As part of the professional develop ment outreach work I do with the Minnesota Writing Project, I recently had the opportunity to work with a teacher using documentary filmmaking with her students.
The eighteen students in class, mostly juniors and seniors, were enrolled in an advanced language arts course for English language learners. As part of their reading, research, and writing about community issues, the students made documentaries about issues of poverty and educational access.
My tasks were to assist the teacher in designing the curriculum, work with students in small groups as they drafted their voice over narrations, as well as provide technical assistance and tutorials while working in the computer lab during the final weeks of the project. Working on this project was a blast. Not only do I love working with innovative teachers up for literacy adventurous big and small (Ms. Ziegler, whom the students affectionately called “Ms. Ina,” was definitely of this ilk), but I also crave working one on one with the students. On this project I got to know many of the students very well, helping them to work through their expression of ideas when writing the voice over narrations and then again as they combined their own writing with the interview footage, images and music.
Far from what some may call glorified dioramas, these iMovie video projects were very involved, requiring students to critically analyze the data they had gathered on their topics. In addition to regular “academic research” for the project, the students were required to gather primary resources in the form of interviews with relevant community leaders. Weaving interview clips along side voice over narrations is not an easy task. Students had to decide which information and interview clips to leave behind, which to include, and in what order. The students also had to negotiate with their peers (the students worked in groups of three) regarding which images and music to use in order to add emphasis and tone to their arguments. I remember hearing many heated conversations related to whether a group should use Michael Jackson’s “You are Not Alone” or Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” The group members wanted the mood to be serious but not sad.
As I continue my work with media composition as it relates to literacy learning and instruction, I hope to continue working with students as they make media. More importantly I hope to continue working with adventurous literacy educators like Ina Ziegler, who knowingly jumped into the messiness of media composition in the classroom.
Working with Ms. Ziegler as well as with several other K12 educators using digital media forms of writing, my understanding of writing instruction has become more and more complex. While I love to teach word choice and playful phrasing, I realize that words alone are not enough. In order for our students to persuade their points and advocate their views for 21st-century audiences, they must know how to use media in rhetorical ways. How else will they gain these critical literacy skills without schools providing the opportunities to create with images, video, music and sound? So while Ms. Ziegler’s students used documentary to advocate for issues pertinent in their community, I use print, the medium of currency in my profession, to advocate for a broadening of our community values, for a change in how we see writing in the lives of our students.
The final documentaries can be viewed by visiting the course website – Listening to Learn, Speaking to Persuade: Documentary as Community Advocacy.