Filmmaking for Kids: Rough, Raw, and Real

Educators are embracing video-production technology, from professional equipment to smartphones, to give students ownership over their learning.

Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters

I started high school the year the iPod was released. It would be another eight years, when I was getting ready to graduate from college, before the iPod—and eventually its successor, the iPhone—could shoot video.

Now, smartphones (along with laymen-friendly apps) that let you shoot, edit, and immediately publish mini-films are in the pockets of high-school students all over the country. And that means their presence in American classrooms is all but inevitable. Some schools continue to grapple with the role of these devices on campus, often because they lack sufficient funding to integrate them into learning constructively.

But a few lucky campuses do have the resources to take advantage of these technology trends, while many others have found cost-effective ways to use student’s smartphones as teaching tools—and, increasingly, not just as tools to support regular instruction. A growing number of organizations, from feminist groups to grassroots campaigns, are bringing into classrooms teaching that’s focused explicitly on film-based storytelling. After all, quality filmmaking entails far more than simply having access to video-production technology.

Here’s what three such organizations had to say about how—and why—they’re helping children and their teachers leverage that technology and share their stories with the world. The interviews have been edited for concision and clarity.

The Cinema School, New York City

Located in the South Bronx, The Cinema School might seem similar to other New York City public high schools. However, its traditional curriculum accounts for just a sliver of the school’s larger teaching model. Film classes are mandatory over the course of a student’s four years; freshmen might work on animated shorts, for example, while seniors are required to produce full-blown thesis films. In fact, students drop their normal course schedules for two weeks annually, when the entire school swings into production mode: Classrooms become movie sets and hallways, film-studio boardrooms. Much of that is possible because of substantial outside support, including equipment donations and collaborations with professionals ranging from David O. Russell to Spike Jonze. I spoke with school’s principal, Keisha Warner, and its film-department chair, Jacob Stebel, about the power of video in classrooms.

Aaron Reiss: Why an entire school built around cinema and film production?

Keisha Warner: Through filmmaking, we are inviting students to become artists. The habits of mind of an artist require discipline; they require planning—but really, they require students to feed off of intellectual curiosity. They get to take something that starts in their imagination and build it from the ground up, and then ultimately see it realized on the screen. They carry these projects, they nurture them, and they guide them to completion. In that way, they really own their own education in the same way that they own their own projects.

Beyond that, this kind of education is also very timely, given the state of development that high school students are in. Adolescents need a conduit to make sense of the world that they live in.

Reiss: Is there something special about the potential of filmmaking to act as that conduit, as opposed to other forms of artistic expression?

Jacob Stebel: I think there is. Students are exposed to video media all the time, whether they’re watching YouTube videos or films ... So there is this buy-in and this inherent way to get students interested, and to get them involved. [That’s] something that a lot of students don’t have in other areas of learning.

Reiss: From a teacher’s standpoint, that inherent “buy-in” seems like it would really enhance the classroom and instructional experience.

Stebel: Yes, students have a content knowledge coming in here that they don’t have with other subjects. In chemistry class, you can’t ask a student to name their favorite chemical compound. But any student can rattle off a list of their favorite films. As a result, a kind of confidence and engagement is built in with video. Students already know and are interested in this material, they just need a vocabulary to talk about it. So in class, I am taking content that students already love, and are already familiar with, and helping them to understand it on a more intimate level. As a result, students take to this work so naturally. As a teacher, that is such a gift to be a part of.

Reiss: This was arguably the first high school with a four-year compulsory film curriculum. What took so long? Why not earlier?

Warner: The medium just was not as accessible until then—cell phones have really changed the world ... The Cinema School came to be at a time when that medium was becoming much more readily available and, quite frankly, more affordable.

Reiss: The Cinema School has exceptional access to high-tech equipment and mentorship from Hollywood professionals—and the films your students make definitely show that. Is it important for students to feel that what they’re producing is professional grade?

Stebel: I think that being able to film a project that looks like it's on par with a Hollywood production gives students confidence that their overall product can be of similar quality. When I was shooting on VHS in high school, I knew that no matter how good the writing was, how stellar the acting, directing, et cetera, it would look like film and therefore would never be viewed seriously.

Reiss: Given the commitment to professionalism, do you feel like the school is using film as a way to build students or as a way to build great filmmakers who are becoming great students in the process?

Warner: [This is] the paradox of the school—it’s really both. We use filmmaking to produce great students. And great students are making great films as well. At the end of the day, we want to produce high quality individuals who can do anything. If it’s filmmaking, then they have a great support network through our school. And if it is not filmmaking, our students have all of the necessary skills for any professional milieu.  

