Project-Based Learning (PBL)

How to Grow Your Own Film Academy

May 10, 2013
Photo credit: Jim Bentley
Students from Foulks Ranch Elementary work on a video shoot for their client, the city of Elk Grove, California.

After months of planning, city officials in Elk Grove, California, are preparing to open a community recycling center equipped to handle hazardous household waste materials. If the new facility is going to be well used, local residents will need to learn the right way to transport batteries and other hazardous materials for safe disposal.

Fortunately, the city's waste management staff had access to a local film academy to produce an instructional video. After collaborating with the city's waste management expert on the script, the capable crew at Foulks Ranch Film Academy is now busy editing five hours of footage into a five-minute final cut. They're previewing it at a city council meeting this week, when the filmmakers -- all sixth-graders -- will tell the story behind their work.

For Foulks Ranch Elementary teacher Jim Bentley, this is just the latest in series of projects that leverage the power of filmmaking to teach writing, critical thinking, and civic engagement. "The light bulb moment for me," he says, "was when I realized that anything students filmed had to be written. Filmmaking is the connective fabric. We can weave in math, history, science. I'm good to use this for anything."

After his first exploration of filmmaking as a class activity in 2009, student interest exploded. Bentley launched an after school film academy for students in grades 2-6. Their world headquarters is a former supply closet that's been repurposed with green screen and hardware purchased with donations. Their YouTube channel is called Curiosity Films.

"I credit our principal with being forward-thinking enough to recognize the value of this kind of learning for my students," he says. Building the program from scratch has also given Bentley the opportunity to teach students how to be resourceful, creative problem solvers and active citizens.

How to Get Started

Bentley says it's not necessary to be a film or video expert to launch a similar project with your students. You just need to be willing to learn together.

Once he recognized the instructional value of digital storytelling, Bentley began taking advantage of local expertise to learn more about the craft of filmmaking. The Sacramento Educational Cable Consortium has been a valuable resource for both teacher and students. "They hold training opportunities throughout the year for teachers, students, and families. We've been to local TV studios to learn about audio and lighting and to a public radio station to learn about interviewing and news writing," he says. An animator from Pixar offered a session on storytelling, modeling the value of learning from experts. "It's been quite fantastic to find people who know more than I do," Bentley says, adding with a laugh, "I try to stay 10 or 15 minutes ahead of my students."

The cable consortium also hosts an annual countywide student video contest, which has sparked more interest from the Foulks Ranch crew. "Our first entry was a public service announcement about going green. We've come a long way," Bentley acknowledges. Students have expanded into making documentaries, developing instructional videos about mathematics and other subjects, and using archival images to tell stories about the past. They also take on projects for clients from the community, including the city's waste management department.

Cedar Kehoe, Elk Grove's integrated waste program manager, admits it may have been "a little risky" to enlist student filmmakers. "If this didn't turn out well, I'd look bad." But she's had no reservations about the way the project has unfolded. "They're producing a better product than I'd get from a professional consultant," she says. Students have been responsive to her feedback as a client, rewriting the script until she gave it her OK. During two days of shooting, she watched students work well as a team and handle the equipment like pros. She credits Bentley for being "an amazing mentor. He's there to coach and direct, but the kids are the one who are doing this." Kehoe can't think of better preparation for adulthood. "Look what's on their resume already," she says. "The next George Lucas may well be one of them."

Modeling Resourcefulness

To acquire the equipment they need for professional-quality projects, students and teacher collaborate on fundraising. Bentley has made several successful funding pitches on the DonorsChoose platform. "It's marvelous," he says, "but to be successful, you have to be a shameless marketer of your students. You can't just write a proposal and wait." He makes the process transparent so that students understand why they're "making the ask." He emails parents, inviting them to share the request with their contacts. "That's a way for everyone to get involved," he says, regardless of their ability to make a donation. His own parents-both retired teachers-have contributed. When donations start to roll in, sometimes from around the world, students get a real-world lesson in the power of social media to accomplish their goals.

Encourage Active Citizenship

Increasingly, Bentley's students are producing films that encourage active citizenship. This reflects his own evolution as a social studies teacher, thanks to resources and professional development provided by Project Citizenfrom the Center for Civic Education. He also credits the World We Want Foundation with providing philanthropic support for projects that encourage "prosocial impact."

"I've always loved history," Bentley says, "but it's the easiest subject to teach poorly if it's all about dates and dead people." Project Citizen has helped him reframe his thinking about teaching social studies through inquiry-based projects. "If we learn about our own system of government, then we can take the steering wheel and engage with that system. Project Citizen empowers kids to monitor and influence public policy." And because his students are adept at telling digital stories, they can document their activism.

Which civic issues engage students' interest enough to make a difference? Here are just two recent examples:

  • City lights: When students learned about the effects of light pollution on bird migration, they advocated for street lights that would be less harmful to wildlife in their community, which is located near Sacramento. Bentley says the founder of the International Dark-Sky Association was so impressed by their efforts, he made a special trip to Elk Grove to meet with them
  • Public funds: To improve fitness in their community, students advocated for construction of running tracks at each of the district's elementary schools. They ran into a roadblock when they asked for a reallocation of funding to pay for the project, but that didn't stop them. Bentley recalls the class discussion about making appeals: "Students asked, so who's the boss of the superintendent? The school board. Who's the boss of the school board? Ultimately, it's the people." Bentley encouraged students to use "tact and political etiquette" to advance their cause. "Eventually, they were able to influence our superintendent and budget director to amend the district's master plan and redirect bond money to build these tracks. They swung a two million dollar deal to get the tracks built. That was quite exciting"

As the teacher helping to facilitate these active citizenship projects, Bentley says he has learned to "embrace the chaos." Because projects are driven by student interest, he doesn't know which issue his students will tackle next. "They don't decide until we go through the process and select an issue they want to look at," he says. That makes teaching "exciting -- and a little nerve-wracking," he admits.

Teaching through such engaging projects "is like driving in the fog," he says. "You have to pay attention and keep your eyes open." But now that he's made the transition, he adds, "I'd never teach any other way."

To learn more about Bentley's student filmmaking projects, visit his class wiki or website website.

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