Note: Yes, I am planning to have my students film a feature-length movie. Yes, this project is MASSIVE. What was I thinking? It will be ongoing all year. As I move from stage to stage, I will write updates on my progress and experiences. In the meantime, here is how it began and how I organized it.
I was talking to a colleague, ES teacher Rachel Easily, who had once worked in the Marshall Islands. She told me about the country’s isolation and the subsequent difficulty in finding particular products, including Hollywood entertainment. Rachel showed me an advertisement for a movie created by filmmakers in the Marshall Islands to fill their entertainment gap. I joked that if the people are hard up for entertainment, then maybe I should have my students make a feature film for the islands.
We had a good chuckle, but later I realized that making a feature-length film would be an awesome project for my students. These kids have already amazed me this year with their videos. They seem very comfortable on either side of the camera and are technologically adept at editing and adding music and special effects.
Surely, I thought, if two students can create a quality 7-minute film, then 86 students could create something bigger and more awesome.
I was afraid to start something so big, but then I remembered how teachers are supposed to help students understand that failure is simply a first step, not the end of the line.
Shouldn’t that be true for teachers also?
Step 1 – Choosing a Story
My first step was to consider source material. Rather than have students create a story from scratch (and perhaps something totally unrelated to my US History class), I thought I would focus on something linked to my curriculum – the novel Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. It is a great story about a young slave girl struggling for freedom during the US Revolution-era battles taking place around New York City. Not only does the novel do a great job of illustration the plight of slaves, it also shines a light on the divided loyalties and points-of-view of colonial citizens.
Step 2 – Defining the Jobs
Next, I had to create a mechanism for giving each of my 86 students a job. Here, I did some online research and created a list of most of the jobs necessary for putting a film together. Here’s my list:
- Finding Locations
- Making Props
- Finding Actors
- Organizing and Scheduling
- Electrical Needs
- Sound Effects
- Visual Effects
In some cases I used Hollywood terminology, and it other cases, I paraphrased job names to ensure student understanding. For each job, I provided a definition, in simple terms, of the job and the nature of work it entailed. I put the jobs in a kind of order – they are organized in terms of jobs required before filming (pre-production), jobs occurring during filming (production), and jobs that occur after the filming (post-production). This division helped me to keep track of the jobs and ensure I didn’t leave anything out.
Then, I divided the jobs list again. This division was more student-focused – to aid in student choice. I colored coded the jobs based on skill sets employed. The three groups were Creative, Logistical and Technical. Each of these headings was giving a definition to help students understand the basic notion of the tasks within that grouping. Here are my definitions:
Do you like making artistic things – music, pictures, words? Are you taking art or music classes? Do you love to read and write in your free time?
Are you an organized person? Are you the kind of person who is always prepared? Do you enjoy making lists? Do you score well in Responsibility? Are you ALWAYS on time? Are you logical and practical?
Do you like to use technology? Do you like working with your hands? Do you mind getting your hands dirty? Are you comfortable around machines and other tech toys?
Beneath this list, I put in the following disclaimer: You should think about your own skills and interests before deciding where you would like to work. Once you are in a group, you are stuck there!
Step 3 – Assigning the Jobs
For this, I created a very simple Google Form. It was a survey where students identified themself and then, using a list, they selected 5 jobs they were most interested in performing. I made sure that I told students (and indicated in the survey) that students were guaranteed to get a job, but they were not necessarily getting the job they really wanted. This was an “out” for me to a) ensure all jobs were filled, and b) split up those students who were choosing jobs simply based on which of their friends were also choosing that job. For new teachers out there, it is CRITICAL to understand that students may forget everything you teach them, but they will NEVER forget a promise. So, never make firm promises and always give yourself an out!
Another tool I used to help me was to include a cap number in the above jobs listing. That number indicated to students what the maximum number was for each job. For instance, the number of Editors was capped at 5. The number of camera operators was capped at 2. This allowed me to encourage students to try other areas by giving me the excuse that certain positions had already been filled. A cap at each job also helped me ensure that all 86 of the participating students would have a role open to them. Some jobs seemed a little light in number (2 Visual Effects persons) while others seemed heavy in number (8 Writers). But, for the sake of flexibility and getting stuff done, I made sure I told students that they could be asked to help out in other areas if the need came up.
Some jobs were obviously easier to fill than others. In fact, I found that students – already aware of their strengths and interests – came forward to express interest in certain roles. One boy, who was very active on YouTube, expressed a great deal of interest in editing the film, pointing out that he already had much experience and the necessary software on his laptop. That really helped me as very few students get excited about (or were even aware of) a behind-the-scenes skill like editing. Acting obs, on the other hand, were a different story altogether. Everyone knows what actors do and many (including Drama students and the vainglorious) stepped up for a role in the “spotlight”.
Casting was also interesting in the sense that it opened up a nice opportunity to discuss race. With the source novel being about slavery, it was only right that the actress playing the lead role was black. The discussion surrounding this allowed me to show students how, in the past, entertainment was segregated and black roles were played by white actors in makeup. The photos of Al Jolson in blackface really rattled students.
Step 4 – First Picks
Once students chose their jobs, I went through the list to check for issues. I was delighted (and relieved) to note that students followed directions and put their complete name on the list, along with there choice rankings. Every job had names next to them – not necessarily the number I wanted, though. For instance, 29 students volunteered for the 2 Director positions. But, thankfully the first job – Writers – had exactly the 8 volunteers I was seeking. I scheduled a meeting with this group and will soon meet with them to plan our next steps.
So, this is where we are right now. I will provide more details as we move through this huge project. I don’t regret starting it…yet!