The Look Book

Film making is, in principle, a creative group project.  And, while most students respond really positively to creative opportunities, we consistently notice that student production teams have difficulty developing and sharing a unified vision.  We have production teams work on screenplays, shot plans, AV scripts and storyboards to try to address this. Every year, we tweak the production process, trying to make it more shared, more externalized so that the vision for the end product is communicated.

We tried something new this year in our project ADAPTATION: The Look Book.  Our thinking was this: if students negotiated imagery with one another, they would have to clarify a shared vision before they started more complex pre-production work.  Creating The Look Book forced them to decide how they wanted their film to look and feel. Through the process of locating, identifying and picking pictures, they developed a shared frame of reference that they could return to.  Below are several examples of Look Books for the ADAPTATION project.

A Case for Levity

…in which I reflect on the value of laughter as a curricular goal.

Last week, our students presented their first semester projects, Tiny Historians, to a packed house in the school auditorium.  A fairly typical scene: It’s 7:00 pm on a school night.  A theatre full of students, teachers, parents and friends bustle about socializing.  The projector and speakers aren’t working and our Tech Maestro, Steve Temple, furiously tries to solve the problem. He will fix it–somehow, someway.  In the meantime, a few hundred people don’t notice the passing time because of their excitement, and the fact that they are fueled by a bake sale in the hallway.  Relax and have a cupcake.

By 7:15 Steve’s magically fixed it.  And for the next hour and a half, all I hear is laughter.  Laughter and pride.  Obviously, there is pride over hard work well-received.  But I am also witness to another kind of pride that I am increasingly concerned about: the pride, joy, and pleasure you feel when you make others laugh.

Belly Howls.  Chuckles. Giggles. Smiles.  Making others laugh is good for you.

In education, we often identify the locus of both student anxiety and apathy as the result of an increasingly complex and overwhelming world fraught with dire threats.  Climate Change. Environmental Collapse. Poverty. Racism. It is everywhere, and it’s real and it’s daunting. These are issues our students encounter in their lives, and issues we study in school for good reason.  Not to do so would be pollyannaish in the extreme.

In America right now, a good high school engages its students in increased levels of active participation.  We encourage our students to see themselves as solvers of problems, not studiers of them.  As we should.  But this may have the potential to backfire. Are we communicating to students that adulthood is a constant struggle against the dark forces of the universe? Sometimes it is.  But always?  Is their anxiety and apathy a response to the consistent demand we place on them to tackle the troubles of the world?

Many things that I think are educationally important and interesting are potential evidence of this.  We see problems, and we construct projects for our students to engage in as responses: Organic Gardens.  Service Learning.  Clean up days.  Civic Action Projects. Please don’t get me wrong, I believe it’s important to participate in all these things. However, human beings also need to cultivate and nurture craft, artistry and humor.  Are we encouraging and sponsoring that?

There is a growing movement to insert an A (Arts) into STEM–STEAM.   While I am relieved somewhat by this movement, I’m not certain it addresses a more emotionally-based observation that we are increasingly burdening our students with a very heavy load of global problems that need solving.  Arts education within STEM is Art in the service of  Science Technology Engineering and Math; not Art in the service of joy or human expression.

And while the global and local problems of the world are weighty, the actual stresses of being an American high schooler right now are extreme.  Our students function in a world of increasingly oppressive academic expectation. Meet A-G? That’s just a high school diploma now. You need to have as many honors and AP’s as you can get, and a minimal 4.3 with letters of recommendation to get into the upper tier UC’s.  You better have engaged in a community based charitable activity for the last 4 years.  You definitely should be in several clubs that are focused on solving social or environmental problems.  And a sport or two, ideally as a team captain.  It is absurd and wrong.  Of course these children are anxious, overwhelmed, and terrified–we’re making them that way.  We’ve made “exceptional” and “outstanding” a required norm.  When I teach “slippery slope” these days, the most resonate example for my students is: “because you failed a test in Geometry, you will end up living out of a shopping cart under the freeway.”