Reiss: What about schools that don’t have access to this kind of professional network, funding, or equipment? Would the learning that happens suffer, or need to change, if students were using smartphones and low-grade editing apps?

Stebel: We are immensely lucky to be able to have the resources we have. But … You can absolutely have this kind of learning and this meaningful experience with video using only very limited resources.

It’s not that we are really giving students cameras. They have cameras—they all have phones that have video capabilities that are just as good as anything we had back in the day. They have these tools in front of them, but it’s about learning how to use them, and how to bring along an audience. It’s about using these tools to weave a meaningful narrative, and that’s what we can teach.

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MyBlock Education, New York City

MyBlock Education is a nonprofit that seeks to bring the Cinema School experience to as many classrooms as possible. Its six-week program offers filmmaking instruction, simple cameras, and teachers to students across New York City. The program was inspired by an affiliated program, MyBlockNYC, where I used to work, and similarly focuses on sharing real people’s stories online, publishing them on interactive maps to demonstrate where those narratives took place. I spoke with the education program’s founder and executive director, Alex Kalman, and its associate director and school manager, Brian Paccione.

Reiss: Can you tell me a bit about what the MyBlock Education Program does?

Kalman: We make video literacy and nonfiction video production accessible to high school students, particularly those who do not have access to a video education. We try to provide the simplest technology to make sure that the [barrier to entry] is as low as possible, and we provide resources—like equipment, as well as professional guidance from filmmakers—to classrooms that otherwise don’t have access to them. We get students to think about issues in their community and, through creating video, we get them to explore the issues that affect their lives.

Reiss: Student videos ultimately end up on MyBlock’s “Student Map,” which allows viewers to browse these videos and to explore NYC through the eyes of these students. Can you tell me more about the map?

Paccione: The map is a living and breathing mosaic of student perspectives that is constantly evolving. It is a way of organizing information, but it is also a way of emphasizing the power of place and allowing a user to investigate the concept of "location" in regards to the opinions, visual style, and topics our students choose to focus on. It also helps students view their work as a representation of place—as a way of defining where they are from and reflecting on how they want the world to see them and their community. Viewers then explore these topics, stories, and perspectives of the city through the eyes of its teens.

Kalman: We showcase students’ work in this public-facing space, so that it actually connects with an audience and does what video should do, which is relay information, relay knowledge, relay ideas, relay reality. That means that this learning and sharing isn’t just happening in a vacuum. It doesn’t end within the classroom—it connects students to the real world.

Reiss: Students are required to make nonfiction videos. Why is that?

Paccione: It's about teaching them to look at their everyday surroundings and investigate their perspective on them. Figuring out where you stand in relationship to your community, your block, or the issues being discussed in your neighborhood translates to empowerment and active citizenship. It's about getting these kids into their communities—getting them physically involved in the issues that their communities are dealing with, almost forcing them to get their hands dirty in what is going on.

Reiss: I can’t imagine that is particularly easy for high-school students, getting them to make the jump from passive observer into a creator and an active participant. Is there something about video that makes that process easier?

Paccione: Yes, I think it happens by sitting with something as long as it takes to make these videos. Often, it’s the case that students set out to do one thing, but once they go out in the world with their cameras and start filming, they start to realize, “Wow, this is not like a regular school assignment—I am actively in this,” and inevitably their ideas change. They end up changing their focus to a topic that they have opinions about or something that more directly affects them. It’s almost as though they come to it naturally just by having a video camera in their hand and making decisions about what they want to shoot.

Reiss: I watched one [student video] about a gentrification, where high school students commented on frozen yogurt shops popping up in Brooklyn. I watched one about a murder in a housing project in the Bronx. It’s so different to read about these stories in the newspapers than to hear them straight from young people who are living in these communities.

Kalman: [These] videos allow society to leverage a huge body of its population that is often underrepresented and rarely given a chance to participate in the public dialogue. As a society, we [generally] don’t engage with or consider teen perspectives on social issues, local policy, or current events—and that is a real loss for society ... We want students to be able to connect with audiences, to enable them to see things firsthand—to connect to an idea, to feel the emotion of a reality, to empathize and have a greater understand of community. Video is one the most powerful vehicles to do that today.

Paccione: I tell [my] students that great art is personal and that we need to be vulnerable There's something [about] sharing a secret or a thought or a feeling with an audience … that we all connect with. And the more personal it is, the more universal it winds up becoming. We don't want these videos to represent "just the facts" — because even when we read the New York Times or watch CNN it's never "just the facts." So why not introduce a young person's perspective into the media landscape? And why not just embrace the opinionated, rough, and unformed nature of this perspective and say, "This is how it is for this one particular kid growing up in NYC”?

