Bitten by the Video Bug
By Jay Hardwig
JUNE 29, 1998: It's a little crowded in this broom closet affectionately known as the Basic Edit bay. There are about nine of us packed into it here at the Austin Community Access Center and not a lot of room to roam. The room is built to hold two people comfortably, three if they're small. Elbows are tucked into sides, heads cocked, shoulders hunched, but all eyes are on the video screen, where 12-year-old Jose Puente is making Ben Thompson waltz across the room backward and mutter unintelligibly. Thompson takes a few steps forward, a few steps back - a little foxtrot perhaps - before Puente freezes the screen to catch Thompson with a particularly comic expression on his face. Laughter fills the room. Ben Thompson doesn't seem to mind. He stands along the back wall, watching his on-screen gymnastics with a slight grin, admiring Puente's ease at the controls. Together with Jay Lubman, he is teacher to this roomful of Zavala Elementary students, all of whom are enrolled in his after-school Video Production class. On just about every Wednesday afternoon for the last two school years, Thompson and Lubman have devoted a chunk of their after-school time to teaching these kids the fine art of video production, but this is one of their first trips to the editing booth. The kids are clearly impressed with the technology - particularly the pre-emptive power of the jog/shuttle dial - and at least for the moment, jump cuts have replaced jump shots in their imagination, pan shots have replaced pan dulce, making television has replaced watching television.
Lorenzo de Zavala Elementary is one of the unqualified success stories of the Austin Independent School District. In 1990, by their own admission, Zavala was a "forgotten school in a forgotten neighborhood," a low-performing grade school serving one of East Austin's poorest neighborhoods. Attendance was low, teacher turnover was high, and test scores were among the worst in the district. With help from Austin Interfaith, community leaders, and a gradually revitalized parent core, Zavala began searching for ways to improve programming. They instituted specialized reading and science programs, community tutoring, a neighborhood health clinic, and after-school classes. The results were immediate and striking: Test scores rose dramatically, morale soared, and Zavala began to gain notice as a reborn urban school. In 1997, Zavala was one of 220 schools nationally to receive the National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence Award. More important than test scores and awards, however, is a new sense of pride in the neighborhood school, and the knowledge that the turnaround had been a community effort.
It was just such a community effort that got after-school classes started to begin with. In 1992, Austin Interfaith spearheaded a series of neighborhood "house meetings" designed to air and address the concerns of Zavala parents. One common concern was how their children were spending their time after school. In many cases, parents were at work and not home to supervise their children, who, often as not, plopped on the couch to watch television, got on the phone, or, worse, got into trouble on the neighborhood streets. Several parents promoted the idea of after-school classes. While extended-care services have been around for a while, after-school advocates envisioned something more structured and supportive of the academic day. In 1993, their proposal won funding from the city of Austin's Youth Initiative; in the fall of that year, after-school classes started at five pilot elementary schools, including Zavala. Since then, the program has grown to 29 schools and over 7,000 students across the city: At Zavala alone, over 550 students were enrolled in 23 different after-school classes this year, with topics ranging from swimming to sign language to magic to dance.
All of which is of little immediate concern to Brisa Moctezuma, the Zavala fourth-grader who has been spending some of her after-school time drawing stills of a giant purple elephant monster devouring a helpless boy. It's part of an animation project she has taken on for Thompson and Lubman's Video Production class. The problem, Moctezuma explains, is how to edit the hands of her over-eager sister out of the final product. Thompson and Lubman have encouraged her, even if it means making mistakes. Theirs is a hands-on class, based on the belief that kids learn best when they are allowed to tell rather than be told.
It's an approach they've come to gradually. When they first started the class in the fall of 1996, they were inclined to mix some good ol'-fashioned lecture in with the hands-on activities. After all, they had a lot to share: Lubman graduated from the University of Nebraska with a degree in broadcast journalism, while Thompson did video and film work at Vassar College in New York. Both have continued their work as video producers at ACAC, even after landing teaching jobs at Zavala. (Lubman teaches third grade, Thompson teaches a fourth-grade bilingual class.) In the beginning, they now admit, they over-taught, trying to lay a technical foundation before handing over the cameras. The kids were polite but bored, having already sat at attention for the better part of the school day. Within weeks, they had scrapped the lecture format and handed over the equipment. There's scarcely been a dull day since.
Over the past year, the 12 kids enrolled in the Video Production class have handled their projects from birth to bed: They have brainstormed ideas, drawn storyboards, written scripts, shot video, and edited raw footage at the ACAC studios. Programs range from Moctezuma's animation to news shows to a farcical take on MTV's Singled Out.
