Sunday, April 27, 2008

Engaging B.

One of my goals for this student teaching exercise is to try and engage more of the students in my classroom. Despite the "fun" nature of my classes, they are actually pretty difficult and I hold the students to a pretty high standard. Add that to the culture of my school, where many students do just enough to get by, and many hardly try at all, and the result is usually a few students who give you that "thousand yard stare" when you are trying to motivate the classroom.

One of these students is B. He is just the kind of student that we want to attract to the Digital Media Academy at MTS. He is bright, creative and non-traditional. He wears emo style clothing (although, like most emo kids, he vigorously denies that he is emo) and has his hair dyed blue. He toured our school with his father and decided to sign up based on our arts curriculum. He started out in two of my classes and from the start, he was not what I expected.

B. has an engaging personality and I suspect that he has used it effectively in the past to succeed in a lot of ways. He immediately became popular with both students and teachers, although it quickly became apparent that he has a taste for drama.

B. knows a lot about computers, so right off, he went about beating the filter system in my classroom. The students in my room have less restrictive access to the internet than most of the school and it a privilege that I guard with a great deal of care. I was not pleased.

B. also came into video class with what he considered a great deal of experience in the subject, although he displayed none of this experience and refused to discuss anything he had done previously.

As the weeks stretch by, I became more and more worried about B. He had convinced someone that his interest in video was so high that he should be allowed to sign up for both the Video for TV and the Film and Video class. These two classes are very similar and while it is possible for a student to succeed in both of them at once, it is less likely that he/she will fail in one without failing in another. So I had B. in two blocks, basically refusing to work and earning zero credits.

Eventually, by talking with the principal, I got him out of one of the classes, but I was wracked by guilt at my failure to engage him in the other. Occasionally, he would take a camera to the park and collect footage that he claimed was for a video he was going to make for some non-existent song he had written in Music and Sound.

I talked to my colleague in the Sound Department and we compared notes on B. We realized that he was performing similarly in both of our rooms. B. basically keeps himself busy enough to not get in trouble, but never does enough to pass. I also conferred with my boss about B. and we agreed to keep an eye on his progress, but I did not find any solutions. This was my problem to solve.

And I did, by accident. On Thursday the 23rd, all of the entries for the .edu Film Festival were due and the video tapes were pouring in the door. We had been spending parts of our classes looking at the work from schools from all over the state. This is very interesting for me, and I found, very interesting to our students. From the different video projects they watched, they began to realize just how competitive we were.

High School video kind of exists in a vacuum. It is very difficult to know the quality of the work the students produce. It is easy to think that your stuff is pretty good, but without anything to compare it to, it is also easy to take that for granted. And what do you compare it to? YouTube? No, too amateur. Hollywood? Absolutely not!

As we watched the videos from other schools, the students began to realize something about themselves. They were pretty good filmmakers. Not always the best, but certainly not the worst. The projects that we made in the last two years could easily stand up to almost any entry in the festival. My students were impressed.

When you grow up as part of the working poor, you sometimes get used to the fact that your "things" are not always of top quality. A pair of Nike Air Jordans are a treasure to be spit-cleaned after the smallest scuff. Jeans are sometimes hitched up at the ankles with rubber bands so they will not drag and become frayed at the bottom. Tags are left on clothing, to show people that you can and do wear new hats and jerseys.

Children who come from this culture sometimes assume that their neighborhoods, their housing, their transportation, and even their education will probably be second rate. It is a joy to present them with a quality program.

As we watched the entries from small town schools and suburban schools, from prestigious public art schools and large city schools, I watched my students faces light up. We were good at what we were doing.

One of the students who was particularly taken with the video entries was B. He commented on each one with an insightful viewpoint. He threw out some editing terms and camera techniques that I thought he had never retained. At the end of the day he walked out of the classroom discussing film with his classmates.

And the next day, he walked right into class and asked for the camera. He had a CD in hand with a techno song that he written and recorded in the sound studio. He went outside, collected some decent images and sat right down at the computer to edit them. He asked a few questions and quickly understood the basic functions of the editing program and was soon putting together a pretty good music video.

When class was done, he asked if he could get the piece into the film festival. The due date had passed, it wasn't really right for me to let him enter. He wasn't even done. So I said yes. After all, this was supposed to be an educational experience, right? I told it had to be done by tomorrow morning. He looked at me, then back at the computer. He took out his cell phone and called his dad. "Dad, " he said. "I'm going to stay after school and work on a video so I can get it in the festival." He paused. "No, I'm serious, do you want to talk to my teacher? He's right here."

B. finished his video that afternoon. It turned out pretty good.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

4/16 Testing and Testing and Testing

It's been two days worth of MCAs. All seniors were excused from classes, freshmen were sent on field trips, and tenth and eleventh graders took math, reading, and writing tests. I proctored the reading tests for tenth graders. Not much to it, you read the script and watch the kids take the tests. I heard that there were problems in some of the testing rooms, but my group was as quiet as could be. I had not one problem.

I had a student in my group who I have never had in class, but who I eventually heard a lot about. I guess W. rarely makes it through a day without getting kicked out of one or more classes. He won't stay still, he cusses out teachers, he ignores requests and he picks fights with other students. The thing is, I didn't recognize W's name when he came into my testing room, so I had no who he was or how he has behaved in the past.

W. came in a little late, as did several other students. He is black, about fifteen or sixteen years-old, and dresses in hip, clothes - his T-shirt and jeans are less baggy than lots of the boys and he wears a flashy belt buckle and wallet chain; it's called the rock star look. He wears his hair in an unusual style too, kind of cross between a fade and a pompadour. He was pretty calm when he arrived and only nodded to another boy in the class and flashed him a guarded, half smile.

As with the other late-comers, I took W. aside, handed him his materials, and went through the script on the packet I was given. He listened intently, then sat down and began his test. He read his passage carefully, mouthing the words and sometimes mumbling them out loud, but no one seemed to mind. He answered the questions carefully and took more time than anyone else in the classroom. When he was through, I asked him if he had checked through his answers and he told me he had. Twice.

In the meantime a colleague popped his head in the door and saw that my students were all working quietly. He nodded his head toward W. and asked, "What's up with him?" When I shrugged my shoulders, he queitly filled me in on W. and his past behavior. "I don't know," I told him, "He's been nothing but respectful today." My colleague just raised his eyebrows and walked away. I had a felling he was thinking that the shoe would eventually drop.

It didn't though. By the time that W. had taken his break and started up on the second section of the test, many of his peers were finished. I crouched down and told him, softly, not to worry that he was taking longer, just to do a good job. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "no problem."

W. was the only kid left in my room by the end, he took all morning and a little more. When it was time to go to lunch, I told him that if he wanted to keep going and finish up, that was fine with me. He told me he was just about done, and a few minutes later, he called me over to seal up his test booklet.

"Good job," I told him, and I had to add, "I thought you were supposed to be some kind of bad-ass, that you never get a long with teachers."

He just shrugged his shoulders and gave me that half smile, "Sometimes, they just be buggin' me, you know? "

"You cool though," he added, and stuck out his hand. I shook it and he took off into the hallway, running toward the lunch room and yelling out to a friend .

I saw him later that day, as he walked toward the front door after lunch. His eyes went right through me; they did not register my existence.

That's okay, though. He'd already paid me quite a compliment that day. I'm certain we will speak again.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Big Fight 4/10

Big fight today. Three kids, one with a hammer. I saw the students rushing toward the door and knew that something was going on. I was the only staff member to respond. There were two smaller boys and a very big kid, over 6 ft, probably 250 lbs. One of the small kids had the hammer and was in between the big kid and the other smaller one. The big guy was throwing punches and the boy with the hammer was threatening him, holding it up and yelling something. I only had a moment to decide. I went for the big kid. He was swinging wildly at the boy with the hammer when I wrapped him up and pushed him away. He went easily. I shoved him back inside the door and went after the other kid. He tried to ditch the hammer and and I grabbed it. By that time help arrived outside but in the meantime the larger boy and the other boy had started up again right inside the door.

When I went inside, another teacher was trying to get the two apart and was getting the worst of it. They were grappling with each other and swinging and my colleague was squeezed between them. I wrapped the smaller boy in a bear hug from behind and pulled him away from the fight. The big kid kept swinging and lunging at us so I kept the boy locked in my ams, turned, and pushed him down into a corner so the other boy only had my back to swing at. By that time, he was swarmed by staff and pulled away.

We turned back around and I just held the smaller by in my arms for a while and he leaned back, limp against my chest. Both of our hearts were beating fast and we were both breathing hard. "Are you okay," I asked him, and he said, "yeah, I'm cool," but he didn't move, he just leaned there against me while we caught our breath and I hugged him to my chest.

It was a funny thing, those few moments that we leaned there in the corner as the crowd of students dispersed.

I don't think that kid gets a lot of hugs. I think he was very scared; that he is very scared a lot of the time. I think he felt safe there in the corner, leaning against his teacher, at least for a few minutes.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Teaching in the City 4/09

My school works on a block schedule. Four periods with each class meeting every other day. Classes are 90 minutes long. This is new this year and I have mixed feelings about it. The population of our school is very diverse in their ethnicity, but are united in their economic status. Our percentage of students who qualify for free lunch is in the high nineties. We have a great deal of absenteeism and little parental involvement. Homework is seldom completed.

