents could watch them on closed-circuit TV in another room or online. "You would have thought they were on national television," Goodman laughs. "People came up to [the students] and said, 'Oh, I saw you on TV last night,' and they got so excited."
Brock Dubbels retired this year from Seward Montessori School, a K–8 public magnet school in Minneapolis, after launching a daily news program that students write, produce and shoot live. He currently supports such programs through his work as a research associate with the University of Minnesota's Center for Cognitive Sciences.
"We'd come up with interesting ideas they'd present – daily news items, interviews they'd prepare, stories about teachers, events," Dubbels says. "They did this within four minutes, did the journalism from beginning to end, and did it all in one take, live." Then the shows were uploaded to the school's media center website, which parents were invited to visit.
"That helped bring transparency to what really goes on in the school," he explains. "Parents could view the formatted broadcasts and see highlights of what [the students are doing]. It really built a stronger sense of community."
Making Learning Fun
Karen Meaney, an editor/analyst for Simba Information's Education Group, says there are many benefits to having students use video in the classroom. "It fits in with this whole movement of individualizing learning," she says. "You get more student engagement. This isn't just the teacher talking in the front of the room; it's the class coming together to learn."
Lee Grafton, an educational technology specialist for the Palm Springs (Calif.) Unified School District, agrees. She says her district's DigiCom Student and Teacher Film Festival is organized as a competition where only the "Best of the Fest" are screened at the event.
But it's not just the older kids who shine. "We've had amazing videos from younger students," Grafton says. "Some of the videos from the first-graders knock your socks off. They're giving the high schoolers a run for their money now!"
The festival's teacher category, meanwhile, "is part of our professional development program," she explains. "Teachers need to feel comfortable creating a film project themselves before they'll feel capable of helping their students. They need to understand how it fits into their school day."
To facilitate teacher participation, "we've identified several amazing teachers who are providing training on how digital storytelling with a film can be used to impact learning," Grafton continues. "Essentially, teachers are teaching teachers. And we're able to reward those who take the risk to try something new!"
Grafton sees plenty of rewards for the students too. "The kids are learning media literacy skills," she says. "They're creating authentic projects that can be shared with the community, and they're applying 21st century skills, including critical thinking and analysis."
Parkway's Bass sees those same benefits taking shape in his district. "Every kid has [his or her] own interests," he says. "By tapping into that, you're creating a far more engaging environment for them."
And there's no denying the fun.
"We deliver [students'] VIP tags to them at school on these nice lanyards," he says. "The kids are ecstatic. They get to go down the red carpet, get their pictures taken, and be formally announced – and people are videotaping it all. We create an atmosphere where they feel like rock stars, and they really get into it."
Behind the Scenes
School IT managers have brought video production into the classroom by equipping teachers and students with an array of cameras, software packages, microphones and other equipment. Here's what they're using: