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.

The National Council of Teachers of English has listed 'viewing' as one of five essential skills–along with reading, writing, speaking, and listening–in its national voluntary English standards.

Learmont sees the studio as a laboratory for teaching her students how to read the symbols and messages encoded in television, film, and other visual media. "They won't accept the fact that TV technique is not random," she says.

She ticks off the four chief tenets of media literacy: "All media are constructs. All constructs are identifiable. All media are commercial interests. All media have a values base."

These principles frame the lessons she teaches in the introductory class every fall. A prerequisite for the advanced courses, it tries to shake youngsters' confidence in what they see on television as they learn the basics of television lighting and camera angles.

For example, an eye-level camera conveys an emotionally neutral or "normal" view of the subject, she explains. A high camera angle gives the viewer a feeling of superiority or omniscience, while a low perspective makes whatever is on the screen appear more powerful--larger than life.

Learmont believes schools should be teaching children to decode video images right along with reading. Central to that decoding, media-literacy proponents argue, is a critical approach to what students see on TV.

"Commercials are the reason TV exists, and programs are filler, not the other way around," Learmont tells them.

The media-literacy movement originated among Australian film teachers in the early 1970s, says Elizabeth Thoman, the founder and executive director of the Center for Media Literacy, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Los Angeles. It later spread to Canada, and especially Ontario, where the province's ministry of education requires media-literacy training in schools, Thoman says.

In the United States, the idea has spread slowly.

At the forefront, New Mexico has made media literacy a component of the statewide curriculum framework gradually being introduced in all academic disciplines, and North Carolina has put media literacy tenets into its curriculum guidelines for communication skills. The National Council of Teachers of English has listed "viewing" as one of five essential skills--along with reading, writing, speaking, and listening--in its national voluntary English standards.

But school districts have been slow to incorporate media literacy into their curricula because of the lack of trained teachers, Thoman says. The center, which has 2,000 active members, holds an annual conference and is a clearinghouse of classroom resources.

Thoman says interest in the field is growing because of a meeting of the minds between teachers who teach about film as one of the humanities and teachers who are exploring the media capabilities of technology. "Media production is creating analysis, and analysis is causing production--the two streams are merging," Thoman says.

Like Learmont, she believes media literacy is best taught as a combination of production and analysis. The type of work students produce--video, storyboards, journal-writing, Web pages, or radio--is less important than the approach.

A former rock music promoter, Russ Gibb has become a local legend for the studio empire he has compiled at the school over the past 17 years.

The demands placed on students in Learmont's advanced video courses are even greater than in the introductory course. For each video project, her students, who work individually as "independent producers," write a concept proposal and a script and create a storyboard--a sequence of sketches of all the major camera shots. They must recruit their own "talent"--usually friends or family members--and collect signed release forms.

"The kids do a lot of paperwork," she says.

Producing a video requires skills well beyond the techniques of manipulating cameras, lights, sound, and editing equipment. Standard tasks include writing, casting, rehearsing, choreography, announcing, and typography. A video based on music or a poem--MTV-style music video is the most popular genre--demands the sophisticated literary tasks of adaptation and interpretation, Learmont says.

Teamwork is also important. Students naturally gain specialties, and they constantly swap favors and tips.

Little of the money for Learmont's stu-dio has come from the school district's taxpayers, at least directly. Much of the equipment has been purchased with an annual contribution from the cable company, which as part of its franchise agreement with the local government must kick in for educational programming.

The remote truck Berman is using to cover the hockey game, for example, is a recent addition shared by the Bloomfield Hills schools and the local community-access network.

In the late 1970s and early '80s, when civic leaders everywhere were signing their first franchise agreements with cable companies, those in the Detroit area were aggressive in demanding generous provisions for public- and educational-access channels and subsidies for school video programming.

Those agreements are one reason the Motor City and its suburbs have become a hotbed of school video production.

Another reason is Russ Gibb. A former rock-music promoter and cable television entrepreneur, Gibb runs the video program at Dearborn High School just west of Detroit. He has become a local legend for the studio empire he has compiled at the school over the past 17 years.

"He's my model," says Learmont. "When I got here, he was the only one doing it."

