Muddling through the blogosphere

July 23, 2009
by blogwalker

A Case for Filmmaking in the Classroom

The great films have not been made yet. The ones who will make them are out there, though, riding a skateboard.” – Robert Altman

Why would a classroom teacher at any grade level or in any subject area consider adding one more activity into an already jam-packed curriculum? This is a question I ask myself repeatedly when teaching the filmmaking workshops I offer through the Area 3 Writing Project and through my school district.

Last October the Sacramento Educational Cable Consortium (SECC) invited me, as part of their SEVA teacher training series, to give a workshop that would provide teachers with the justification to bring video production into the K12 curriculum. Having a workshop deadline to meet was just the motivation I needed to sit down and articulate why I believe all students should have access to filmmaking (aka digital storytelling, video production, etc.) as part of their instructional day.

I  had three arguments in mind before even turning on the computer.  Within an hour, I had my presentation ready to go. Three arguments expanded to six – and I was on a roll, having discovered in the process how strongly I felt about the topic.

The following week, a group of teachers willing to rise early on a Saturday filed into my SEVA workshop. I lucked out. Not only was this a very awake and participatory group, they also wanted to return to their own sites and present the case for filmmaking. Based the number of requests for my PowerPoint, SEVA organizer Doug Niva suggested uploading my slideshow to their website site.

As much as I appreciate the number of slideshows educators around the world have generously uploaded to such venues as YouTube, or SlideShare, or their blogs, I wish more content producers would also provide a written piece to document how they moved from an initial burning question or challenge to a final product or solution. What follows is my attempt to share my personal learning journey, an experience that has been shaped by first-hand interactions and observations in classrooms (mainly grades 4-12) and the research and advise of others, beginning with filmmaker Nikos Theodosakis and continuing with filmmaker and literacy coach (Los Angeles USD) Mathew Needleman and many colleagues from the National Writing Project (NWP).

So let’s return to my Case for Filmmaking in the Classroom presentation, starting with slide/argument #1:

#1: Addressing ethical use of the Internet – Picture the following scenario: an elementary teacher (yes, in my district), Googles herself. To her dismay she finds that on a day she was out, one of her students used a cell phone to film a lovely little scene of classroom chaos,  to which his middle school brother later helped him flavor with some racist, homophobic words, and then upload to YouTube. As school counselors in my district scramble to deal with an explosion of cyberbullying issues,  I argue that teaching the ethical use of video and the Internet must be woven into the elementary curriculum, before the onslaught of adolescent (mis)behavior.

In the case of the above siblings, the parents were clueless as to how their children were choosing to use both their cell phones and the computer in the kids’ bedroom. To illustrate the fact that too many students lack an ethical grounding in the appropriate use of the Internet,  I downloaded a YouTube video of a student getting his head bashed against a locker and linked it to Slide #1.

Try doing an Internet search on “locker room fight” and you’ll get back literally hundreds of links, such as the Norwood Middle School’s claim to fame. Granted, middle school is all about making wrong decisions, but what if districts wove media education into the elementary curriculum? It is my hope that such a program could play a pivotal role in keeping students safe from each other (i.e., cyberbullying) and from themselves (i.e, sexting) and in reversing what has become an alarming trend, too often ending tragically.

#2: Promoting critical media consumption – Thanks to support from the National Writing Project, I had the opportunity to attend last summer’s NCTE Institute on 21st Century Literacies.  The seed for this post was planted when Ernest Morrell took to the podium to deliver his Critical Literacy and Urban Youth: Pedagogies of Access, Dissent, and Liberation keynote address. Ernest opened with four questions that begged for discussion:

  1. What will be demanded of students in terms of literacy in the 21st century?
  2. In what ways is the nature of literacy changing?
  3. How should the discipline of English change in response to the changes in literacy?
  4. What are the ways that your students practice literacy when they are not in class?

No surprise that he answered question #4 with:

  • filmmaking
  • video games
  • virtual worlds – adopting different identities

Slide #2 is similar to one Ernest used, maybe not the same Seventeen Magazine cover, but definitely the same image from 50 Cents, complete with its phallic symbols and suggestions of violence.  I don’t know that the images from the covers of Seventeen, with the pitch, for instance,  on how to Get amazing abs!, actually promote any safer or healthier life style than 50 Cents‘ collection.  Given that the age range of Seventeen readers spans from 12-17,  I argue that there is a critical need to provide upper elementary and middle school students with first-hand opportunities to explore and manipulate media so that they might become as skilled in reading and interpreting images as they are with decoding traditional text.