When it was announced that we would be switching to the new schedule, I thought it might be a good thing, that it would give my students a bigger block of time to work on a video shoot. When we had 45 minute periods, it sometimes seemed like a period was over just when we got rolling.

Instead, the block schedule has been difficult for me. Students need to bring costumes and props from home to do video shoots in school. It seems like this is more difficult with the every other day schedule. In addition, whenever a student is absent for one block, it is the equivalent of two days of standard class time. This adds up fast.

So, today is the first day in the new term for my day 2 students.

This screenwriting class is bigger, with more students working on the web-based curriculum. Attendance is low today though. I had a discussion with a student about a reading - the difference between "characterization" and "true character." Another student and I had a talk about 3-act structure in film, specifically exposition. We talked the first 5 pages of the script and how to make every scene count; how to write each scene so that it accomplishes several different things. I also organized each students expectations for the term and assigned them the specific units they were expected to accomplish.

Video #1:
This is a great video class. I have a creative and quirky group of kids who have done more work than any other group this year. Today, we watched a video blog on about depth of field video techniques to achieve it. We took the camera out to the hallway and practiced using manual focus and a density filter to achieve a more artistic look. Then we planned had a quick group discussion about the footage we wanted to shoot and went outside to shoot it. We used the technique we learned today to shoot the footage. Lastly, we came inside to upload the video and even had time to do a little editing. This class is a dream. As you can see, the amount of work accomplished is far beyond the other video classes.

Video #2:
This class is very difficult. The students mostly belong to a group of friends and they always seem to be in social conflict. These guys have completed very little. They refuse to do any kind of preparation work, they mostly want to jump right to the fun stuff. Consequently, the things they manage to produce are not very successful.

Today, they put together some footage with some music that one of them had composed in the sound studio to create a video of sorts. They made short work of the project and then wanted to surf the net. Instead, I directed them to a sight that teaches video concepts with puzzles, blogs, and articles. I assigned them a unit on composition. One student did the assignment, one student pretended to the assignment, one student skipped to the assessment and claimed he know all the answers already, and another student attempted to go to sleep. These guys are so tough.

Sometimes I feel like it is my fault, that I don't provide engaging enough curriculum for them. Other times, I look at a class like the video #1 today, and I know that it is not entirely my fault. I do know that it is my responsibility to offer curriculum that will engage my students, if they refuse to participate, it is not necessarily my fault.

Teaching in the City 4/08

Today was the first day back from spring break. I expected a low turn-out but attendance was pretty high. I should know not to try to figure out high school students.

This class is entirely individualized and taught using web-based lessons. The students complete a week's worth of work, either in class or from home. My job is to walk around the classroom and troubleshoot.

It seems like the students really like this kind of instruction. They are free to go at a pace that suits them and it is impossible to get behind. Our school grades on a three week term. If a student only completes unit 1 during the first term, he/she is able to start up at unit 2 for the next term. Even thought he/she was not successful for the first term, they are not starting out behind in term two.

I've got students at every level in my two screenwriting classes. Some have just signed up and are starting on unit 1, others have completed all 18 units and are working independently on a feature length (90+ pages) script.

This particular class has three students who work independently and several who are working through the web-course. Two of my independent workers are pretty talented, but both suffer from attendance issues.

Today they are excited to get back and see each other so it takes a minute to get them settled in. Once they settle down though, they are very quite. Sometimes it is amazing when the room sinks into silence, except fro the tinny clicks beats from headsets and the sharper clicks from the keyboard.

Video #1:
In my first video class today, I have very few students enrolled. My two mainstays are F. and T. They are making a documentary about graffiti artists. At the end of last term, we went out with the camera and took footage of a bunch of great graffiti under the Ford bridge in St. Paul. Today, we began to piece some of it together in Final Cut Pro, the editing program we use. They girls shared their plans for additional footage and interviews, and used the phone to schedule one interview. I checked a camera out to them to use after school.

Video #2:
In my second video class, we worked on an interesting project. The kids went to the local barber shop and to the bank across the street and interviewed subjects at each. They want to put together a fake talk show, where it appears that they are interviewing the subjects via satellite connection. They want the guest to appear on the wall behind them as they talk. In addition, they want to chop up the interview and have the subject answer questions they were not asked.

We discussed the best way to work out the timing of this with the equipment we have access to. The "talk show hosts" must look at the screen and nod for an appropriate amount of time as the subject speaks, but the subject is not really speaking as the hosts are being shot, the subject will be added later in editing. We discussed this as a group and came up with three solutions to the problem, then narrowed it down to one last solution. Nobody was in total agreement with the solution we picked, so I suspect when it comes time to impliment it, we will have additional discussion.

Next we split up, a couple of kids worked on screenplays and the rest looked at ways to edit the bankers' interview into humorous sound bites.