Here too, Lubman and Thompson had to learn to step back. Originally, they closely guided the writing process, encouraging students to make movies with a moral. The proper use of library resources, the importance of reading to your children, and nonviolent strategies for resolving conflict were among proposed subjects, and it is on these educational films that the students learned the craft. For the next round, however, the teachers dropped "the moral imperative," in Thompson's words, and let students control the entire process from inception to completion. The resulting films are, predictably, considerably more imaginative and slightly less pedantic. Subjects here include the Singled Out clone, a Jerry Springer-style show, and a darkly comic piece where a teacher collapses in guilt after a student of his, whom he had ridiculed the previous day, eats clay and dies. "I laughed my head off," Thompson says of the second round of shows. "It was much more entertaining than what we tried to guide them [to do]."
Although the choice of subjects is at least mildly curious, Lubman and Thompson resist the effort to read too much into the films. "I don't think it's a really serious commentary on how they see the world," Lubman says. "I think it's just a chance for them to enjoy themselves and do goofy stuff." In the midst of the silliness, though - and some of it can only be described as silly - the students are learning important lessons about television itself. They're becoming more aware of what's involved in television production, more aware of the devices behind the fiction they are watching - they are becoming, in Thompson's words, "television literate." "They're exposed to so much television," he notes. "They should learn how it's made so they can become critical viewers of it."
"Video is immediately engaging," Thompson continues. "Kids are fascinated by it. And they're fascinated by it because it's spectacular.... It has that magical quality to it. Seeing themselves, seeing what they create... any kid is charmed by that kind of thing." By learning the mechanics behind the magic, kids are transformed from passive watchers into active participants, a transformation that is both creative and empowering. So while, in his honest moments, he admits to wishing his students had taken Bill Nye as a role model rather than Jenny McCarthy, he is encouraged by what he sees as a critical eye. Pointing to the outrageous nature of the students' Singled Out and Jerry Springer knockoffs, he remarks, "I think it shows [that] they see television as ridiculous. In a way, [the shows] were great parodies of television itself."
Incidentally, neither Lubman nor Thompson are great fans of the small screen. Thompson dismisses the mass of televised programming as "mindless drivel," while Lubman worries about the negative impact of much of what he sees, calling television's reliance on violence and stereotypes "very dangerous." But they are well aware of its pull. "It's the most powerful medium in the world," Thompson insists, and whether we like it or not, kids need to learn to speak the language of television. By teaching that language, Lubman and Thompson hope to inspire their students to do better things, to make better video than what's currently out there - if not now, perhaps somewhere down the road.
Far-off, highfalutin talk, to be sure, and quite removed from the week-to-week concerns of the Video Production class. At any given moment, both the teachers and the students are far more concerned with the particulars of that week's production than such distant notions as critical viewership and the future of television.
As far as that weekly production goes, kids have expressed clear favorites, preferring the glamour of shooting to the trenchwork of editing. But they'll edit if the edit needs doing, and right now it does. They have learned that video production is a much slower, more difficult process than they originally thought. "Some things you have to do over and over and over again," complains future video producer Ashley Vega, but she quickly adds that "it's not like work, it's like fun." "[It's fun because] you get to do everything," young Ulysses Samarripa explains. "Acting, camera, editing, write the storyboard - everything you need to make a film."
And then there's next year to think about. Students are already planning future projects: interview shows, book adaptations, location shots around Austin, even a protest movie demanding that "students get paid to come to school." The money, student Samantha Sanchez explains with a mischievous grin, could come from teacher salaries. Plus, the students tell me, they want a separate video production room at Zavala, complete with editing machines, cameras, computers, and such. That's a far cry from what they've got, Thompson allows, but he shares the dream. He'll spend a good part of his summer writing grants to fund an expanded program, with better equipment and on-site editing capabilities.
In the meantime, there's last-minute editing to do, especially if these shows are going to be broadcast-ready soon. It's the reason we've gotten so intimate here in Basic Edit, and the reason Thompson and Lubman will bring students back for the next several weeks to pour over rough footage. It's tiring work, but the two can take comfort in the fact that they have taught their students - or let the students teach themselves - a good deal of the gritty particulars of video production, and had a good deal of fun besides.
For Lubman and Thompson, that's the first and most important goal: to have fun. They want their students to have something constructive and creative to do in their after-school time. They want to do some small part to boost the kids' self-esteem, to demystify technology, to demonstrate the power and pulse of cooperative learning. They want their students to know that school can be enjoyable, particularly if you're interested and motivated, and that teachers will repay that interest tenfold if given the chance. But most of all, they want to have fun. And if they make a few good videos along the way, so be it.
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