I myself am guilty of feeding this beast.  I hear myself argue that the validity of Media Academy can be seen in the fact that it exposes very large numbers of young women to technology.  It’s CTE and a STEM gateway. We put highly complex and expensive equipment into our students’ hands and expect them to use it and treat it well. MAX students organize themselves in the face of highly complex tasks that require exceptional amounts of pre-planning and interpersonal communication.  They learn to function the way adults must in college and at work.  And somehow, learning to edit video magically makes them much more focused and controlled writers.  All these things are true.  And I rely on these arguments to support and promote this program.

But, you know what else is true?  Media Academy students learn how to entertain an auditorium full of people.  We make sure that they experience the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes from having made others forget that the world can be a pretty overwhelming and soul crushing place.

We make a space for a community to come together in joy and laughter.  I want to figure out how to get us a grant for that!

Letting Go: Breaking Patterns of Silence

Projects are tricky things.  If you don’t have enough organized structure, students are unlikely to accomplish anything. Conversely, if you’re too tied to a limited outcome, you risk silencing student voice, choice, and creativity.  Organized structure is necessary.  It provides students with manageable deadlines, and a pathway toward achievement.  However, in project-based curriculum design it is easy to over structure an outcome in ways that interfere with authentic production and learning.  In this post, we examine our own need to let go of predetermined outcomes in order to facilitate real learning.

What Outcome?

This year, the Civic Action Project had a long and complex structure, with a fairly restrictive project outcome.  Students were asked to identify and research a local community need, initiate a series of civic actions in order to address that need, and to film themselves while doing this.  The “project outcome” was to create a video documentary that showed the process of taking civic action.   For example, one group of young women investigated the low numbers of female students in tech-based programs on campus, and organized a series of events to motivate girls in middle and high school to pursue STEM courses.  Their documentary exemplifies the “outcome” we had imagined for our students when we designed the project.

And why this outcome?  Partly, it was to conform to a pre-existing project: the Constitutional Rights Foundation’s Civic Action Project.  Partly, it was to create a standard level of expectation consistent with previous projects we have created ourselves.

As instructors, we were set.  The Government and ELA strand outcomes were being met through the accomplishment of research and writing tasks the students performed along the way.  The production requirements would move the students through a series of assessments that prepared them to create the video, and we had grouped the students well.  Or so we thought.

 What Went Wrong?

As is always true in PBL, some groups thrive immediately and others struggle.  This is the story of a group who appeared to be incapable of making headway.  In retrospect, the fault lies in our misconceptions about student behaviors, rather than in the behaviors themselves.

Our school is diverse–if diversity is having essentially two different populations. About 64% of our student body is immigrant, largely from El Salvador or Guatemala. Of these students, most have been in our district since K-3.  The rest of the school is primarily middle/upper-middle class and white.  It is a school community that prides itself on its diversity.  So, when we took a group of 5 talented and engaged young women and assigned them the broad subject “Immigration,”  it never occurred to us that it would take them nearly a month to figure out how to have a conversation with each other.

Obviously, it should have. Our students have been taught to be tolerant.  They have been taught to be respectful. They have been taught to be kind and generous.  And they are.  However, we found very quickly that our students had internalized all that tolerance and politeness as silence.  They have not been taught how to carry on a conversation with each other about race or immigration.  They have not been taught how to ask about or tell the stories of immigration they see around them.  So day after day, we watched two thoughtful and respectful young white women not know how to ask questions about immigration; and we watched 3 equally thoughtful and respectful immigrants not know how to tell their stories aloud.  Asking questions about immigration was rude; telling your own story was potentially dangerous.

Letting It Go

During each class, they tried to organize themselves around an idea–and by the end of the period, they unravelled any progress they made.  Regardless of how we structured assignments, they were seemingly incapable of controlling that behavior; but they learned to talk about it.  Ironically, they found it quite easy to reflect, as a group, on how difficult they found it to communicate.  Eventually, they were able to identify that the inability to communicate about immigration was the issue they wanted to take action against.  They achieved an impressive level of meta-congintion around the subtle ways in which they had been taught to silence themselves.  And this became the subject of their video.  They made an artistic decision that showing our community talking about diversity and immigration was taking action.  They chose to model a behavior as a means to changing it.

