Innovation: Filmmaking and Literacy

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 01, 2009 2 min read
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Students from the Silver Spring International Middle School got a chance to see films they’d made in an elective class at school on the big screen this morning at a film festival at a local movie theater. The movies were made as part of the class, “Lights, Camera, Literacy!,” that is taught in 15 schools in the Montgomery County, Md., district as part of a middle school reform effort. That reform effort aims to make academics more engaging for students.

George Mayo, an English teacher who taught the elective class at Silver Spring International to 84 students this school year (and has a blog), said the students learn a lot about the elements of storytelling through making films. “They have to look at what goes into stories: plot, motivation of characters, types of conflict.” He said they also learn to collaborate.

Mayo, the school receptionist, and the school nurse occasionally show up in minor roles in some of the students’ flicks, but mostly they feature actors who are in middle school and are doing their filming in and around their school.

One clever one-minute film using stop-motion animation features a clay figure that rides around on a skateboard. It’s a very short subject that makes a point of not having a plot and conveys the idea that “any story with no plot is not a story.”

A nine-minute film, “The Middle School Life of Vince Elwood,” has a theme of middle school angst. “I’m so confused, don’t know where I’m going,” begins the central character, Vince Elwood. “Why do I always feel like I don’t fit in? ... Maybe I’m overreacting.” He tries to join a band with other students but quits after they ask him if he can sing, and he has to admit that he can’t. The band members then treat him badly one day at school, knocking his books out of his arms. But then they later say they are sorry and invite Vince back into the band, even if he can’t sing. It ends with a talent show, in which the band is a hit.

Other films have a supernatural quality with mysterious boxes and a character who finds he has superpowers after being hit by a car. The boy with supernatural powers gets some training on how to channel them properly. He then prevents a bad character, who wears a black cape, from taking control of his school. That production, “The Clumsy Ninja,” ends with a battle between the good guy and bad guy in the cape, complete with special effects of a hurling blue box and lightning-like zapping.

Making films helped the students to learn more vocabulary and improve their knowledge of characterization, I was told by three students—Kaylan, Mary, and Mona—I interviewed before the start of the festival. (Update: I’ve deleted their last names at the request of Mayo.)

“You just have to love the technology,” added Mona, who helped to make “Love to Dance” about a girl who dances well but is shy about doing so in front of others.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.