#3: Providing students with multiple ways to access core content – No matter how many times I visit CogDogRoo’s (Alan Levine) 50+ Ways to Tell a Story, each time I find new Web 2.0  resources and tools for incorporating digital storytelling across the curriculum. Whereas filmmaking was once a medium that required expensive equipment and major technical expertise,  “we are at the point now where we can do some very compelling content creation with nothing more complex than a web browser.” Why would we not offer students filmmaking opportunities and options? To answer that question, I’ll call on an elementary school SEVA film producer and a middle school SEVA film producer to share their perspectives on how the process of filmmaking translates into learning venues.

A year ago, I drafted the RFP for my district’s application for Round 7 of the EETT Grant.  My goal was to integrate Web 2.0 tools into the 4th grade (Year One) and 5th grade (Year Two) English/Language Arts program.  In thinking back to the one-page summary that must precede the grant narrative, I remember pondering over this sentence: “Target teachers will participate in 42 hours of professional development on 21 century technologies followed by hands-on explorations with specific Web 2.0 tools (blogs, wikis, podcasts, and multimedia applications) that will ‘power up’ Open Court lessons and engage students in the learning process.”  Given that every administrator will say “Yes!” when asked if he/she would like to be involved in a technology grant, often without understanding the professional development required to support teachers in adopting new tools, I hesitated to be too specific about exactly which ‘multimedia applications’ would be included, knowing that over a two-year period, new tools would emerge, adding to an already robust menu (i.e., Movie Maker2/iMovie, PhotoStory 3, VoiceThread, Animoto). But I definitely did not want the grant to be all about learning PowerPoint!

At the October EETT kickoff meeting, I noted a look of shear panic by at least four or five teachers as we started the day by connecting for an interactive videoconference with Mathew Needleman and ended the day by passing out a complete camera set (bag, tripod, microphone, two cameras) for each site. I wondered if I was being overly ambitious in my vision for taking student voices beyond the classroom via video production.  But eight months later, as we approached the end of the school year and with movie making projects happening at all three EETT sites, I had the opportunity to observe students firsthand as they moved though various stages of multimedia writing. EETT teacher Tara McCartney’s commitment to providing her students with multiple modes of writing is clearly making language arts standards more attainable for her 4th graders:

#4 Supporting a collaborative learning environment – In his book The Director in the classroom: How filmmaking Inspires Learning, Nikios Theodosakis points out that “Filmmaking is a collaborative art, requiring dozens of passionate craftspeople to bring about a focused vision onto the screen.  Each brings with them their own experiences and insights and makes the final film richer and truer than the director originally imagined” (p 7). Yet not all students have access to such 21st century skills as collaborating, connecting, and creating . The more high-poverty + low-performing a school site is, the greater the pressure is on administrators and teachers to deliver instruction per the ‘sit ‘n get’ model. I stand in awe of those educators who seek innovative ways to make learning engaging and memorable – despite top-down mandates that can lead to what teacher/writer Kelly Gallagher refers as “apartheid programs,” effectively denying students access to the “participatory culture” described in Henry Jenkin’s white paper.

Florin High School English teacher Bob LeVin is one of the innovators.   I met Bob five years ago when I sent out an email to my district’s Technology Advisory Committee asking if anyone knew an English teacher who might be interested connecting with other classrooms in the Youth Voices online project. Bob’s enthusiastic response was the start of a yearly connection in which we meet at the start of each new school year to talk about tools and possibilities for taking his students’ voices beyond the confines of their school site and and increasingly impoverished community.  What began in the first two years with a productive exploration of blogging has evolved into an annual integration of filmmaking into Bob’s program.  Former student Michael Fuentes explains well the benefits of making a movie:

