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.