Sunday, January 27, 2013

Movies in the Class: Where Do I Go from Here?

I love making student movies. I have yet to master the art of short movies, but giant, epic reviews of entire books are my cup of tea!

A few years ago I sought funding to make a movie review of the entire book of Shoftim. My boss said it was OK and we purchased a Flipcam. He also said that I should understand that it will likely be awful and it will be a ton of work to make a short little nothing.

I took it as a challenge.

I wrote a script, learned how to use Windows Movie Maker, and picked up other bits and pieces of knowledge one should have in order to produce a movie (e.g. file conversion). By the end of the year the entire grade went to the theater to watch our 45 minute masterpiece and each student went home with their own copy of the movie.

In my second round, my school bought be the movie editing program PowerDirector and a tripod, and with the experience of one movie under my belt and much better software, we made an hour long film that left the other one in the dust. One of my colleagues (someone who has never paid an unnecessary compliment in his life) commented that he didn’t see how we were going to outdo the previous year, but that we most certainly did so.

What’s the secret to making it work?

The truth is, at this point I can write a small book. It would be filled with gems like:

1.     Understand that young people are bad with subtleties. When you instruct them to move over just a little bit, they take an enormous step. Most of the time you actually to have to physical show them where you want them to stand.

2.     Seek greatness, NOT perfection. When you have done three OK takes of a scene, it’s often time to move on and choose the best of what you have. If you seek perfection, you will likely be disappointed. You will also likely not finish. The kids will not enjoy themselves and conflict is inevitable. Greatness is achievable, and it’s completely worth not pushing past that so that everyone has a positive experience.

So, I’ve done it. I’ve done it well. The only things left to iron out are small but significant. 

Maybe someone out there in the world can help me answer some of my questions and concerns:

a.     What can I have students who are not being filmed do during the time when others are being filmed? If they are noisy, or even just talking, they will interfere with the filming.

b.     In the past I’ve written, filmed, directed, and edited everything. I’ve progressively ceded bits and pieces of control, like song choices, titles, and designing the DVD cover. What else can I have the kids do? I don’t like them handling the equipment, because they’re spazzy middle schoolers, and we don’t have extras. If they break something, the project ends. Also: Maybe I’m cynical, but I’ve seen the movies they make when it’s just students. They’re usually inane and very poor quality. I want them to look back with great pride even many years later. But I also want them to feel ownership.

c.      Are there resources available for teaching someone how to direct kids? Or resources about the fine details of making a movie I’m unlikely to learn naturally through experimentation (e.g. how best to use lighting)?

d.     How can I get more funding? I don’t like to ask my employers for money all the time, but at the same time, I know money can help make a project so much more impressive. Are there alternative ways I can get money for these projects?

If you’d like to see some of the movies my students and I have made in the past, here’s last year’s Shoftim movie (there are four parts, but Youtube has blocked #2-sorry!):

Monday, January 21, 2013

Relating to Students: Revisited

I still remember not all that long ago when it felt like I was surrounded by people saying the most severe statements about social networking, liking it to an almost demon-like force capable of demolishing our entire society. For certain there are still others who speak that way, although I think trying to fight the tide has certainly lessened.

In 2006 I wrote this in a public forum (,15135,15170) expressing my confusion about how upset people were about Facebook. I’m not ready to point a finger at my “opponents” and tell them I them I was right; but then again, maybe it’s time to reevaluate and realize I was more right than I realized.

I had a thought today, one in which I felt confused (and I’m still confused). Ever since I started teaching I’ve been told that one of the “secrets” of capturing student attention is to learn to relate to them. Chat with them about a movie. Go to one of their games and cheer them on. Shmooze with them about life.

What’s the underlying message? They’ll be better students if there’s a relationship. There’s more chance of a relationship if you’re friendly with them on their terms, on their turf, so to speak. Now, I know that there’s always been a boundary that should not be crossed; however, isn’t their 21st century turf, their comfort zone, the social network? Most institutions, with good reason, frown upon or forbid student and teacher social networking “friendships.” But isn’t the modern “going to their game”, going on Facebook and commenting on the funny hat they wore in Disneyland? Isn’t the teacher the out-of-touch old guy with no connection to their life if he misses so fundamental of a part of it?