On the ‘same side of the tracks’ as Florin High School, Prairie Elementary School students in Lesley Mckillop’s  4th grade classroom have started the long journey to the red carpet, SEVA (Student Educational Video Awards) style. As Lesley’s young filmmakers made their way onto the stage to receive an Honorable Mention Award for Blog Safely!, I wondered if the crowd filling Sacramento’s historic Crest Theater to capacity understood what it meant to have students thanking their principal for driving them to the awards ceremony. Lesley, an innovator and an EETT teacher, came to me following the October kickoff and shared that she knew nothing about technology. Her initial reaction to bringing filmmaking to her 4th graders was the feeling of being completely overwhelmed while at the same time wanting to get on board and, more importantly, bring her class on board. By the time the school year drew to a close, all of her students had participated in the making of one or more movie productions, and for a handful, including the young man who is the last to step up to the microphone in the clip I’ve inserted at the end of this post, filmmaking has rocked their worlds.

# 5 Responding to current research – During the October SEVA workshop, I shared some snippets from Daniel Pink‘s A Whole New Mind and Thomas Friedman‘s The World Is Flat, passed around my Time Magazine issue, and promoted the work of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills – all of which point to the many “c” words associated with new literacies, such as  connecting, collaborating, and creating .

In April, I traveled down the road to Berkeley for a NWP Digital Is meeting, where I had the good fortune to meet Liz Stephens. As an opening activity, the meeting coordinators asked our cozy group of 12 to think about and share a “whack on the head” about the intersection between writing and technology.  Liz’s statement that  writing in a digital age is “more about ‘frames’ than ‘stages’ was an instant jolt for me and brought to mind recent conversations with teachers and students, such as Xavier Carillo (former student of Bob LeVin), who shares a “no duh”:

In a test-driven climate, it’s easy for teachers and administrators to view filmmaking as a ‘when-testing-is-over’ activity. I think if they could sit in on a session or two with students from my EETT classrooms, they would see that, unlike worksheets, as students delve into their filmmaking projects, a major shift happens. They typically begin a project with the idea of “completing an assignment.” And then the shift happens: they see themselves as producers of content that others will see and benefit from.  They have – with much enthusiasm and pride – ascended to the top level of Bloom’s Taxonomy (as revised in 2001 by Anderson and Krothwahl).

#6 Engaging students -Well this one is pretty much a no brainer.  No matter what their access is during or beyond the school day, students like technology. From brainstorming, to storyboarding, to filming, to narrating, to editing – many students find a niche in the filmmaking process that pushes them as learners, as contributors, as team players. As they shift from consumers to content producers, there is also a shift in ownership of the learning. Step into their classrooms, and you will see the collaborative efforts start to happen, you will feel the synergy, and you will witness new levels of student engagement.

It’s been my privilege over the past few years to watch colleague (same district, same Writing Project) Jim Faires weave filmmaking into his 6th grade curriculum at Butler Elementary School. Through filmmaking, Jim is often on the receiving end of inspiration.

But how does a teacher justify integrating filmmaking in a textbook and test-prep driven school day? In my state, California Standards for the Teaching Profession provide a ready-made argument. Checkout the first standard: ENGAGING AND SUPPORTING ALL STUDENTS IN LEARNING:

Teachers build on students’ prior knowledge, life experience, and interests to achieve learning goals for all students. Teachers use a variety of instructional strategies and resources that respond to students’ diverse needs. Teachers facilitate challenging learning experiences for all students in environments that promote autonomy, interaction and choice. Teachers actively engage all students in problem solving and critical thinking within and across subject matter areas. Concepts and skills are taught in ways that encourage students to apply them in real-life contexts that make subject matter meaningful. Teachers assist all students to become self-directed learners who are able to demonstrate, articulate, and evaluate what they learn.

Back to my initial question: How does a teacher find the time to integrate one more activity into the school day? Take three minutes to watch Lesley McKillop’s students as they ‘walk the red carpet.’ At the end of the this on-the-spot video, shot collectively (without a tripod) by her students, Lesley provides an answer to that important and often-asked question.

The Case for Filmmaking in the Classroom from Gail Desler on Vimeo.

I actually started this post several months ago but didn’t publish it, thinking there were probably more points and definitely more resources that I could add. I’ve recently rediscovered, for instance, Edutopia’s What Works in Public Education site. A search on ‘filmmaking the classroom’ brought up a list of great articles – more than enough to justify my hitting the Publish button. If you have ideas and/or resources to add, I invite you to join me in this conversation and post a comment. I’m pretty sure my six arguments could easily be expanded to a dozen or more!