Their video does not meet the outcomes that we had set for this project.  But is the learning that occurred any less important?  These students did not meet a single deadline we set for them.  But, honestly, it took us far too long to recognize that, while we were carefully tracking the work they were not doing, we were  missing the exceptional and transformative work they were accomplishing.

The Synthesis Essay in MAX


Last semester, we focused our writing on descriptive and reflective writing techniques, and began looking at the structure and creation of synthesis prompts and essays.  Synthesis essay prompts are extremely complex, and by researching and creating them, students gained insight into the purpose and function of the essay itself.

A synthesis essay is an essay prompt that poses a question and provides the student with a variety of sources she must read and evaluate and then use as evidence in an extended argument.  They generally consist of 6-7 sources, 4 of which are writing that exhibits different styles and points of view. A student on the Advanced Placement English Language Exam has about one hour to complete a synthesis essay–15 minutes to read and analyze, 45 minutes to compose and edit.  It’s quite a challenge, but one which very closely resembles the kind of work students will find themselves doing in college.

In this case, we had been reading Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, and we used the study of Dr. Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti as an entry point for the study of medical activists working with both local and global health issues.  Because of Farmer’s health organization Partners In Health and its role in the response to the Ebola crisis in Africa, there was a wealth of current material available for study and research.  Students found themselves asking profound questions about the ethics of global medical resource distribution, the economics of the medical industry, and the organization of medical resources in the United States.  By the end of their research, teams of students were asked to identify a compelling topic, and put together a series of readings, images, and informational graphics that others could use as a prompt for writing.  “Taking” another group’s synthesis essay was the final exam.

As a process, this provided students with a “behind the curtain” view of the structure of a difficult prompt on the AP exam.  And while preparing for that exam may, or may not, be of any value–this experience proved to be profound.  Writing samples generated by the students showed growth in ALL domains of writing for ALL students.  I have never seen this kind of growth.  Yes, this assignment–in all of its parts and activities–took nearly 4 weeks.  They were 4 profoundly well-spent weeks which paid off in the best set of finals I have ever scored.  I was stunned by the depth of thinking, the organizational control, and the rhetorical strategies exhibited in these essays.

Using this model of instruction with the students was profound.  They saw a direct relationship between the text they were reading, the research they were doing, and the world value of this topic immediately.  The connection between their academy project–to engage in Civic Action themselves–provided a link between themselves, their actions, and the people and organizations they were reading about and researching.  The fact that they were creating testing materials for their peers, and had multiple opportunities to evaluate the work of others and revise their own work, created an atmosphere of competitive value and an authentic need (and opportunity) to perform at a high level.  And all this is just in reference to the creation of a prompt.  The impact creating the prompts had on the ability to then write well to another prompt was exceptional.

The following prompts will give you an idea of the scope and value of student work.

Synthesis Essay Prompt Group 6

Synthesis Essay Prompt Group 3


Semester 1: CAP–Civic Action Project

Media Academy students spent the bulk of semester 1 studying government and social organization.  We looked at the structure of the US government and how all the parts of our government work together.  We also looked at what happens to individuals in the absence of strong democratic values by studying 1984 by George Orwell, as well as other dystopian novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Blindness, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

As we began to ready ourselves for the culminating semester project–CAP–we moved beyond our understanding of government as an institution, and started looking at how individuals interact with our government, guide it, and leverage it to make change.  We studied methods and pathways for civic action around us, as well as examining the work of medical advocate Paul Farmer in the text Mountains Beyond Mountains.

During this time, students created a series of short video projects, and mastered the video production skills they would need to successfully navigate a larger scale production.  These skills include not only the mastery of equipment and software, but also the knowledge required for equitable distribution of work by a video production team.  A fundamental value of MAX is direct teaching around the communication and workplace skills necessary for collaboration and strong teams.  Looking back–we did a lot of work!

Finally, we moved into the CAP itself, and the demands of this project!  And now, we are wrapping up post-production!

Coming soon: a detailed description of CAP, as well as links to student work!