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Reel Communities: From Apathy to Engagement

By Kara Clayton
 | Dec 08, 2017
ThinkstockPhotos-76945744_x300In the year that has passed since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, my video production students have grappled with how to voice their opinions and concerns in a meaningful way. They want to talk about LGBTQIA rights, hate crimes, marginalized communities, and more. 

To elevate civic engagement, I worked with Jon Wargo, assistant professor at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, to develop a 10-week curriculum where students engaged in participatory politics by producing both a public service announcement (PSA) as well as a short documentary. When completed, many of these videos aired on our daily morning announcements program. Based loosely on a C-SPAN video contest called StudentCam, we wanted students to focus on local issues that personally impacted their lives and, as Julie Coiro and Renee Hobbs suggested in a recent presentation, “advance [their] agency with more time to talk through their interpretations and share meanings together.” We named our curriculum, Reel Communities: My City My Story.

Learning to tell a story

Because many of my high school students have difficulty telling a story from any style other than first-person narrative, Jon and I emphasized the importance of learning how to tell a story from multiple points of view. We started the unit by viewing The Danger of a Single Story, a TED Talk in which novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells how she found her authentic cultural voice. We wanted to empower students to disrupt narratives in mainstream media.

For instance, in a PSA produced on the Flint water crisis, students went far beyond the superficial story of pipes that needed replacing. They dug deeper, addressing uncomfortable questions such as, What if the same crisis took place in a wealthy area of Michigan instead? Would the timeline for repair be different?

Another PSA focused on the rights of the LGBTQIA community. In this project, the audio track was the highlight of the video. Student producers focused on audio by integrating four different narrators. Additionally, they used the sound of a school's dismissal bell to signal the narrator’s call to action.

Tough topics and surprising conversations

With greater confidence in their storytelling abilities, students moved onto documentaries. Several were specific to the black community, including Black-On-Black Crime, Gun Violence, and Driving While Black. In some instances, storytelling was more difficult than anticipated because the story involved their own painful experiences. Driving While Black elicited a wide range of discussion in students’ classrooms, and among our administration. As a result, our school resource officer (who happens to be white) is working with the video production students to create a series of videos on how to keep all parties safe during traffic stops.

While some of the videos were focused on tough issues, especially in a public school setting, most have resulted in positive discussions. At a time when discourse happens in short posts on social media, I believe Reel Communities: My City My Story successfully opened doors to communication on difficult topics from a high school student's perspective. If we can get students to discuss what's happening in their world and how it impacts their communities and schools, maybe we can transform apathy into engagement.

kara clayton headshotKara Clayton is a media studies educator at Thurston High School in Michigan.

This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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