Saturday, June 23, 2012

Composing through Film: A Look at Student Work

Birdwatching, is a thirty-minute film made by high school senior, Andy Keyes.  Keyes created the film as his final exhibition for the Classics Academy and it was previewed by an audience a few weeks ago. 

It's a quirky work that is oddly compelling. As one who grew up listening to Lou Reed, the work speaks to me through the selection of music and the visual work--more so than the actual plot. I love how the camera sees the figures in the film: follows them, crosses paths with them, holds still as they move away, swoops--birdlike.

I appreciate partial stories--the ones we don't get to know too well as it allows room for the viewer to roam a bit.  We never know the whole of anything--let alone another's life.  It is the partial tellings that are most compelling in art and watching Birdwatching makes me wonder how students, like Andy, come to learn this sophistication.  For this project, Andy was mentored by filmmakers Ben Donnellon and Mike Butler (also his teacher). 

When we think about composing, we need to actively broaden our definition from the limited understanding of composition as a paper and pen matter to resituating it within multiple arts such as film, screencasts, photography, movement, orchestration, song, voice, visual arts (mixed media, painting, sketching), and remixed and multimodal works.

Below is a trailer, my son, Devon made to advertise his server.  He's 13 and self-taught--like so many other young people who find expression through image, video, and sound.

I post both of these works to suggest that we need to seriously broaden what counts as composition at school. Having students write these endless responses to written test prompts is a waste of time and we need to stop limiting the idea of composition to what a student can put on paper in a week's time.  Let's lean in and see what actual composing students are doing in innovative programs like Classic Academy and film classes, as well as out of school.  We can map the skills, dispositions, and strategies that are taught in more traditional composition classes on to these multimodal works. That's the task--not to make learners abandon their passions, but to help shape their learning through those passions and the mapping we jointly compose.

Our collective response to the Common Core State Standards cannot be limited to having students write endless argumentative, expository, or narrative essays in response to test prompts.


  1. I think that field of using video and media to take a stance as a writer/composer is one that many teachers are still uncomfortable with. It may be due to unfamiliar ground -- they are more likely have written their own essays and stories than to have created videos or visual representations of ideas. Thanks for sharing and good luck to your son.

    1. Thanks Kevin. I don't doubt your insights are correct. The question then becomes how do teachers learn to take risks--not just about using film, but more so--about the technologies and compositions that their students are already attempting? I have no doubt that alongside a caring and risk taking teacher--much like Andy experienced--learners could make even more sophisticated works--more deliberate works.

      How might teachers of English especially, but really all teachers, begin to recast composition?

    2. I think professional development needs more active engagement by teachers to "play" with media and technology, and then reflect on the possibilities. That kind of space is important but so much PD with tech is this rushed affair, sort of "got it? now you are on your own!" that doesn't really work. I think sharing of more mentor texts is critical, too. We all need to see the possibilities. And teachers need to take some chances on turning over learning to their students, too.
      Your last sentence on your post about Common Core might hold one possibility: there is language in there about media and technology related to reading and writing, and so if that is some justification for teachers to push for better PD, then they should do that.

    3. Agree about the playing and the duration of play. Coaching matters a lot when trying to learn about possibility, not just technique. I would love to see NCTE start to host yearlong engagements in which learners could dwell and focus on possibilities opening through digital thinking.

  2. I think I recognized something called the great swamp in the first one--where my daughter fell in when she was two.

    Bravo to Devon! Really impressive, and I enjoyed watching it.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.