May 30, 2009
by blogwalker

Telling Our Classroom Stories

As the school year draws to a close, how do you document those moments, events, or projects that made a difference to you as a teacher – and to your students as learners? I really like the model National Writing Project colleague Bonnie Kaplan has produced. The combination of a 3rd person narrator using voice over (mostly) stills makes a good story even more compelling.

Dover DS Intro from Bonnie Kaplan on Vimeo.

And I’d like to thank my friend Kevin for sharing his reflections on bringing movie making into his 6th grade curriculum and for pointing me to Bonnie’s gem.

May 8, 2009
by blogwalker

SEVAs 2009 – The long walk to the “Red Carpet”

Last night I joined students, parents, and teachers as we filled the Crest Theater in downtown Sacramento for the 2009 SEVAs (Student Educational Video Awards). For the third year in a row, I sat back in complete awe of the video projects K-12 students have produced under the four categories of PSAs, documentaries, instructional, and school news.

It has been my privilege this year to support a number of teachers through my EETT grant in their efforts to bring filmmaking into the 4th grade curriculum.  In a test-driven climate, many teachers and administrators view filmmaking as an after-school activity or when-testing-is-over activity.  I think if they could sit in on a session or two, they would see that, unlike the daily worksheets, as students delve into their projects, a major shift happens.  They typically begin a project with the idea of “completing an assignment.” And then the shift happens: they see themselves as producers of content that others could benefit from.  They have – with much enthusiasm and pride – ascended to the top level of Bloom’s Taxonomy (as revised in 2001 by Anderson and Krothwahl).

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be gathering interview clips from the EETT SEVA teachers and their students to document their journeys into filmmaking. My goal is to write an article, modeled after my NWP colleague and mentor Peter Kittle’s multimedia style, that teachers can use as a resource and/or argument for justifying “time spent away from test prep.”

But back to last night’s event.  In a word – magical. What about the digital divide?  Were Title 1 schools able to compete with their more affluent counterparts? Yes!! Some differences were visible, though. The Title 1 projects, for instance, were filmed on site, not at home using personally owned video equipment. And unlike their more affluent counterparts, many whom arrived in shorts, jeans, tee-shirts, flip-flops and other casual attire, the Title 1 students were dressed to the nines.

The six young filmmakers who sat with me (driven to the theater by their amazing principal) were without words for much of the evening, starting with their walk down the red carpet. Only one had the courage to speak into the microphone as various “paparazzi” attempted to interview them. They filed into their seats, where they sat mesmerized by the work and acceptance speeches of other students. But when the PSA finalists for grades 4-6 were announced, and they saw footage from their Blog Safely video, and were then asked to come on stage to accept an Honorable Mention Award, each one stepped up to the mic and into the blinding light to give thanks for those that had helped them on their journey to walk the red carpet.

A Case for Filmmaking in the Classroom …who could argue against it?!?

Note: Bloom’s image copies from

February 14, 2009
by blogwalker

Picturing Words

Pictures reach audiences more directly than the alone. They communicate the author’s tone and approach to the subject, and enhance our understanding and enjoyment of the text. Illustrations explain complicated ideas at a glance and even teach those who cannot read.

The next few weeks I’ll be helping teachers and their students (mostly 4th graders) transform video clips and photos into 1 – 3 minute films, ready to submit to several regional film competitions and events, so I’ve been thinking about the power of images.

Picturing the written word: The above image and quote are from the Smithsonian’s stunning online exhibit Picturing Words: the Power of Book Illustration. As a teacher, I’ve observed over and over how illustrations provide scaffolding to emerging readers. As a parent, I transformed my new-born daughter’s room into the setting from Margaret Wise Brown’s Good Night Moon. (A nice lady in our local hardware store helped find just the right shade of green. OK, and for the picture of the bears, my husband insisted on using some card-playing dogs, but I did have the cow-jumping-over-the-moon picture.) As an auntie whose Christmas present is always a book, my nieces and newphews all have a growing collections of Chris Van Allsburg ‘s books.

