Published Online: March 12, 1997

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The Screen Set

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With sophisticated studios and a sharply focused curriculum, video teachers offer their students a clearer picture of what's on TV.

Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

In a white panel truck outside a suburban Detroit hockey rink, a tense 16-year-old scans a bank of television monitors.

The screens flicker with pre-game activity. Some show shots of the crowd or players from the two rival high school teams, the Andover Barons and the Lahser Knights, warming up. Others display titles and graphics.

Aaron Berman, a slender sophomore from Andover High School, is a veteran director, but tonight he's working with a skeleton crew. And one of his camera operators is a rookie.

As the opening face-off nears, the team members in the television truck make their final adjustments.

One minute to go. Berman calls for a "beauty shot," and Camera One zooms in on some teenage girls laughing in the bleachers.

With seconds remaining, he cuts back to a shot of the referee, who drops the puck to start the game. "Ready Three, take Three," Berman says, giving orders rapid-fire. "One, follow the puck. Four, you've got to be closer so we can zoom in on replay. Ready One, take One."

In high schools, television production has come a long way since the days of the audiovisual squad. Many schools boast sophisticated studios teeming with advanced equipment and students who know how to use it.

These studios, and the courses that teachers have built around them, have carved their own niche in the highly structured society of secondary schools. In places like Lahser High School here, the television studio rivals the band room or the gym as a focus of cultural and social life.

In many ways, the new video departments bring together traditional elements within schools that are often at odds: vocational training and college preparation, social studies and English, artistic expression and technical skill, academic study and community service, teacher and coach.

And they make up a vital part of a new curriculum--"media literacy"--that a growing number of educators believe is vital for preparing students to function in a society that overflows with information.

Central to that belief is a strong conviction that television is much, much more than something to stare at. Its reputation as a passive medium evaporates when teenagers like Aaron Berman get behind the camera.

Media literacy is based on the notion that he and his classmates are learning a lot more than merely the right buttons to push or which camera angles work best.

'It's a needed social exercise that people understand the economics of television and the effect on democracy.'

Donna Learmont
Video Teacher,
Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Video teachers say their medium has become a tool of communication and expression as important as the written word--one that deserves both respect and resources.

They have another goal, too: to save students from having their brains pounded into mush by America's media culture.

"We are the fish, the media is the ocean," says Donna Learmont, the video teacher in the upscale Bloomfield Hills district. Many students, she says, never realize what they're swimming in, accepting blithely what television offers without understanding the ways it can manipulate or distort.

"It's a needed social exercise that people understand the economics of television and the effect on democracy," Learmont says.

Yet these teachers often must battle to gain acceptance from their colleagues who teach traditional subjects, from parents skeptical of nontraditional subjects and newfangled ideas, and from school boards who often view their requests for equipment as expensive frills.

At the hockey game, the action is heating up. Andover makes several early goals, but Lahser closes to within a point in the second period.

Camera Four captures a good shot of two Andover players sandwiching a Lahser player. "We love that hitting," Berman cries, ordering a replay at the next commercial break.

These are some of Learmont's advanced students, and they've been here for hours setting up the truck. They work with Brian Town, a video technician hired by the district to run its educational-access station, which will broadcast the game on tape over the two local cable networks.

Advanced students are required to work at least one community event--often a school board meeting or a sports event.

Back at Lahser High, Learmont oversees a $350,000 production studio, of which the centerpieces are three industrial-grade Sony cameras--$8,000 apiece--arranged on wheeled metal tripods and arrayed before a rough stage.

Learmont, the only teacher in the Bloomfield Hills video-production program, teaches introductory and advanced classes to about 80 students. Her classes are held at Lahser but also include students from Andover High.

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