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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Multimedia Serves Youths' Desire to Express Themselves

Southern California's San Fernando Education Technology Team focuses on learning by doing and speaks to students' fascination with technology.
By Edutopia
Edutopia Team

VIDEO: Students Speak Their Minds Through Digital Media

Running Time: 8 min.

Editor's Note: Though the San Fernando Education Technology Team is no longer active at San Fernando High School, some of the former participants have created their own company to tell stories through media, and continue to foster the program's goals by working with San Fernando students on Saturdays to produce the iCan Film Festival. Marco Torres has moved on from San Fernando High School to become an educational consultant.

Until Consuelo Molina discovered the San Fernando Education Technology Team (SFETT), she wasn't particularly engaged in school, and her extreme shyness kept her from being anything more than an uncomfortable, silent observer in class. However, through the technology-team program and its photography, videotaping, sound recording, editing, and presentation instruction and equipment, Molina's voice is now loud and clear, and her opinions are known around the world.

A Sacrifice for You, Molina's Web video on sweatshops, has been praised and used by participants at the Women's Human Rights Conference in Paris, by Apple CEO Steve Jobs, and by a teacher in India, among others.

"Her passion and her interest to talk about something that really bothered her and to have it reach every corner of the world was an experience that she'll never forget," says Marco Torres, the teacher who started the technology team at San Fernando High School, north of Los Angeles. The school has a population of predominantly poor Latino students. Ninety-six percent have no access to computers at home, and 83 percent perform below grade level. So far, about 300 people have participated in the SFETT program, and all of the 80 SFETT participants who graduated from San Fernando have gone on to college. Torres says the program catches students' interest because it focuses on learning by doing and speaks to their fascination with technology and all things digital.

Student Cesar Larios's video explores the struggles of life in an immigrant neighborhood.

Credit: Cesar Larios

Multimedia for Learning That Sticks

What Torres remembers about his own education are the things he made in school: the plaster cast of his hand in kindergarten, the spouting volcano in third grade, the model of a California mission in fourth grade. His students, he finds, enjoy coming up with a tangible product as much as he did. "I see kids that don't traditionally do well in school succeed because this was another way for them to express themselves," he says.

"Media is the language of kids," Torres adds, saying that students who may not take to learning by reading a textbook or listening to a lecture often jump at the chance to understand complex concepts by presenting finished products in the form of a film or a Web documentary or a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation.

Junior Marisol Garcia had a choice between "really big-deal" cheerleading and SFETT. She chose SFETT. "It is more than just a class," she says. "It is lots of work, but work I look forward to. There are always new things, new opportunities. It's exciting." She says adds if all classes were hands on like in SFETT, students would learn much more in school than they usually do.

SFETT is in part funded by the California Digital High School grant program. It also enjoys the support of a number of private businesses. Norstan became a major contributor toward equipment for the program's Computer Inspiration Studio. Apple Computer, as well as individual Apple executives, contributed equipment and expertise.

Multimedia tools are introduced through projects in several formats: documentaries, music, experimental video, advocacy/selling ideas, and storytelling/feature production. Content for the projects comes from the students and is often based on assignments given in other classes. Molina's sweatshop project, for example, fulfilled an assignment in her economics class. Using up-to-date "presentation of learned information makes for realistic, contextual, emotional connections" to what is learned, says Torres.

Recent projects run the gamut from lighthearted to serious, and at least two focused on politics:

  • Su Voto Es Su Voz (Your Vote Is Your Voice) provides students with an experience in taking a position on a current issue, then researching and supporting it via visual essay.
  • Cesar Chavez March for Justice includes colorful still photos from a San Fernando rally and a lively song sung in Spanish about the United Farm Workers hero. SFETT students also made a separate video with interviews of local politicians and civic leaders advocating a holiday honoring Chavez and his work.
  • What could have been a dry, routine social studies report on immigration graphically places the viewer with a contemporary immigrant family in Mi Barrio. Viewers meet Cesar Larios and his mother, who talks about her grueling work as a housekeeper -- the price she pays to build a better life for her children. The video walks viewers through the neighborhood and near a house where a drive-by shooting left bullet holes in the stucco.

Other projects have included animated stories and commercial ads, some of which were entered in a "Got Milk?" competition sponsored by the California Milk Processor Board. One ad made it to the semifinals.

Devising storyboards helps students plan and visualize video productions.