Picturing the spoken word: I still claim the title of Queen of Bad Photography, and so I am always on the look for mentor “texts,” Who would argue that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but is there a difference if those words are written or spoken (narrated)? I’m thinking not so much.  Thanks to mentoring and resources shared by Krishna Harrison-Munoz and Mathew Needleman, I’m starting to get a handle on the purpose and possibilities behind the basic camera shots and camera angles.

Shifting from story to film: About a year ago, NWP colleague Kevin H. referred me to a pretty amazing book: The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. With 284 pages of original drawings that students can identify as establishing shots, close ups, extreme close ups, etc., I think you’ll agree with the publisher’s description: “...Brian Selznick breaks open the novel form to create an entirely new reading experience. Here is a stunning, cinematic tour de force from a boldly innovative storyteller, artist, and bookmaker.” Just seems as though “filmmaker” should be added to that list. Checkout the flash slideshow for a glimpse into the storyline and a possible transition from written word to spoken word.

I’m thinking that the written word is equal to or even more powerful than the accompanying illustration. But for the spoken word, I think it can be overriden by the accompanying camera angles and shots. So I’ll end with a new favorite resource for students: Photojojo: Super-Secret Photo Projects Just for Kids – Back off, Grown Ups! (posted to Instructify by Alice Mercer).

*Image from:

February 11, 2009
by blogwalker

The Teacher Salary Project – Another Great Video Opportunity!

Emily Davis, production assistant for the Teacher Salary Project emailed me this weekend with the following message:

“Dear Gail Desler,

I am writing on behalf of Academy Award-winning filmmaker Vanessa Roth, co-founder of 826 National Nínive Calegari, and writer Dave Eggers. They are the Director and Co-Producers of the feature-length documentary The Teacher Salary Project. We wanted to reach out to you in the hopes that you may be interested in getting involved in our production.

The Teacher Salary Project will be a documentary film, a national outreach campaign, and the only digital archive of the stories of teachers’ lives. In the end we will have a community-built movement that tells the true stories of hardworking and effective teachers in order to change the public perception, support, and financial rewards that accompany the invaluable work of teaching. The film is based on a book co-authored by Nínive Calegari, Daniel Moulthrop and Dave Eggers called Teachers Have it Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers. You can read a Washington Post review of the book here <> .

We are excited to invite first-hand stories/ footage filmed by students about their public school teachers and the struggles of being a teacher. In this spirit, we are looking for public school teachers to help get their students involved. We found your name in searching for teachers that have already done some work with film or digital storytelling in the classroom, and hope that you would be interested in becoming part of this new and exciting way of filmmaking.

To learn more about the project you can check out our website at <>. To get an idea of what we are looking for, visit our student information page <>, where you and your students can get some ideas for what we’re looking for and how to get involved in the project. If we are able to use your submission in the final film we will hold a premiere screening at your school!

If you think this is something that you might be interested in helping with, or if you could perhaps suggest others who you think might be interested, please let us know. I look forward to hearing from you.”

I was drawn in by the link to Rafe Esquith’s article and  also the connection to Dave Eggers (whose book What Is the What is in my Current Reads box). In this year of horrendous budget cuts, what better time to tell our stories, or, better yet, enlist our students to provide a window into the real world of classroom teaching.

*Image copied from

February 9, 2009
by blogwalker

Video Opportunities for You and Your Students!

If you’re looking for filmmaking venues for you and your students, here are some sites I think you’ll want to checkout:

  • Letters to the Next President Video Campaign – In the fall, the National Writing Project and Google teamed to sponsor the Letters to the Next President Google Docs project.  The NWP is now partnering with the Pearson Foundation for the next level – student-produced videos. The project “encourages filmmakers ages 13–18, with the support of their teachers, to voice their points of view by creating and sharing digital videos about the issues they want President Obama and his new administration to address.”

November 11, 2008
by blogwalker
1 Comment

Mathew Needleman’s K12Online Preso – Oh my!

I’ve blogged about Mathew Needleman before. Since attending his CUE 08 presentation, I’ve been following his blog and have even written videoconferencing sessions with Mathew into my district’s current EETT grant. But if you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting face-to-face with Mathew in real time or virtual time – or even if you have – you now have the opportunity to watch the amazing video he created for his recent K12Online Conference presentation Film School for Video Podcasters!

