Making Curriculum Pop

Thoughts on Jen Powers' Teach, Think, Play 2009 Conference Presentation

I had been looking forward to Jen Powers' presentation from the time I saw it listed in our conference schedule. Unlike the majority of the TTP's attendees, I am not, nor do I plan on becoming, a classroom teacher (though I have lots of respect for those who do—you're brave souls!). As a former film major and a student in the Communications, Computers and Technology in Education (CCTE) department at Teachers College, my interests lie more in teaching media production and media literacy to students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. These types of classes are typically taught through after school programs rather than in everyday school curricula—especially at the kind of public, inner-city schools I'm interested in collaborating with, since they tend to feel greater pressure to follow strict NCLB standards and assessments. So I was excited about what seemed to be one of the few presentations that addressed the media making side of things, instead of just interpretation.

Powers' presentation began by looking at the advantages of using not only film as a classroom text, but also multi-modal texts, or texts that as she says, “combine modes of expression—visual, auditory, print.” As many presenters pointed out, children these days are masters of media multi-tasking (IM-ing while downloading music, talking on the phone, writing a paper, etc.). So I strongly agree with Powers' assertion that educators should be paying careful attention to “important meaning-making activities in which...students are engaged on a daily basis, and for which they employ multiple ways of knowing.” Like Powers, I believe that incorporating media-based texts into lesson plans and assessments can have many positive influences on the learning. Namely, the use of multi-modalities can teach children a lot of the technology skills they will need to be successful upon entering the workforce, while also engaging even the most disconnected kids in classroom life. During my course of study, I have read many success stories from teachers who saw unresponsive, sometimes truant kids suddenly excited to be at school. Fellow TTP presenter, William Kist's book New Literacies in Action gives several examples of this same phenomenon. I am thinking especially of the San Fernando Educational Technology Team program at San Fernando High School that Krist describes, where disadvantaged students become so engaged in school after working on media projects that they return to help other students after they graduate. They even go on to run a film production and editing service based in San Fernando called SFETT Pro. Here's another success story out of Union City, NJ:

The focus of Powers' talk was the presentation of a “video narratives” unit she had designed as an alternative way to teach kids about language arts. She had students edit together previously filmed footage to form a short story. The purpose was to have kids “expand their knowledge [of print text] into a medium with which they are most familiar as a a 'consumer' of visual text.” The students were made to work in groups in order for them to learn better team-work skills as well. From what I saw, the activity achieved these goals Powers set for it. I appreciated the teaching potential of the narratives even though it only took on the post-production side of filmmaking. Using “found footage” to create a narrative seems to really breaks down the different aspects of storytelling since students need to pick out scenes representing an opening, a climax of some sort, and a conclusion. How do you know what shot would make a good opening? What is it in a scene, print or visual, that indicates it should be read as the climax? It would be really fascinating to see kids working on these questions, with each group creating totally unique pieces from the same raw footage.

My one concern about this activity was the question of digital access. In order to incorporate this unit into their own curricula, teachers would need to be at a school where they have access not only to the needed technology, but also to training on that technology. After all, teachers can't show their students how to use software they themselves can't operate. Powers did address this question very briefly at the end of her lecture, saying that she herself only had access to one camera (hence the use of found footage, instead of having every group create their own films). Sadly, at many “failing” schools administrators are likely to balk at the idea of spending desperately needed money on what they see as “frivolous” classroom projects that don't appear to teach to the all-important NCLB exams, which is why arts and music programs are being cut and media production courses are mainly relegated to after-school programs and wealthy schools. My hope is that one day politicians will begin to listen to innovative educators like Powers and see that arts and music are crucial to getting our at-risk students to stay in school and to get them to believe in the power of their creativity. But don't take Powers' and my word for it. Here's what a famous person thinks:

Also, I had the great pleasure of working for the San Francisco Film Society's Youth Education Program for 2 years. During the SF International Film Festival each year, we put together a program of works created by youth. The following video, created by a teenage girl, was part of that program in 2004. it incorporates poetry, storytelling, race relations and media criticism all in one!! It also won the Youth Works prize the year it screened and was part of the Media That Matters Film Festival. I think its an amazing example of what young people can do with media these days:

Here are links to some other really super media education organizations I have had encountered or worked with:
Jacob Burns Film Center Media Arts Lab
Just Think
Global Kids
Educational Video Center (EVC)
Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC)
WNYC's Radio Rookies
Youth Radio
KQED Digital Media Center

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Comment by Sean Owens on May 4, 2009 at 11:17am
Hi Kate! I too found Powers presentation to be very helpful. I found it so help I based my final project off of it. The clips that you included in your post were extremely helpful to see how technology has changed peoples lives. The one I enjoyed the most was the clip about the union city schools.
Comment by Virginia Pourakis on May 4, 2009 at 12:08am
Hi Kate! When I watched the "Slip of the Tongue" video, I knew I had seen some of those images before but with different audio! I cannot seem to retrace my steps and relocate the video clip (I am sure it will keep bothering me), but interestingly enough, I remember the video connecting to girls and their self-image, how they are pressured into achieving an impossible ideal. If the "new" clip was also created by youth, it is actually a good testament to the way these films can spark further artistic response from our students...hopefully without violating any copyright laws!
Comment by Megan Lucas on May 3, 2009 at 2:04pm
Hi Kate,
It is a sad fact that so many schools lack the funding for the tools needed to work with film. I recently saw the film "Poliwood" at the Tribecca Film Festival. In this film, director Barry Levinson sheds light on to the connections between Hollywood and politics today. Throughout this film, he notices that although funding for the arts is a very important cause, it is often negelected because of its lack of representation in the media. Stories of scandal, celebrity gossip and horrific crimes are constantly covered by the news to increase ratings. But once stories about support for the arts come on the screen, ratings go down as news chanels face challenges in sensationalizing these stories. It sounds very true and sad as well. Hopefully those of us who are truly concerned with this issue will continue to support the cause regardless of sensationalization and ratings.
Comment by Jennifer on May 1, 2009 at 2:04pm
Hi Kate,

Great Post! You bring up a very important issue concerning access, one that I'm also really concerned about. I thought I'd share my own experiences working in some underserved schools here in the South Bronx and Harlem as a reading&writing tutor/curriculum developer. One principal I met told me that they do get budgets for things like tech, but it's completely up to administrators how they'll use the money--And this principal believed in technology.

I was pleasantly surprised to walk into the school's computer lab last semester to find a fully equipped mac lab and digital cameras too! (locked away in a drawer where no one could touch them mind you!) And there were 4 smart boards--one on every floor. The good news: this principal wanted to give his students (many did not have computers at home) the same opportunities as students from wealthier schools. The bad news: there was ONE tech teacher responsible for not only teaching 5 computer lab periods per day, but also for repairing/upgrading ALL computers in the school--including classroom computers. None of the smartboards were working because she didn't have the time or training to get them up and running. In the school I'm at currently, they have 2 huge computer labs, but they're always locked so I have to bring my own laptop if I want to do some computer work with the kids I tutor.

Many teachers I've spoken to have said that if they need tech resources/equipment and they either don't have it, or it's not functioning, they band together and fight for it. Another big problem is professional development. The South Bronx school is a perfect example--they had all the equipment, but didn't invest in making sure everything was up and running and that teachers actually knew what to do with it. And of course, not every school puts tech at the top of their priority list.

I guess I'll just need to get ready to join the battle!

Comment by Caitlin Nagle on April 29, 2009 at 5:02pm
Ms. Rosenbloom,

Wonderful post. Love the Scorsese clip!


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