Credit: Edutopia

Planning, Planning, Planning

Once a topic is chosen, extensive planning begins. Students must present convincing written and verbal arguments to Torres before being allowed to use the equipment. They develop critical questions to address in their presentations. Storyboards are created to communicate graphically the angle or scope of individual camera shots or segments of a visual presentation. A timeline of daily deadlines gauges progress. Students design evaluation rubrics to ensure they are on the right track while working through the process. Once the plan is approved, students check out the equipment appropriate to implement their idea.

Torres's mantra for his students is "Planning, production, presentation, sssessment, and sdministration," with an emphasis on planning. "It's easier to take an eraser to a blueprint than a pickax to a foundation," he says. Students learn through practice that careful time management and teamwork help them accomplish their goals. Torres marvels at the way the kids work together and learn from each other as they try every route possible to create a high-quality final product.

Consuelo Molina made schoolwork personal and meaningful through video productions like A Sacrifice for You.

Credit: Consuelo Molina

Building Leaders and Futures

"Anything is completely possible, really possible," Torres, who has been recognized by California governor Gray Davis as a model educator and named an Apple Distinguished Educator, often tells his students. "Never give up. Be leaders." An effective way to instill leadership, he emphasizes, is to share expertise.

At the start of the program, Torres identified students and faculty willing to gain proficiency with the sophisticated equipment. They became the team providing technology support and encouragement to other students, faculty, and community members. Torres estimates that 150 San Fernando High School teachers have been trained and says that half the students at the school have used the program's Computer Inspiration Studio, where the equipment is housed. As it has matured, the program also has developed a Web library of lesson plans, professional-development opportunities, and an evaluation rubric.

Molina, the student who produced the acclaimed video on sweatshops, was among those who progressed from novice to expert. During her first year in SFETT, she learned basic multimedia production. By the second year, she was teaching other students and parents on weekdays and Saturdays, when the program is open to community members. She taught computers and multimedia and showed parents, most of whom did not have computers at home, how to preserve old photographs by scanning them into computers.

Now enrolled as a biology major at the University of California at Los Angeles, Molina has far from abandoned her interest in video. She squeezed a film-production class into her schedule, does video editing, works on film crews, and returns frequently to see what SFETT students are doing, learn about new developments, and help out.

The production of Snowfight II involved twenty-six people.

Credit: Ruben Betancourt

Teamwork and Lifelong Learning

SFETT program lives on for many students. "In SFETT, I learned lots of different ways to communicate through technology -- how to gather information, speak, make a presentation, project myself, throw in a joke every so often," says Ernesto Hernandez, a sophomore economics student at Los Angeles's Occidental College. "The program really focuses on using the computer as a tool to express ideas. In school, it is sometimes hard for students to express themselves."

The most powerful lesson he learned, however, had to do with working collaboratively. "The only way to get things done is through teamwork," Hernandez says. Torres agrees, and the physical design of the multimedia studio supports collaboration with clusters of workstations and a "think room" where students meet and discuss projects. One example of the kind of cooperation it takes to make a film is seen in the production of Snowfight II. The project involved twenty-six people in its direction, story, storyboards, editing, modeling, animation, sound, character voices, and music.

"Working in this program has completely changed the students' outlooks, their lives," says Torres.

Though the San Fernando Education Technology Team is no longer active at San Fernando High School, some of the former participants have created their own company to tell stories through media, and continue to foster the program's goals by working with San Fernando students on Saturdays to produce the iCan Film Festival. Marco Torres has moved on from San Fernando High School to become an educational consultant.

Comments (63)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Margery Maidman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What Marco Torres is doing with kids is powerful and empowering. With traditional assignments, where the student is asked to produce something and then it is evaluated by a teacher and returned, too much of student energy is devoted to the product--get it over with and move onto something else. We all know that planning is where a lot of the real learning occurs, but students do not see the value in it. (I'm basing these observations on my experience with middle and high school students.) But when students know that their products and ideas will be evaluated by peers, community, and beyond; that they can be part of a larger conversation; then they are far more invested in planning, research, and LEARNING. Torres knows how important planning is to learning and producing a quality product, and his students do as well. And, as one student explained, even the presentation is not the end; it is something you learn from and then move on to the next project.

Using multimedia tools and enabling students to reach out to a larger community is authentic and empowering. It makes me realize that "writing" is really about organizing, developing, and presenting ideas in a compelling way. By having students choose issues that are important to them and "air" them using the voice tools that are readily available, they are actually developing their "writing" skills. All students have issues that are important to them. And because the web is interactive, it makes what they are doing relevant and exciting.

