Howard County schools use filmmaking as classroom tool

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When a group of Betsy Adelman's students at Ellicott Mills Middle School learned that a low-pressure air zone created by wind turbines could kill endangered bats by causing their lungs to burst, they set about making a 41/2 -minute documentary instead of writing an essay.

Titled"Gone with the Wind,"it was shown during a nonjuried screening of environmental films by the American Film Institute at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring. Now it will get a second look as a tool for teaching teachers.

Adelman, a Howard County gifted-and-talented resource teacher, will show her students' bat project as part of a joint presentation on student film production to teachers from around the region at AFI's SchoolDocs conference, set to take place at the same time as SilverDocs, the institute's international documentary film festival June 18-24.

Adelman has been working to integrate filmmaking into the curriculum for all interested students, not just those taking gifted-and-talented classes, to stimulate creativity and self-expression.

"Students learn without realizing it," she said. "It's like adding broccoli to brownies; it's good for you without your knowing it."

This is the second year students at the Ellicott City school have taken part in the class, which is offered once a week during plus time, a 45-minute period when most students take band or chorus, said Adelman, who has been teaching at EMMS for 10 of her 19 years with the county schools. Several other county middle schools have similar programs.

"What film class teaches students is that recording something on film is not the same as making a film," said Adelman, who will be joined by Debbie Blum, a central office resource teacher. "It's not just pointing and shooting and then posting on YouTube. The process involves planning, creating storyboards, telling a story; it has to be purposeful."

Matt Boratenski, head of AFI's screen education program, said his mission is to help foster the next generation of filmmakers for the institute, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that has only this one, three-screen exhibit hall on the entire East Coast. With its 30-by-100-foot screen, the AFI Silver Theatre is one of the few places where 70 mm films can be shown, he said.

"Four years ago, we decided that while such famous documentary filmmakers as Sophia Coppola and Alexandra Pelosi are holding panel discussions and pitch sessions around the corner with HBO and the Discovery Channel, we would roll out 13 sessions for educators who've taken media under their wing and for those who haven't gotten there yet," Boratenski said.

Other topics during the four-day educational conference, "Using Media for Success in the 21st Century Classroom," include media's impact on the high school dropout crisis and a roundup of filmmaking apps for smartphones and other devices.

"Betsy and Debbie other educators in Howard County are seeing the rewards of employing filmmaking skills in the classroom," Boratenski said, just as teachers are in Montgomery, Fairfax and Prince George's counties and in Washington, to name a few places.

"What kids learn through filmmaking can connect to greater literacy," he said.

The idea that the Indiana bat and the Virginia big-eared bat are dying and could lose eight miles of habitat to the industrial wind project on Backbone Mountain in Garrett County compelled the students to create "a hard-core environmental film," Adelman said.

"They were really surprised by how much they cared about those 2-inch bats," she said. That level of compassion led to a final product that was "well-done, informative, and presented both sides of the issue relatively fairly."

She added: "They did come down hard on the bats' side, though if the bats weren't endangered, the students may have sided with the benefits of wind energy."

Many of the students who made the bat film as seventh-graders returned this year as eighth-graders and created "Fall of the Immortal Tray," a two-minute silent movie in black and white that follows a polystyrene-foam lunch tray from the school cafeteria to the landfill.

"They were inspired by the statistic that 3.6 million trays end up in landfills each year, and they wanted to protest that" at this year's environmental film festival, Adelman said.

"It's a great experience for them and an opportunity to become voices of advocacy," she said, noting they also made a film on deer overpopulation that asks government leaders to use nonviolent options to control the species.

"The students are learning great skills as they conduct research, check sources and come up with the right questions to ask when they interview people," Adelman said.

"I also like that AFI offers a noncompetitive showcase for their films since there already are so many competitive avenues," she added.

Blum said she and Adelman will tailor their presentation to teachers interested in incorporating film into their schools' offerings by acknowledging that "sometimes we are logistically challenged about how we go about doing this."

Students must become acquainted with camera angles, lighting, script-writing, plot development, audience engagement techniques and more in order to "represent their messages with tools that go beyond words," she said.

"It's hard and challenging work, but it's also very rewarding, especially when the students get to see their films in such an authentic venue as the AFI Silver Theater," she said.

Boratenski, who taught English in Montgomery County schools for 30 years before retiring in 2002, said AFI's festivals and conferences are exciting and fun for students and teachers alike.

"Howard County has embraced film at the middle school level, and students now know a research assignment can end in a documentary," he said. "Compared to a lot of schools throughout the country, Howard is definitely ahead of the curve."

Added Adelman: "Some of the students' films are basic and some are highly polished, but everyone's work is equally celebrated. The best part is that the students feel they've been heard."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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