Beyond Home Videos

By Debra Ladestro — September 01, 1990 5 min read

The set is simple: A room with three walls—one of which is a large video screen—and two doors. One door opens. A ball of clay bounces in and is transformed into a baby boy.

The video screen begins to flash images from the boy’s life: birth, first steps, a baseball game, soldiers in battle, marriage. As the pictures fill the screen, the clay baby in the foreground metamorphoses into a boy, a man, and an old man. Finally, the old man, his face noticeably weary of life, struggles toward the door opposite the one he entered. The video screen shows the blips of an electrocardiogram; a heartbeat thumps in the background. The old man opens the door and is absorbed by the emptiness behind it. The EKG monitor stops blipping and sounds the long tone that signals death.

The thought-provoking images and sophisticated animation are from a film titled Espace, produced not by Academy Award-winning professionals but by 10th, 11th, and 12th graders at Rowland High School in Rowland Heights, Calif.

The students are part of what Craig Blurton, director of the California Technology Project, calls a “video revolution” in education—the dramatic spread of programs that teach students not only how to work with video technology but also how to analyze and understand what they see on the television screen.

Blurton and other experts attribute the spread of these programs in the last five years to the increased availability of low-cost, easy-to-use video equipment and to the growing number of school officials who believe that video has an important role to play in the classroom.

The effects of the revolution are easy to see at Rowland High. The students who made Espace are part of Rowland Animation, a program that has won more than 850 awards at local, state, national, and international film festivals since art teacher Dave Master created it in 1977.

In the program’s early days, students shot every film with Super 8 movie cameras. Now they use the latest video equipment, computers, sound systems, and editing machines. “We have everything here: sound technology, computers—Apples, IBMs, and Commodores—plus all the video stuff,” says Master. “The unique thing about our program is that it integrates all these different technologies. We’re inventing new ways of doing things all the time.”

Master’s students don’t seem to find the array of sophisticated equipment daunting. “Whenever we get new equipment the kids are on it first, before I even can get a peek at it,” he says.

Even with all of the time-saving technology, each short one- to five-minute film requires an elaborate planning process that Master says introduces his students to “real world problem-solving.” Before a student is allowed to do any filming, he or she must first present a story idea to the class. “It’s an incredible analytical process,” Master says. “The other students analyze it from every perspective and question everything. It’s not just myself talking to one student. Every student is learning from every presentation.”

Once the story is approved, the student then creates a storyboard—linking the written story with visual images, frame by frame. After storyboard approval, the student moves on to preproduction work—set and character design and construction—and then on to filming. At 12 frames per second, each film can take five months or longer to produce.

Master emphasizes that he couldn’t have put the program in place without the help of school and district officials. “My district has been willing to take a chance with new methodologies,” he says.

Because other districts have been willing to experiment, too, video programs are springing up in schools nationwide:

  • In Waukesha, Wis., 8th and 9th graders at Butler Middle School can take a one-semester class to learn film animation and cartoon techniques. Although the students currently use 8mm film for their projects, instructor John Schoenknecht plans to replace the old technology with video or computers. Schoenknecht says the class is invaluable for teaching students to cooperate and to be aware of how television manipulates. “They have to learn to work together and to deal with the dynamics that go along with working in a group,” he says. “The more successful films usually come from a group that works together well.”
  • Students at Norman (Okla.) High School create their own cable television programs and moonlight as assistant producers for 16 professionally produced programs on the school district’s cable channel. In addition to mastering sophisticated video technology, the students learn “people skills,” says instructor Gary Kramer. “There are a lot of people skills that go into producing television,” he says. “The skills we teach are skills used in organization, in management.”
  • New Jersey has made media education a statewide goal. According to an April 1990 survey, 148 public high schools and vocational schools in the state have programs in television and video production and produce shows for local cable channels. Says Paul Balog, executive director of the New Jersey Television Educators Consortium: “Television has become the primary source of information today. For us to not address that fact would be grossly missing the point with our kids.”
  • An award-winning program in Dearborn, Mich., teaches high school students the rudiments of the technology behind television and video and gives them the opportunity to create sophisticated films, public-service announcements, and cable programs. Russ Gibb, head of the video instruction program at Dearborn (Mich.) High School, says that television is the new vehicle for literacy.

“In ancient Greece, scholars were much revered for carrying their knowledge in their heads,” Gibb says. “When reading and writing came into vogue, there was an outcry among parents who thought their children would achieve less if they took to writing their ideas down. Today, the written word is sacred and the conflict begins anew with the advent of instruction in video production.”

But, he adds, “All we’ve really done is give these kids a new way of setting down their ideas.”

Rowland High School’s Master agrees. “As educators, we must prepare our young people for their increasingly electronic future,” he says. “Our greatest danger is to continue to pay lip service to a growing visual illiteracy.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Beyond Home Videos