'Lights, Camera, History': Dade Project Uses Technology To Ease Overcrowding
MIAMI--Keren San Emeterio recently experienced the 15 minutes of fame that Andy Warhol claimed would one day be everyone's due.
In a scene reminiscent of the film "The Purple Rose of Cairo''--in which a matinee idol steps off the screen and into the life of a fan--Ms. San Emeterio caused a minor stir when she walked in to an auditorium full of middle school history students who were watching her teach on videotape.
While most of the children were engrossed in the lesson that was displayed on the large screen, "there's always that one kid who's sort of looking around and not paying attention,'' she recalls.
"Well, he turned and saw me and started whispering to all of his friends,'' she adds.
Ms. San Emeterio's face is a familiar one to many students in the Dade County schools because she is a featured teacher on HTV, or History Television, one of the district's newest curricular ventures.
With the support of a behind-the-scenes staff of researchers, producers, and other educators and television professionals, she acts as the host for a series of videotaped history lessons developed jointly by the school district and Channel 17, Miami's district-operated public-television station.
The pilot program, which began this school year, already has developed a small, but loyal, cult following at one high school where students sport HTV T-shirts. And it is winning supporters among teachers like Ms. San Emeterio.
"What I'm doing now is what every teacher ever dreamed of doing,'' she says. "We make [history] fun and interesting.''
While the HTV experiment is, in part, an effort to attract and hold the attention of students of the so-called "MTV generation,'' it also answers a more pressing need.
John C. Moffi, the series' executive producer, envisioned HTV as a means to provide meaningful instruction to students in a district caught in an enrollment boom that has caused many schools to schedule split sessions and to enroll as many as 200 students in some social-studies classes.
Not Just 'Talking Heads'
The idea behind HTV, according to Mr. Moffi, is to address the enrollment boom with new technologies that help make television an asset for classroom teachers.
Each of the handful of schools that have agreed to pilot HTV is equipped with a 9-by-12-foot, rear-projection television screen, a videocassette recorder, a laser-disk player, and an electronic writing tablet that allows teachers to supplement their lessons by displaying the information from the computer screen on an overhead projector.
Craig Sturgeon, the district's director of instructional support for middle and senior high schools, who helped develop the programs, says he and Mr. Moffi set out to avoid the type of televised instruction that they remembered from their own school days during an earlier enrollment boom.
Too often, they recall, they endured classes in which a disembodied "talking head'' droned out lessons from a small-screen television, evoking little or no interaction between students and teachers.
"We learned from experience that that approach was not the best,'' Mr. Sturgeon says. "We wanted to humanize the large-classroom situation.''
A 'Full Scale' Production Team
Last spring, once the technical details of the project had been sorted out, a committee of classroom teachers and technologists agreed to focus the development of the new programs on two areas of the curriculum that were most likely to lend themselves to the HTV approach: U.S. and world history.
Mr. Moffi and others decided that, at best, the production team could develop three new lessons per week. That schedule would support the development of 108 lessons in both subjects, for a total of 216 taped segments over the course of the school year.
Attempting such a trying schedule was complicated enough, but production was set back severely in August when Hurricane Andrew swept through Dade County, disrupting such everyday services as electrical and telephone service for weeks.
"Just getting through this has been a bear,'' Mr. Moffi says.
The individual HTV segments are produced by a team that includes teachers such as Ms. San Emeterio as well as video producers from the local public-television station, one of only a few nationwide that are licensed to public school districts.
Each individual segment runs roughly 30 minutes to allow sufficient time during a 58-minute class period for a follow-up discussion and other activities.
Mr. Moffi estimates that the cost of producing each segment is roughly $1,300.
Efforts are made to keep the costs relatively low, officials say, because the product is very specifically tailored to the county's instructional program, making it unlikely that the series could be resold to recoup the production costs.
"We could export the concepts, but we couldn't export the shows, because [other school districts'] local objectives will be different from ours,'' Mr. Moffi notes.
But, he adds, the approach could be adopted by many other large districts that face similar enrollment growth if they form partnerships with their local public-television stations.
Getting the Message Across
While Mr. Moffi insists that HTV stresses instruction over entertainment, he acknowledges that two basic aims underlie the production of each HTV segment: "to get and to keep the viewer's attention.''
"If I can do those first two, the message is easily gotten across to the students,'' he says.
But unlike their counterparts in commercial television, the HTV producers also must meet the instructional objectives established by the state of Florida for history courses.
"We can't show just anything, because that won't meet the objectives,'' Mr. Sturgeon notes.
"The Civil War,'' the highly acclaimed documentary by the filmmaker Ken Burns, for example,while an inspired example of educational television, would not necessarily meet the instructional goals.
In keeping with the project's emphasis, the raw materials for HTV come from an eclectic array of sources.
A program on the labor movement, for example, incorporated materials developed by the United Mine Workers, while a respected local collector of Plains Indian artifacts was recruited to make objects in the collection available to the production team for several segments.
"We aggressively go outside of the school system,'' Mr. Moffi says. "We have gone out and recruited local actors ... to try and make [the material] more motivating for the kids.''
Once the materials are obtained, the producers have a free hand to decide which film segments, music, graphics, and other elements are best combined to tell the story.
The U.S.-history segments on slavery and the Civil War, for example, feature spirituals sung by a black singer, dramatic readings of the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, and the oratory of the abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, as well as maps and computerized graphics.
They also include a segment in which Lilly Montpellier, HTV'ó American-history teacher, standing in front of a rough-hewn casket, points out that the volume of the coffin is identical to the amount of living space allotted to slaves during the sea voyage from Africa.
A world-history segment on the rise of humanism, meanwhile, features Ms. San Emeterio interviewing an actor playing Leonardo da Vinci while he "paints'' the Mona Lisa.
"If you were to watch five of our shows, you'd see five different [pedagogical] approaches,'' Mr. Moffi points out.
Scripts, once completed, are vetted by classroom educators, not only for historical accuracy, but also for their appropriateness for Dade's multicultural student body.
"We're very culture- and gender-sensitive,'' Mr. Sturgeon says.
Seeing More, Remembering Less?
Although Mr. Sturgeon and Mr. Moffi say they deliberately chose the largescreen medium for its educational effectiveness, recent research on video in teaching may raise questions about the approach.
Byron Reeves, a communications professor at Stanford University, and his colleagues have found that viewers tend to empathize more with large-screen images than smaller-screen ones, but to remember less of the information presented in the bigger format.
But in an interview, Mr. Reeves said that the research was applicable to situations in which viewers are watching programs alone. The HTV approach, he suggests, may indeed be an effective means of reaching the target audience.
"We know that group viewing is substantially different from individual viewing,'' Mr. Reeves says. "In fact, [other research] indicates that the use of television for instruction in those situations does seem to work quite well and that learning does not suffer much at all.''
He notes that students often say that they would rather interact with a live teacher than a televised one. But he said of the Dade County project: "I think the attempt to provide a presentation format is good. It would give anything that was displayed more impact and immediacy.''