Mathew’s explanation of the storyboarding process will make you rethink those storyboarding templates (that I’ve been giving students). I also have a much better understanding of the Rule of Thirds now. He touched quickly on lighting too, an area I haven’t a clue about setting up, so I’m hoping maybe Mathew has an upcoming session on that topic.

What a strong case for media literacy in the elementary curriculum! Just wish I had joined Mathew live for his K12Online Conference session. Next year for sure!

September 18, 2008
by blogwalker

Camera Skills – Such a Marketable Literacy!

Seems as though the commercial sector frequently, though unintentionally, provides some of the best free teaching resources. Take, for example, the video below, for a stunning look at the effective use of basic camera shots (a skill I’m still hoping to master). Before you watch the video, you might want to know that it was produced to sell a very upscale condo development in Charleston, S.C., located at the intersection of Jones and Whiter.

No, I’m not in the market for a condo (and the model’s dress is not my style), but I do really like the variety and use of the shots and the way it flows together via transitions.

September 13, 2008
by blogwalker

Next Vista Learning

One of my favorite workshops from last summer’s NECC was Rushton Hurley’s hilarious session on video editing. Before leaving the session, I signed up to receive his electronic newsletters. An update arrived in my email yesterday entitled “Educational Video, the fun way.” I’m glad I opened it! I’ve spent the morning exploring links to some wonderful resources:

  • iEARN 2008-2009 International – Here’s Rushton’s introduction: “There are still some slots for those wanting to make a simple video as part of a cool international project.” What a great way for students to share about their own communities – and to be able to learn about other communities – national and international – through a student perspective. Check out the video samples posted to the site, which will serve as great examples to get students started. Note: Registration ends Monday, September 15.
  • Next Vista Learning – Looking for good videos to bring into the classroom? I think you’ll like the cross- curricular clips posted on Rushton’s website. Hey, I actually get the difference between helium and sulphur hexaflouride after watching Scott Merrick’s video!
  • Lit Terms in Modern Media – And for students needing more than a textbook explanation of literary terms, Todd Seal’s site should be helpful. “The idea is not simply to help define the term, but to explain why to use the technique.” Note: Content is appropriate for older students.

And if you’re traveling to San Jose next month to the Innovative Learning Conference, I recommend you check the program from Rushton’s workshops!

August 22, 2008
by blogwalker

Why Filmmaking Belongs in the Classroom

“I think the big mistake in schools is trying to teach children anything, and by using fear as the basic motivation. Fear of getting failing grades, fear of not staying with your class, etc. Interest can produce learning on a scale compared to fear as a nuclear explosion to a firecracker.” Stanley Kubric

For the past couple of years, Nikos TheodosakisThe Director in the Classroom has been my top recommendation to teachers wanting to venture into filmmaking as part of their curriculum. In addition to tips and wonderful graphic organizers, Nikos also lays out a compelling argument (on behalf on his own children – and all children) for why filmmaking belongs in the classroom, starting with Part 1:

  • Learning in a world of change
  • Living and learning in a visual world
  • How filmmaking develops higher order thinking skills
  • How filmmaking develops personal and social skills
  • How filmmaking raises awareness

I have a new favorite: Reading in the Dark: Using Film as a Tool in the English Classroom, by John Golden. I found this gem while attending the July National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Institute for 21st Century Learning. What a great resource for secondary teachers – and probably upper elementary too. “Even though this book deals with cinematic technique and film study, it is ultimately a book about using film to help students improve their reading and analytical skills.”

Golden includes over 30 films, ranging from E.T. The Extraterrestrial to Life Is Beautiful , and provides strategies for viewing each, including reading strategies (e.g., predicting, responding, questioning, and storyboarding), textual analysis (e.g., characterization, point of view, iron, and connections/comparisons between authors’ and directors’ choices) and classroom tested suggestions for developing units. Tons of powerful images pulled from films, along with thought-provoking “Questions to Consider.”

I’m working on a presentation right now for our Sacramento Educational Cable Consortium‘s upcoming Video in the Classroom event.  I’ll be sharing both books during my session – and am seeking a third to add to the list.

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