I know most will say things about the awkwardness of such a friendship, or that it seems too much like the actions of a child predator or the like. Well, doesn’t an old man showing up at basketball game of a bunch of 12-year-old have the same ring to it? Or has it just become so commonplace and normal that we’ve ceased thinking of it as odd? And if so, maybe it’s time to step into the 21st century and become a part of their lives, where so much of their lives reside, before we’ve totally missed the boat and an immeasurable opportunity.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Google Docs, Save Me!

Sometimes things seem so utterly clear to me, I want to grab others around me and shake the truth into them. My school is overloaded with good qualities. Unfortunately, excellent communication is not one of them. The school is rather large and the teachers are so busy, it seems like all the divisions within the school are functioning as if there are no others, and within those divisions the departments are their own little islands, and even within those departments the individual teachers are basically on their own. 

Yet we pretend. We have days where the whole faculty meets, we get worked up about some idea, pay a speaker a heaping load of cash to motivate our productive collaboration… and the next day we return to status quo.

Recently I read about Google Docs and I had an epiphany that it could solve all of our communication woes by establishing several documents for individual groups throughout the school to contribute. For example, if the school is trying to create a unified, intelligently scaffolded Hebrew curriculum in K-12, they could have bulky and annoying emails that get ignored and get burdensome in one’s Inbox, or they can have a meeting that is unwieldy and almost impossible to conduct with everyone present. Or an intelligently formulated document can be created for which all members of the group can participate without restriction of time or location. I know what I’d choose!

 For staff collaboration, Google Docs have these advantages:

1.     Staff can collaborate quickly and easily in basically limitless formats about limitless topics.

2.     Everyone can contribute on their own time. No more meetings with missing essential people or last minute rescheduling!

3.     It makes a large institution smaller. Divisions can have incompatible schedules, it’s impossible to have many after-school meetings, and it’s virtually impossible to conduct a productive meeting with a very large group. This idea circumvents all these problems.

4.     The less aggressive staff members will be able to be heard.

5.     It’s an amazing format for brainstorming and eliminating unworkable ideas.

6.     There is an instant record kept of all opinions and ideas (teachers can initial their comments). Credit for good ideas is obvious and inherent in this process.

7.     For documents with a small amount of contributors, staff can color code their comments.

8.     And so much more!

          Now all I need to do is get everyone else on board as well.
The hard part…

Sunday, January 6, 2013

My Podcast Dream

I have a bit of a dream of how I can use a Podcast in some of my classes to extend my learning beyond the classroom. Perhaps if I put it into a public forum, I will get the opportunity to flush out some of the complications nice and early, and perhaps I will motivate myself to turn my idea into a reality.

The idea is really simple. I create a weekly Podcast, preferably a video, where I speak about a topic we spoke of in class, but from an angle we have yet look at. In my Podcast, I’ll take a stand, sometimes a controversial one, sometimes one I don’t necessarily agree with, but all with the common theme of being thought-provoking.

For example, if we were learning parshat Ki Tisa, I could offer a short diatribe exclaiming that Moshe had no right to break the tablets. His actions were borderline criminal and God should punish him them. The students would then be responsible for responding to my video (agree, disagreeing, reflecting on, etc.), either in writing in the area for comments, or preferably with their own video. A clear rubric would be included for what a proper response must include in order to receive credit.

The benefits of such a project would include the obvious one of extending the learning outside of school in a fun and likely extremely engaging manner. In addition, students could gain the additional benefits they seldom receive in school of increasing their effective use of video software as well as improving upon their oratory skills. These are, among others, two primary advantages over a blog, where students are utilizing the written word exclusively and are not exploring any new skills. And the novelty of video alone might be sufficient to capture many a reluctant student’s attention.