I was moved and impressed by the pride Torres's students take in their work. Multimedia projects lead not only to learning, but also to pride and self-esteem.

I have always tried to use drama in my classes, where students would act out scenes from literature or a concept we were studying. The information and the experiences they remembered were always the ones they acted out. I see multimedia as my next challenge, to make learning real, authentic, and motivating.

lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

it is great to be living in this day and age. So much has been done, but so much more to do.

Jennifer Shepherd's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a preservice teacher at ASU West in Glendale, AZ, this was a very touching story to watch. As future teachers, it is our job to ensure that our students are learning and working towards making themselves better more well rounded individuals. The way this school district pulled all these students together allowing them to work together as a group towards a goal that they are proud of, is incredible. Especially in an area of Los Angeles that does not have high expectations for its youth. These kids deserve to have just as bright a future as any other high school, and it is amazing that they have a program that allows them to do that.

Rob Hunter's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What an amazing program Mr. Torres has flagshipped! Not only does the SFETT deeply educate student's in new technologies, it also fulfills student's ambition to express themselves, and work on projects that they really want to. I am a preservice Teacher at Arizona State University and am really pursuing innovative and effective techniques in students understanding and retension of concepts and ideas. Additionally, I believe its crucial for students to be able to express their ideas as well as create meaningful and practical outlets involving things they learn in the classroom. As a preservice teacher, Mr. Torres has inspired me tremendously. Not only is he enabling students to learn modern technologies, he is also encouraging them to be their selves by creating something meaningful to them personally - a sort of emotional outlet. This story is extremely inspiring, and gives much food for thought in my planning to become an effective educator

Cara Holly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think what Marco Torres is doing should inspire all teachers. As a preservice teacher at ASU West, one of my goals is to help my students feel a connection between the material they are learning and their everyday lives. Growing up in school, I often felt that what I was learning lacked relevancy to my life. I think this is why many students get lost in school, lose interest, and end up not reaching their full potential. In the video you can see the children's faces light up as they talk about their projects in SFETT. It is my hope as an effective teacher, that I can bring this inspiration to my students so they can enjoy learning and relate to the material. I think technology is a great way to do this, because learners today are so technology centered.

Danielle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow! What a great story! I think that this article and video really shows the progress that can come from dedication and hard-work. This program provides a great outlet for the young adults and other members of the community. It is amazing to think that it began with one laptop in a janitorial closet and has become what it is today. It would be nice to see more programs like this implemented throughout the districts. Since I am a pre-service teacher, I also really like the bit the teacher had to say about taking the process of learning and linking it to tangible items/topics that the students can relate to. What a great method of learning. Great article!

Jessica Torkelson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This story is simply amazing. As a preservice teacher at ASU West Campus, I am so impressed by this program started by Mr. Torres. It is wonderful that this teacher has taken kids on the glorious ride to discover the potential they possess not only in making of videos and using other computer technology, but also in working in groups and even, in the case of one of his students, taking interests in global humanitarian issues. As a future teacher, I hope that I can have half the inspiring influence on my students that Mr. Torres has had on his.

Ronald Sielski 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am surprised that we do not see much more of this in our local schools. i was lucky enough while in the 8th grade at Hillcrest middle school i was selected to be apart of their "technology" team. It was a class period dedicated to teaching a few select kids about computers and how to fix some problems with them, it was always neat to have teachers come to you for help! along with the the class ran the morning announcements. this technology excites learners and is what they spend most of their time outside of school doing its only natural that more programs like this show up.

Scott A's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a preservice teacher at ASU West Campus and I found the SFETT to be very inspirational. Allowing children to express themselves through a digital format is obviously very effective. Students gain several skills from working in this environment including, small group communication, technology skills, project planning, and self-expression. All of these skills can directly translate over to the real world and workforce. I would love to incorporate a program like this at a school I will work at in the future.

Myra Horstman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a preservice teacher at ASU West and found this article useful in demonstrating how technology can be extremely beneficial in teaching. I was amazed how effectively the SFETT integrated technology to help promote student learning. The program engages students in course content by allowing students to construct various projects that interest them. At the same time, students are taught the value of collaborating on projects and learning from the perspectives of others. This use of technology allows students to take what they have already learned and develop deeper meanings from new experiences. As a future educator, I hope to gain my own techniques in effectively integrating technology into my lessons that will ultimately work to enhance student learning

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