Reiss: What does it mean for students to make them the tellers of their own communities' stories?

Paccione: We want to educate students to educate the public. When we think of school and of education, it’s thought of as top-down, where teachers have knowledge and have power, and they pass that knowledge onto students. When students are capturing what they know, they are actually educating the public, and people are saying: “Wow—I don’t know what it’s like to be 17, and growing up in the Bronx, and to be a recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic.”

Kalman: Our approach is not to provide a long-term educational experience for small group of very lucky students, but is to provide that initial opportunity to spark that interest in a very wide community of students.

Reiss: And part of that seems to be focusing less on professional technology?

Kalman: Yes. Ultimately, it’s just not about the technology ... The technology just becomes the bridge the connector—rather than the end goal.

Reiss: I know MyBlock Education has a whole collection of Sony point-and-shoots it provides for students. Are students exploring other ways of shooting video?

Paccione: We provide the Sony cameras to schools that do not have cameras and still want to participate. But what's exciting is that more and more students are using their phones to shoot our videos — and they are using their phones in a way they haven't thought of using them in the past.

Reiss: I wonder whether, as smartphone technology becomes more advanced and accessbile—on top of apps like instagram and Vine—this kind of storytelling education will become less necessary.  

Kalman: There’s a big difference between being tech savvy and knowing how to leverage that technology ... or to bring about change. Realizing that you can use this technology to have fun and share personal moments, and be socially engaged with your friends, is one thing—but to use this technology at a more powerful level, to communicate with people who perhaps don’t know you ... it’s not just a fun tool. It can change opinions, educate, and inform.

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Reel Grrls, Seattle

Reel Grrls is a Seattle-based nonprofit that has been working since 2001 to teach young girls media literacy and empower them through video. Film topics have ranged from eyebrows and personal image to princess helicopter pilots’ struggles with conservative suitors. The organization recently shifted its focus from high production value to mobile technology, exemplifying the general direction in which video-based learning is heading. I spoke to its newly appointed director, Nancy Chang, about what she envisions for the future of video in America’s classrooms.

Reiss: You’re coming from Skate Like a Girl, which is a pretty scrappy community development organization. What of that experience are are you bringing into Reel Grrls?

Chang: Skate Like a Girl formed around the same time as Reel Grrls, and both were part of this DIY, feminist, Riot Grrl era. Both organizations are a response to male-dominated spaces—they are both about creating a community that transcends space through ideas and creates a learning environment that promotes inclusivity. By taking programs mobile we meet girls where they are at, geographically and technologically.

Reiss: Can you talk more about your organization’s shift to mobile programming?

Chang: Throughout the history of Reel Grrls, it has produced a lot of award-winning young filmmakers ... Part of that involved basing our work out of a high-production studio space.  That meant that we traditionally served girls who had support structures because they needed to be able to commit to getting to our space for regular programming to use our facilities and equipment.

By heading out to where girls are, we can work with community organizations to reach more girls that may not have been able to participate due to lack of transportation and support at home, or knowledge that programs like Reel Grrls even exist.

Reiss: This shift is taking place at a time when there are fewer and fewer financial barriers to means of video production. It seems very timely.

Chang: Whereas before there was a really strong focus on making high-quality, highly-produced films, our shift now is more centered around building social skills and gaining confidence, not necessarily going to the Oscars on your first try.

I think of it similarly to how zines work—it’s not about having that glossy page, it’s about having an easy tool for expressing yourself. And with a mobile program, you don’t think too hard about sounding perfect, but focus on getting what you are seeing and getting what you are thinking out into the world.

I love Ikea because it’s like affordable design. Some people look down on design like that because they want to imagine what they have is more “refined” or less watered down. Personally, I don’t think accessibility has to mean watered down, or weak.

Reiss: So, what’s the bare minimum you need?

Chang: All you really need is a device that can capture, edit, and disseminate your content. That device needs to be able to connect to the Internet.

Kids already have access to everything they need and they are making Vines, they are making Snapchats in literally under a minute. They are storytelling as quickly as that, right there in real time. And they’re sending and posting or emailing it to friends instantly.

In the future, we have to meet kids where they’re at, because just having the tool doesn’t mean they’re capturing it’s benefits … It’s not about the technology, it’s about feeling empowered that your message actually matters. It’s about knowing how to tell a story, and it’s about understanding your own voice and understanding what you want to share.