Several Dearborn High teachers in English and social studies, Gibb says, now accept video term papers. He views that as vindication for his advocacy of 'the new literacy.'

Over the years, Gibb, 67, has amassed more than a million dollars worth of equipment in the two converted classrooms that make up his studio. Again, much of it has come from contributions from the local cable franchise, although civic organizations have helped out, too.

Gibb's program, which he runs with teacher Kurt Doelle, serves about 100 students from Dearborn High and two other high schools.

When he began the television production program in 1982, Gibb modeled it on a high school athletic program. "I asked myself, 'Why do the jocks get everything?'" he recalls. "The answer is: They've got the biggest building in the school. They stay around after school. They compete and win recognition."

He made sure his studio had an outside door and its own security system so he could keep it open after regular hours. When his purple Lincoln Continental is parked outside on the sidewalk--as early as 6 a.m. or as late as 9 p.m., even during the summer months--his students know the studio is open.

His class, part of the school's vocational department, for years has been a district showpiece for visiting officials. Celebrity has spared Gibb some of the conflict between vocational and college tracks that exists in other video production programs. But, he adds, "some colleagues think this is a waste."

Some, but not all. Several Dearborn High teachers in English and social studies, Gibb says, now accept video term papers. He views that as vindication for his advocacy of "the new literacy."

The camera is today's pen, he says, and he wants his students to know its grammar.

And, almost unique among vocational offerings, his program has been a melting pot for electronics students who want to explore their artistic talents and college-bound drama students who want to understand the demands of the small screen.

One of Gibb's student engineers, for example, set out this school year to produce a music video that would be accessible to deaf students.

For subject matter, Gibb steered him to Gilbert & Sullivan, and senior Joe Clear ended up with a five-minute video of a song from the operetta, "H.M.S. Pinafore." The lively performance features a singing admiral in a powdered wig and a chorus of girls in frocks--all of whom simultaneously repeat the lyrics in sign language for the deaf.

Clear, who co-produced the video with senior Sharief Taraman, says the experience opened his eyes to some new source material: classical music. "I just bought a Vivaldi CD," he says.

Gibb doesn't teach from a textbook, assigning projects instead such as making a video about a person or producing an advertisement. Often, students make "anti-advertisements," such as one student's humorous speculation on the origin of Spam.

Competition is a key element of the model video-production program that Gibb pioneered.

For the last 15 years, Gibb's students have gone to the local cable studio to produce a live interview show that runs every Saturday night. Many of his students have received scholarships and local grants to attend university-based summer video programs in Michigan and elsewhere.

He speaks with pride about his students who have gone on to work in television. One became a writer and producer for the television series, "Northern Exposure." Another produces and directs television commercials for national products.

Sometimes, Gibb says, his students' choices of subject matter can be explosive, but he doesn't interfere. He asks them, "Are you willing to take the flack on it and willing for me to be tied up handling the outcry?" If so, they get the green light.

Several years ago, one of his students won a prize for a video project on gays and lesbians.

Competition is a key element of the model video-production program that Gibb pioneered. Learmont's studio displays many of the trophies and awards that her students have won, and Gibb's students also win their share.

The competition is fierce. In recent years Bloomfield Hills has dominated the prized Emmy awards, given by the Michigan chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for the year's best 30-second public-service announcement.

Learmont makes no apology for being competition-driven. Contests give students goals and impose deadlines, she says.

At the hockey game, Andover High has widened its lead over Lahser, while inside the television truck Aaron Berman is having a good night.

A scuffle breaks out between the Andover and Lahser players, to the delight of the 16-year-old director. "Fight!," he says. "Follow it, everyone. Camera Two, take a shot of the fans."

As the game winds to a close, his four cameras have grabbed clear shots of all the scoring, a goalie's glove save of a deflected puck, and a tangle of punches.

The audio was good, the graphics free of misspellings, and his cameras captured a good closing shot of Andover's players raising a large trophy above their heads to celebrate the win.

The tape will make a good contest entry, and Berman, who has been involved in video clubs since the 6th grade and who hopes to make a career in television, beams with pride. "I've never been involved with such a successful game."

Vol. 16, Issue 24, Page 30-33

Published in Print: March 12, 1997, as The Screen Set

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