Behind the Camera, Students Document Life and Learning

March 20, 2017
By Natalie Orenstein

At Philadelphia’s Workshop School, students are developing media production skills to shape their school community and their own learning.

The video opens with a voiceover: “Are you tired of traditional learning?” Black-and-white stock images of school children sitting in rows, looking bored to death, float across the screen.

The narrator continues. “Are you ready to start having fun with your work and build the skills you’ll actually need for the real world?”

The student-made video is the product of a recent documentary media unit at the Workshop School in Philadelphia. Last year, students at the high school made short films reflecting on their experiences in the unusual learning environment.

The Workshop School is part of the The School District of Philadelphia and a member of its Innovation Network. The school focuses on project-based learning and holds a vision for democratic education that gives students a voice in making positive change in their school and community. Students here spend half of each day engaged in hands-on projects, perhaps building the set for a student-written play or designing water filters to combat contamination. The school draws students and families who seek innovative learning approaches or who may not thrive in more traditional academic settings.

The Workshop School received a 2015 LRNG Innovation Challenge grant to train students to create multimedia stories about their own lives, including their experience at the Workshop school in support of future incoming students. The LRNG Innovation Challenge grants stem from a partnership between the National Writing Project and John Legend’s Show Me Campaign to help educators extend time and space for connected learning.

This year with LRNG support, students at the workshop school participated in summer internships through partnerships with local media production organizations. Students attended workshops at Scribe Video Center, a nonprofit in West Philadelphia that supports local media artists in making documentaries, and at PhillyCAM, the city’s Public access media group. Students worked with experts at both organizations to create multimedia projects to tell their own stories, some of which even ended up being shared online and broadcast locally.

Then, in the fall, students took what they’d learned back to their school community—leading workshops for students and staff on how to incorporate digital media into their coursework.

“The 10th grade classes asked one student within the first month of school if he would be willing to come to each of their classes and lead a short workshop on how to use a video editing software,” said Brandon Miller, the teacher who is leading the project. “We met after school, looked over some of the video he had made over the summer, and put together the workshop.”

Alumni of the summer program continue to be on call for teachers who may need additional support with media projects or software.

And students have also embarked on an ambitious documentary project of their own to help younger students adapt to the school’s unique learning model.

Joseph Joine, a 10th grader at the Workshop School, has always used cameras at family gatherings and played photographer at church weddings when permitted to. At school, he has learned more about the video production process, discovering an aptitude for, and pleasure in, each step.

“I really love interviewing someone and getting to know them, and asking the right questions that will get me good responses,” said Joine, who worked with a classmate on a documentary about the school play. “I also love editing videos. Yes, it can be tiresome at times, but the enjoyment you experience when you finish your product and see the outcome is priceless.”

Now, he’s working with his fellow students on a documentary project. Though just in the beginning stages, the final film will follow three students at the Workshop School, tracing their path through four years of school. The film is intended to ease the transition to the school for incoming freshman to help them better understand the school’s unique approach to learning.

Teachers and students here say this transition can be difficult for some, especially students who come from more traditional learning settings. Miller said this difficulty was also true for him as a teacher when he came to the Workshop School from a more conventional public high school a few years back.

“It was radically different,” he said. Miller had also been a community college language arts professor and an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a doctoral degree in education. At the beginning of his time at the Workshop School, Miller was mainly interested in identifying what made it different—and what purpose those differences served. Was it achieving its goal of building community through unusual means? What kind of professional development was effective here?

Miller said that his own self-reflection (through journaling, video and photography) helped him figure out what was or was not successful at the Workshop School, Miller began to wonder what would happen if his students were given the same opportunities to document and reflect on their own experiences at the school.

The documentary project and the leadership roles students are taking on are an important outcome of his work to get students to reflect on their own learning and process of learning, as he did as a new teacher to the school.

“Our students are bombarded with media all the time,” Miller said, “but my hope is this project gives them an opportunity to shape the narrative.”

At a recent presentation on their work at the University of Pennsylvania’s Ethnography Forum, one of the Workshop School Students, Krista Fraiser, said the training she got in the summer has helped her build skills in video editing and shooting. Fraiser said she’s now paying attention to specific camera angles in shots and how to match sound and image—all of which helps her better express herself in the video medium. She has made her own work about colorism within the black community and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life before the internship,” she said. “But after the internship, I was interested in videography. I used videography to communicate my messages and the challenges that everyday black people face.”

For the educators at the school, the media production work is an attempt to answer the questions they constantly grapple with.

“How do we let students know they can be leaders?” Miller said. “How do we let them have a voice?”

And for the students, “It’s empowering—not just the students who are leading, but those who are seeing their peers leading it,” Miller said. “They think, ‘I can be a leader too.’”

Top photo of a student project/The Workshop School