Empty School: time to reflect, revise, retool, reboot

Posted on December 19, 2012

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I make no secret of my constructivist orientation toward teaching and learning. So when I first began teaching broadcast, I was excited to finally be part of a true hands-on learn-by-doing class, so I put cameras in the students’ hands on the second day. Let’s get going, I said. Trial by fire. (I used all the old chestnuts: Idle hands make the devil’s early stitches get bushy worms. Or whatever.)

In the intervening years, I’ve gradually (unconsciously?) added more structured classroom instruction on things like white balance, exposure, shutter speed, gain, focus, image stabilization, blah blah blah. This instruction typically amounted to classroom demonstrations and hands-on practice. More me, less them. (For reasons having to do with control, I’m sure.) It’s all very boring for everyone involved, but I had the vague hope that such frontloading, though unequivocally dull, might help everyone avoid a few of the very common amateur video problems. (Spoiler alert: wrong.)

Before I knew what happened, this technical training had swelled until it had consumed the first two or three weeks of class. That’s far too long. Yes, those technical habits are important, but many students learn those lessons best–whether about audio or composition or white balance or exposure or whatever–in the context of a project of their own devising, where the goal is communication, not some abstract technical skill. They learn best by making mistakes that are distracting and detrimental to the end of communication; within this frame, the mistakes have meaningful context. (One of the best aspects of a broadcast class is that it has unique and novel sorts of errors for the students to discover, which means that there are few stigma attached to errors and little apprehension about making them.)

In short, I had forgotten this. But now I’ve remembered it again. I should just get it tattooed on my arm.

So in response I’m beginning to reimagine the scope and sequence of my intro course to try to allow for more purposeful student work, to plan activities that gradually expose students to the formerly frontloaded content and to give them more freedom to make mistakes and the time required to fix them: less me, more them.

Here’s what I’ve devised. You can click here for a PDF:(BT1 Scope and Sequence_Spring2013_DRFT), but here’s the run-down of the sequence of projects:

  1. Camera & editing basics: The Sequence. I begin by teaching my students the “5-shot method” (explained well here and here among other places). They shoot a bunch of sequences, each one aimed at a different camera function (white balance, exposure, whatever). I change the specifics of this all the time, but it’s an easy way to start: a class period to shoot, another to edit, and you’re ready to give feedback.
  2. Remix. Here they’ll remix all the shots they got in the sequence project, and use music, effects, and editing to repurpose them. I’ve always got kids who love to edit more than they love to shoot, and this project is for them. I used to assign a montage/lyrical video/theme/mood video (basically a bunch of shots edited to music to convey a mood, sense of place, whatever), but I’ve decided that I’d rather have them move on to telling stories, but this is a nice way to do cover some editing technicals without having to shoot something new. Eliminating variables here, that’s my goal. Plus it’s a natural place to talk about music and manipulation, objectivity in journalism, editing for effect, that stuff.
  3. One-minute profile. Got this idea from a great series of profiles called “One Minute Wonder” on Vimeo by Present Plus. Structurally, these are great. Interview, b-roll. They’re all about the sound bite, structure, pacing, detail, characterization. This year I piloted something similar to get the kids interviewing, thinking about the visual cues involved in characterization, using J-edits, that sort of thing. It was a great project because it was deceptively simple: approachable yet super-challenging. It’s a fast way to get kids to understand what “good talker” means.
  4. Broadcast Package. No mystery here, and you can find great resources about this format at the JEA Digital Media Guide to Broadcast/Video. Formerly the bread n’ butter of classes like mine. I avoid calling it “news” because for me it’s about story, not news. Not to get too much into it, but the concept of “news” sometimes seems to be a counterproductive cognitive block to effective thinking in terms of the medium itself. But the structure of the broadcast package is familiar, clear, and as a fallback option, pretty good. I teach the kids to build their stories from the interview out, so it becomes a natural complication/elaboration on the one-minute profile project.
  5. Music Video. We have a longstanding tradition of music videos at my school. And I love it. It’s a chance to do something different, and occasionally, we get something pretty awesome.
  6. 1:30 Plus Project. This is new, something I’ll try for the first time next semester. I’m not sure yet how I’ll flesh this out, but I envision a “choice” project of sorts. This idea came to me as I read Frank Rose’s The Art of Immersion. In it he elaborates again and again how today’s stories–“transmedia” stories mainly, but it applies broadly to digital stories of all sorts–are still part of an emerging form. My students are the ones who will shape these media. It’s true. So I felt I needed to give them an opportunity. Take it and run. In any event, by the semester’s end, I’ve always got students who imagine they know *exactly* what The North Report needs–they’ll have ideas for things they’d like to do. And I envision this project as a venue for them to try it out. I mean, why not?

So that’s it. My preliminary redesign, hatched after reading stacks of student reflections this week.

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