In mid-December, just before the holiday, 33 tenth grade students, three teachers, assorted parents, and four guest judges (an historian, a lawyer, and two communication specialists) gathered to watch the first ever Constitutional Amendments Film Festival at our school.
My colleagues, Whitney and Justin, had committed our students to two and one-half weeks of research, film creation, and film editing in that wonderful period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We could have chosen instead to complete our study of Reconstruction (we were a bit behind where we’d hoped to be at this point in the year), but we knew the students were ready for another chance to pursue interest and depth.
The film festival was the largest and most complex research-based project of the three we’d done since school began this year. At this point, we expected that our students knew how to conduct solid research and source evaluations, and they had practiced visual presentations and bibliographic construction. Thesis creation, argument building, and analysis of complex ideas and disparate sources were the focus now.
The medium was completely new to most of the students – they were to create 3-5 minute films.
They were free to work with any group of two-to-four students across the three classes of American History involved in the project. Some students chose to remain within their section, some chose to work across sections. One threesome included a member from each class.
After grouping themselves, students chose from among one of the first eight Amendments or from Amendments 13-15 for their topic. Not surprisingly, Google Docs (introduced in earlier assignments), Facebook and texting were the preferred means of sharing research and ideas. The assignment asked for them to investigate and understand the reasons the Founding Fathers (or the US Congress of the 1860s) felt a particular amendment was important – the historical context.
Each group then had to bring the amendment into the present by examining recent court cases and current events related to that amendment—tying the past to the present. Every film had to include images related to the amendment. Bonus points were given for finding voices from the past speaking about the amendment. Most importantly, the students were asked to present a coherent interpretation of their research in a film demonstrating a clear point of view.
Our role as teachers
As teachers we acted as Executive Producers, meeting regularly with the production companies to check on progress, and offer advice as needed on developing points of view, selecting images and writing narratives. We gave students the option to create either scripts or storyboards for their films. Rough drafts of these were required before filming could begin, and final drafts were submitted electronically the day of the festival.
Interestingly, the students who produced storyboards — even simple stick-figure storyboards — ended up with the most visually coherent films. We received a number of strong scripts as well. While the films that employed more live action included descriptions of scene changes and characters in their scripts, the films that were more image focused (think Ken Burns’ Civil War) gave little indication of which images would go with which voiced over text. In fact, the film that the judges awarded first place actually lost points in our grading because the final draft of its script did not make these connections clearly enough. As a result, in the actual film, a few images didn’t line up with the text as well as might have been expected from an otherwise strong production.
The festival itself was a huge success – though the quality of the final products varied greatly, from a film not “rendered” in time for viewing, to the two very different treatments of the 15th amendment, which took 1st and 2nd place from the judges and received the highest marks from the teachers in a separate evaluation process.
Creativity abounded in each group’s approach to the problem of presenting an interesting and compelling film. Three of the films were image heavy, one used the concept of the Magic School Bus to explore the importance of the 13th amendment, while another used a fictional courtroom case to explore the 8th amendment. One group used the theme music from “Law and Order” to unify its different discussions of the 5th Amendment.
The students loved seeing each other’s work, commenting on it and discussing different approaches to a similar set of constraints, requirements and challenges. Parents were happy: those that weren’t able to attend were able to view the films on a private YouTube link (since Westtown is a boarding school, about half of our parents are at a distance). The winning film creators were thrilled to have their film show up the school’s website.
The student debrief
In the next day’s debrief with my own 13 students, they agreed on the following — they wished the executive producers had been more heavy handed (and saved them from so many rookie errors). I pushed back and asked what they had learned from their errors. Among the answers: editing does in fact take as long as we suggested; the best films had the clearest points of view (each producer check included questions pushing them to refine their narrative arc and point of view); asking for help and asking questions served them better than lots of general directions.
They also agreed that doing the research, finding credible sources and creating the bibliography was easy with all the practice they had already had. For that reason, they were glad that this project came well into the year. They all agreed that making films adds a level of complexity not present in an essay or an oral presentation using some sort of presentation software. One student observed that with film you reach a larger audience, but you have to get your message right the first time.
Mastering the basic technology, they said, was easy compared to integrating music, visuals, spoken word and an interesting narrative. This led us to a useful discussion of audience and how the reality of creating a film for peers, parents, and unrelated adults changed the way they approached their films. Interestingly, everyone agreed that the weaker films seemed to have been created with only teenagers in mind as the audience!
In their individual written self-reflections students were asked to read their previous reflections and give thought to what had improved from earlier projects. Comments ranged from “we were organized, didn’t procrastinate, used the online check list and finished early” to “we improved in our creativity” [very true!] to “I improved my ability to connect the past with the current. In other words, I learned how to take a law that was relevant to life in the past and relate it to current day events.”
The teacher debrief
In our own teacher debrief we agreed that we wanted the students to have another film experience this year. We hope to convince either our English or Religion colleagues to assign a film project before we do ours so that our tenth graders create three films over the course of the year. Next time, we will have the kids evaluate each others’ films as well. We might also build in a step where a group has to share their storyboard with another group for advice.
Finally, we wondered whether or not we should have been more heavy handed as mentors. For instance, the 13th Amendment group used Plessy v Ferguson as a large part of their examination. While the defense in that case did use this amendment, the Supreme Court ignored the 13th almost entirely in reaching its decision on separate but equal facilities. This group had started with a discussion of a newly passed California Law against human trafficking. This current event would have made for a better focus to their film, as teachers we raised the question with them during their research and after reading the draft of their script, but we didn’t insist they refocus. Should we have?
Finally, I would like to continue to refine the questions we give students to guide their self-reflections. Perhaps, what I really want is to remove the scaffold of questions and ask them to simply reflect. . . .