Two high school media journalism students sit newscaster-style in suits, behind a desk, to broadcast person-on-the-street interviews about the latest trends on campus. A public-service announcement uses animation, music, and graphics to make a case for renewable energy. And a montage of recorded sports clips set to rap music shows the dedication and drive of student athletes.
Those videos were produced at the, a fully equipped digital-media production facility at Cambridge Educational Access TV in Cambridge, Mass. The studio is located across from the 1,700-student Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School and affiliated with the campus’s Rindge School of Technical Arts Media Technology program. Through a series of in-school, after-school, and summer programs, students practice using words, images, and sounds in meaningful ways to create content for two Cambridge cable channels and the studio’s website.
“These devices are so organic to everything they do, so to use them—and their skills—in this other, purposeful kind of way really expands their thinking about the ways in which they can communicate and present themselves,” says Ginny Berkowitz, the manager of media arts for the 6,400-student Cambridge public schools. “They feel that they’re really able to be heard, and that’s pretty powerful.”
Programs around the country are encouraging self-expression, critical-thinking skills, and collaborative learning through digital-media production. Learning to research and write scripts, hone interviewing techniques, and edit footage are just some of the skills students develop during the creative process—a process that touches on multiple academic subjects and builds both self-esteem and confidence—traits shown to lead to better grades.
Students often use the experience to articulate their passionate opinions or feed their curiosity about the world; some are even earning certification in media technology before graduation.
The relationship between hands-on media production and a student’s chances of developing into a productive, independent, and engaged citizen is the current subject of, with support from the Chicago-based Robert R. McCormick Foundation. The evaluation began in November 2012.
Gaining expertise in how media messages are designed and produced also helps students better evaluate those that bombard them every day, says Berkowitz.
That’s why the district began offering media arts electives, in conjunction with the Media Arts Studio, at four middle schools this school year. The electives—which include digital storytelling, media production, and, which is a free educational programming language that introduces students to basic computer programming—provide hands-on, developmentally appropriate projects that serve as a foundation for what’s to come at the high school level. Fifth graders may sketch out a public-service announcement, for example, while 8th graders may construct a short news program linked to a topic they’re studying in social studies.
Every high schooler can take media-arts courses, or enroll in a three-year training course to earn certification in media technology.
With a newly acquired media-distribution system, the Media Arts Studio in fall 2012 started streaming and archiving student-created media for the public to view on demand.
Educators say that, given the digitally connected culture students live in, it has become second nature for them to want to share what they create and have the opportunity for instant feedback.
‘Kids Teaching Kids’
At the 1,064-student Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica, Calif., students create video math lessons used around the world for classroom instruction atand other websites such as YouTube and iTunes. MathTrain.TV began in 2007 after students, who saw tutorials created by 6th grade math teacher Eric Marcos, wanted to experiment with creating their own. The MathTrain.TV website now averages 750,000 hits per month.
The students use the screen-capturing softwareto incorporate arrows, pop-ups, and other attention-grabbing features into short lessons that cover such topics as how to add integers and find probabilities using a spinner. Many are closed-captioned, which is important not only for those with hearing disabilities, says Marcos, but to strengthen the message with visual reinforcement.
“When I watch students make a video, I can definitely see them pulling in things they’ve learned from other places,” adds Marcos. “They’re not just throwing out the information; they’re also thinking about how they’re delivering that information.”
His students have received worldwide media attention for their “kids teaching kids” videos, and are featured in the educational technology consultant Alan November’s recent book, Who Owns the Learning?: Preparing Students for Success in the Digital Age.
Video is “a more comfortable way” to get messages across to young people, says Amara Lomba, a 6th grader at Highlander Charter School in Providence, R.I., which has 300 students in pre-K through 8th grade. She co-created characters for a Web-based video game called “The Real Robots of Robot High” that 80 of her peers helped design to help promote healthy relationships.
“Instead of someone coming to the school to talk to us in a boring way, kids can just get on the Internet and play this instead,” Amara says of the game, developed in partnership with Sojourner House, an advocacy and resource center in Providence for domestic-violence victims. Young people are logging on, and leaving comments, from all over the country.
Kylie Peppler, an assistant professor of learning sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington, witnessed the power of an audience during her three-year study of underprivileged children and youths at a South Los Angeles after-school media arts studio. She paid particularly close attention to one academically struggling 2nd grader, who produced videos that over the next two years incorporated interviews with adult mentors, humorous special effects, and a free-form soundtrack—before she was able to read or write.
“She received some local notoriety, which built up her confidence, and then she started trying to tackle the things she wasn’t good at in school,” says Peppler. “The bottom line here is that kids are much more capable than we would expect.”
Building Career Options
At the 580-student, part of the Galveston school district in Texas, students in grades 5-8 study game design, virtual animation, video tech/broadcasting, digital graphics, digital photography, and Web design. Students in grades 7 and 8 can earn both high school credit and become an Adobe Certified Associate.
“They’re becoming very skilled, not just knowledgeable, at these things,” says Diana Bidulescu, the academy’s magnet coordinator.
While the Media Arts Academy was originally designed to help students explore potential career options at earlier ages, the skills it teaches transcend any one industry."There’s not an organization in the country that can’t benefit from some video-production knowledge on staff,” says Craig Santoro, the director of media instruction at, an initiative of public-broadcasting station WHYY in Philadelphia. The station offers in-school, after-school, and summer media arts programs to about 450 students a year in grades 5-12.
Free after-school programs teach teenagers in grades 10-12 to produce short documentaries on such topics as autism, the city’s high school dropout rate, and social networking. In-school partnerships, meanwhile, are being piloted this school year with 5th and 6th graders at two elementary schools.
While WHYY uses three high-quality video cameras and Apple’s high-end Final Cut Pro editing software, Santoro adds that districts can offer students valuable lessons “just by buying some relatively inexpensive video cameras and letting them go out and find their own stories.”
Behrrisferd Windross, a senior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School in Massachusetts, recalls the thrill of discovery as the PSA he produced about global warming took shape over time. The PSA, which won a national award in July 2012 from the Alliance for Community Media, based in McLean, Va., included time-lapse photography, dramatic lighting, and an original music score.
“Taking an idea and putting all of the pieces together was a challenge for me,” he says. “But the award was very eye-opening, to see how much potential I had.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2013 edition of Digital Directions as Digital Storytelling