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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Dropouts: When Kids Are Challenged and Encouraged, Great Things Happen

At the beginning of this school year, two students were put into my Digital Production class that really didn't belong there. One of them had never taken a class from me, while the other had, but had shown little interest in the assignments and mostly kept to himself. These kids were goths: They dressed all in black and hung out with others who did the same. They liked heavy metal music that had decidedly dark overtones.

When we started class, I gave an assignment to make a TV commercial, and everyone in the class dove in. When I looked at the results, I realized these two kids had produced something superior to everyone else's. They clearly needed a challenge. I also knew that they were considering dropping out of school.

They had taken a screenwriting course the previous year. I had not seen any of their scripts, but I knew that they must have had some, so I took a chance on them.

I had recently weaseled my boss into buying two laptops not designated for anything in particular, so I approached these two kids with a proposition: I gave them a computer, a video camera, a DVD burner, and all the tape and DVDs they could handle, and told them to make me a movie. They wanted more direction, but I replied that if that I told them what to do it would be my movie, not theirs. I told them I would help them with whatever they needed -- equipment or guidance, or to run interference -- but I wanted a movie at the end of the semester.

From that point on, I couldn't get rid of them. They came early; they stayed late. When they neglected their other classes to work on the film, I told them I would get in trouble if they didn't keep up with their schoolwork. They wrote a new script, recruited actors, and shot and edited what turned out to be a two-and-a-half-hour movie about Bigfoot going to high school.

Late in the semester, I heard from the school's work-experience coordinator that there was one internship at an editing company. I sent both of these kids, and the one job turned into two jobs -- the folks at the company said those two knew things about editing the people at the company didn't.

These two kids, Fredy and Catelyn, graduated this year, and they intend to go to film school. When I asked them what turned them around, they said that when they began working on their movie, I looked at the first rough cuts and said I was proud of them. They said nobody had ever said that to them before.

I am proud of these "dropouts"!

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Judith Loeber's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Congratulations Ron! Tapping into student's interests, giving them guidence in project based learning in which they take ownership has helped your endangered students, and it has helped mine. We have gone into the direction of image ready animations as an aspect of photoshop with the same enthusiatic response. This has generated student leaders out of those who were more intent on revolution. When all the animations were strung together for presentation at the state tech conference the kids realized what an impact the visual could make. Classroom management improved as those students became famous throughout the school for something other than dissent for dissents sake. Setting them up to teach others as animation mentors gave them a responsible role in nurturing others and understanding their own capacities. My digital photo classes threaten to take over my fine arts schedule, and my art portfolio development class for Seniors has grown to half digital. Teaching in the technology of their age allows our kids to become problem solvers, to welcome change and react to it creatively as they become facilitators in their own learning. We are now tapping into an after school guitar club, formed to give the goth kids a place to belong in a rural district where football and teams rule. Garage band and animation for their CD covers has the same effect of giving place, belonging, ownership and creation of mentors to younger students. With photoshop, simple drawings over base layer photographs can make a rap wanna be suddenly the designer of his own label of t-shirts. Suddenly potential, and dreams giving the taste of success spurs further success. Yes Ron, their is a Santa Claus, and the gift is giving of yourself!
Julie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Beautiful story.... what life is all about... helping others find their place....Thank you
Lynn Marentette's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Another comment- I'd like to share a few thoughts regarding technology, disengaged learners and potential dropouts. The two students Ron described are not unlike many others who are sitting in our high schools, communities, and juvenile detention centers. His story is a reminder that disengaged students CAN become re-engaged in the learning process. Unfortunately, if nothing is done, these students silently disappear. The only reminder of their existence is their name on a dropout list. And then they are forgotten. It is a problem that is not going away. It is important to share stories of success and encourage our colleagues. It is also important to look at what we can do on a broader scale. As I mentioned in my previous comment, I'm a school psychologist. Part of the job includes working on a team that includes teachers and related support staff. In many schools, this team provides school psychologists the opportunity to collaborate with teachers to plan or recommend instructional (or behavioral) strategies and interventions. With NCLB and the new IDEA regulations, the strategies and interventions must be "evidenced- based", supported by research, and likely to produce positive outcomes that can be measured over time. It would be wonderful if these teams routinely included the school's technology facilitator and/or media specialist. There is a lack of a body of research regarding the use of technology in intervention and prevention efforts carried out at the school level. In many busy schools it is difficult to control for hidden variables that might impact the quality of the research. I know that most school psychology graduate students must conduct school-based research as a graduation requirement. I think an interdisciplinary approach to research in the schools would be something to consider. Would it be difficult for leaders of graduate programs in school psychology, educational technology, and other fields to work together to support this effort? I know that many school psychology graduate students would welcome the opportunity to study the effectiveness of interventions that integrate technology, if they had the support from knowledgeable colleagues. To do my part to spread the word about the potential of technology, I created a blog, initially designed as an on-line repository of annotated resources for participants of a workshop I presented at a school psychology conference earlier this year. The title of my workshop was "Interactive Multimedia Technology: A Tool for Intervention and Prevention". My theory is that interactive multimedia technology has the potential to promote engaged learning, as it can address the learning needs of a wider range of students. Engaged learners are less likely to consider dropping out of school, and students who have successful experiences using technology are also developing skills that will help them make the transition to further education and adult life. My blog can be found at Interactive Multimedia Technology
Claudia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I am so proud of you as a learning facilitator. You took the teachable moment to its best climax. May you continue to facilitate learning for your students . CER
rce's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Good job guys!
Allison Williams's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
How interesting; the moderator of an online book club to which I subscribe wrote her column today about the significance of telling someone you are proud of them. This concept goes right to the heart of human connections. Thank you for this inspiring piece.
J. S.  Bates's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Thousands of fanatics pack arenas and gymnasiums across the nation during "Madness" month. The energy and accolades shared by enthusiasts is contagious. Your story helps me catch a spirit that shares special learning moments, when we see the lightbulbs of creativity, acceptance, and acknowledgement flash brightly outside of the traditional classroom are happening everywhere. The ability to make a difference or simply be a difference is a power our children have, but tapping into that power means using a variety of tools and environments. Your outreach of an opportunity to these two lucky students, that they stepped up to, is a great way of reinforcing the engaging, enlightening, and educational experience project based learning provides. Every young person may not be a gifted athlete, artist, musician, or student, but I am reminded of a great quote a student shared with me a few years ago ; "I realized I didn't have to be a movie star, professional athlete, or politician to make a difference in someones life" after taking part in a Service Learning project. All children are gifted. They just open their presents at different times. We are lucky to open eyes and minds to doors our students only dream about.
Chris Bergerson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is what real learning is about: engaging, transformational, hands-on, and relevant. It often takes more time and energy, but the results.

Toni R in TX's picture
Toni R in TX
Parent of two.

Just read your story about the "bored" goth students. I am glad that these kids were saved. Thank you!

Four Years Later, the story still inspires!

Toni R in TX's picture
Toni R in TX
Parent of two.

J.S. Bates, May I quote you? This is magnificent!:

"All children are gifted. They just open their presents at different times. We are lucky to open eyes and minds to doors our students only dream about."

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