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: