Tag Team Tech June 2011
Team Building with Video Projects
May 6th marked the culmination of a project I developed at my school: a Public Service Announcement contest. Lasting from March to May, this project was carefully planned from start to finish and involved my school’s ten middle school advisor groups competing against each other. The structure of the project placed the entire creative and technical process in the students’ hands, with their advisors acting as supporters – and in some cases, mediators. The result was a screening in which all of the students’ PSAs were shown for the entire middle school (and other students and faculty members who could attend). A panel of judges viewed the PSAs and voted on three winners. When an advisor told me that his student’s work on the PSA one week had led to the best advisor meeting he’d ever had, I knew we were onto something good. Here’s how our project was organized and how it turned out.
Assigning roles. Each group had to assign its members the roles of writers, actors, editors, cameraperson, directors, and stage managers. Each group had anywhere from eight to twelve members, which meant some roles had more than one student filling them. The students had to give their advisors their top three role choices and defend each one, and then the advisors assigned each student a role. In some groups, these decisions were made by consensus and many advisors told me there was a natural way to assign the roles – in other words, it all just seemed to fit together.
Brainstorming. Perhaps the most rewarding part of the whole process, the brainstorming was the first thing each group had to do and it called for consensus. A group’s ability – or difficulty with – this part of the project ultimately affected their progress throughout. I showed a sample PSA at the assembly where I introduced this project to the students, and that may have served as the basis of the beginnings of the groups’ conversations. The groups had to agree first on the general topic that they wanted to address and they had to come up with a concept. The diversity of topics was great: they covered bullying, drinking, text addiction, child abuse, cliques, and more. It’s interesting that most groups selected topics that have to do with social relationships. This is definitely reflective of the development of middle school students.
Storyboarding. Once the students had their concept, they had to storyboard the PSA itself. Below I describe how we helped them with this process. For some groups who elected not to use dialogue, the storyboard became more like a script. The storyboard was written as a collaborative document and notated by the writer. Some groups created their storyboard on the classroom SMARTboard while others did theirs on the worksheet we provided. I witnessed many groups improvising their story and then noting it, which was great.
Writing. The writers had a lot of out-of-school work if their PSA had dialogue. They were responsible for taking the storyboard and fleshing it out into a script, which then was reviewed by the entire group before filming began. I encouraged the groups to do a read-through before filming if they had time, so that everyone could make suggestions about changes.
Filming. Perhaps the most fun part of the process, filming took place over the course of two days. The students used their Flip cameras (and iPhones, in some cases) and took over campus, filming from the roof of the science building, in the theater, in the hallways, on buses, in classrooms, and in the courtyard. Most of the groups shot multiple takes of each scene, leaving it to the editors to select the best shots later on. All of the students were present during this process, with the stage manager taking a prominent role in keeping track of the proceedings, the director guiding the action, and the writer offering ideas about how to stay true to- or deviate from – the script.
Editing. The editors, I believe, had the hardest job, and in some cases they must have felt like everything was riding on them. We set aside two times for editing, and then added one additional lunch meeting so that the students could simply learn how to log into the program. This seemed like a small task, but ultimately it saved us time when it came for the students to actually use the program. The editors were responsible for selecting the best clips, splicing them together, adding titles and transitions, and making sure the original vision of the PSA was clear. Some advisors sent the directors or writers to work with the editors in order to ensure the latter. The editors also had to make sure the PSA stayed under time limit. While I wish we could have built more editing time into the schedule, the disadvantage of this work was that there was not much for the rest of the group to do while the editors labored away. We tried to give them extra activities, but never could come up with anything that took up enough time. These included having the students fill out feedback forms (a bit prematurely in my opinion) and preparing for the Q&A session at the screening.
Screening. On the final Friday, all of the students gathered in our theater to view the PSAs. In order to prepare, I downloaded all of the PSAs from Jaycut and saved them as MP4 files. We then created a playlist in iTunes and put them in a specific order. I printed out a scoring rubric for each PSA for each judge (thirty total), including the PSA’s time on each rubric. These were placed in packets on clipboards and handed to the judges ahead of time. We attempted to pre-screen the PSAs for the judges ahead of time, presuming that the students’ laughter and comments would drown out some of the dialogue, but we ran out of time. In the end, this would have been unnecessary, as the students were respectful and quiet during the PSAs. They laughed during one, and we played it a second time for the judges. With each PSA lasting only sixty seconds, we had time to do this. After each PSA was screened, two representatives from the group came up to the front of the room and answered questions from the judges and audience. I timed them for three minutes. The students did an amazing job of fielding questions, and I believe next time I will add this component to the scoring rubric. At the end, we quickly tallied up all the scores and awarded a first-, second-, and third-place winner. The first place group received a pizza party. We will be sharing all of the PSAs on our school website as soon as we screen an introduction to the winning film, titled “Words are Weapons.”
Break everything down in a major way. Because this was a new project on every level, from the skills to the equipment to the outcome, I wanted to reduce stress as much as I could. So I created a packet that described each day of the competition in great detail, including who needed to be involved, what tasks needed to be accomplished, and how long everything should take. We completed this project in two months, meeting once a week with a two-week spring break in the middle – in other words, the students met six times officially (many students met outside of their advisor group time). With such limited time together, each meeting had to be highly productive.
Give the students tools to help them through every step. The students were learning a whole host of new skills, from storyboarding to film editing. To help with storyboarding, we held an assembly where our film teacher demonstrated how to storyboard and our theater teacher had his students show how to improvise scenes. This way, the students could improv their own concepts while the writers storyboarded. We handed out storyboarding templates to the groups, too. For film editing, our help desk tech, Chris, and I stationed ourselves in the school’s two computer labs, offering one-one-one support to the students as they learned how to cut scenes, add transitions, and overdub the clips, among other skills.
Check in frequently. Every Friday afternoon during advisor period, I would make my rounds, stopping by every advisor group to see how they were getting on. This gave me the opportunity to answer questions, offer advice, and keep track of how the groups were progressing based on the project’s timeline. Doing this also allowed me to offer extra help to those groups who were lagging, encouraging students to stop by my classroom during study hall or after school. With a project this complex, no one likes to feel like they’re floating. I would send out weekly update emails to all of the advisors with information about where we were in the timeline and with advice about how to guide the students during that week’s meetings.
Level the playing field. While some students wanted to use their own cameras and editing software (iMove and Final Cut Pro were the most requested), the Middle School dean and I felt that it was important for all of the students to be working with the same tools. Because this was a competitions, and because middle school students especially are highly aware of what is and isn’t fair, we didn’t want any group to feel like they’d been at a disadvantage because of the tools they used. Additionally, every group had the same time limit: a very brief sixty seconds. If a group went over their time limit, they were penalized a few points.
Be ready for things to not work. This is directly related to the point above: when leveling the playing field, you are giving students the challenge of using less sophisticated equipment. Our students were using Flip cameras, which are fine for visuals but not so great for audio. Some groups learned how to shoot scenes in close-up so that the camera was close enough to the action for the dialogue to be heard; others eschewed dialogue altogether, and one group used voiceover instead of live dialogue. Other groups fell prey to the Flips’ shortcomings when their actors were nearly impossible to hear. Jaycut, the online editing software, often suffered at the hands of network lag, which frustrated the students. We used Jaycut because we wanted our students to be able to work on their editing at home; ultimately, this made its use worth it. That said, much of my and the advisors’ job during these challenges was to encourage patience among the students.
- Ten Flip cameras –non-HD. Some groups ended up using their iPhones. In a few cases, those using phones turned their camera sideways, resulting in a fairly labor-intensive process of rotating the footage.
- Three Flip tripods.
- Ten free subscriptions to Jaycut (http://www.jaycut.com), an online video editing site. Each advisor group had their own unique login. Jaycut offers all of the same basic features as iMovie or Windows Movie Maker, but has the advantage of being accessible anywhere. And it’s free.
- One packet with detailed instructions for each PSA group. Read mine, plus see additional resources, at http://msludwig.wikispaces.com/PSA+Contest
Awarding “first place” isn’t always the way to go. If there’s anything I truly regret about this project, it’s that some students may have walked away from the PSA screening feeling bad because they did not win or place. I think contests work better in the public library setting because of the out-of-school nature of the programs. But in a school, where the purpose of such projects is to build trust and teamwork, setting some groups above others might not be the best idea. Brian, our Middle School dean, had a great idea, which is that instead we might award superlatives to different groups, like “funniest,” “best editing,” “best acting,” etc. This might engender more positive feelings among the students and allow more groups to be recognized.
Hand out the rubrics beforehand. Some teachers rightly complained that the scoring rubrics should have been available from the start. Just like any good teacher should give her students a grading rubric, we should have let the advisor groups know what they were going to be scored on. That way, the groups could have chosen to use the rubric as a checklist. Some groups felt blindsided by the scoring rubric at the end of the process and would have liked the opportunity to know what to focus on as they were making their PSAs. While I do feel that I developed a fair, even rubric, I entirely agree with them and that was my oversight.
Ultimately, what I cared about was how the students felt about the process and their work. So I was very please to see that when asked how the students felt about their PSA, they used words like “amazing,” “proud,” and “great.”
Here are some of the students’ answers to three of the questions in their reflection worksheet:
What was the most rewarding part of the process?
“Seeing everyone working together and being a family. Also, having fun.”
“Bonding with the group.”
“Learning more about our peers.”
“Getting it done and working as a team.”
“Seeing how great the scenes turned out after we shot them.”
How do you feel about the PSA you created?
“It was fun and really good. I believe we will win!!”
“I am proud of it and I think we did well.”
“Creative and affirmative.”
“I think it sends a good message and ends on a serious note.”
“I think it is worthy of the prize and that our advisor group works well together.”
Why should your PSA win?
“We worked really hard and put a lot of effort in.”
“Because we put A LOT of hard work and time into it.”
“Because it gets people’s attention with the humor, but sends important messages, too.”
It’s clear that despite any challenges, the majority of our students felt that the PSA project was a positive experience and that it gave them in pride in their work, themselves, and their group. To be honest, I got very emotional when making my opening remarks at the screening, because I was so proud of not only how hard each group member had worked, but how they all came together to operate as a team. Advisor groups are assigned randomly, not based on peer groups, meaning that these were not friends who were used to working together – they were kids from all social groups learning how to be a cohesive unit. Of course, some students rose above in terms of their leadership and initiative, while others hid out in the background, but several advisors told me that they saw strengths in their advisees that they did not know existed. One told me that she was thrilled that her advisees had a chance to let their talents shine in a way that is not often showcased in the classroom.
A Public Service Announcement is certainly not the only genre that could be used for this project, and in fact, we are considering changing the genre for next year’s competition. Here are some other ways to use video in this way:
- Commercials for made-up products. Participants would first need to develop the product, and then come up with the commercial.
- Very short dramatic films. The benefit of doing a sixty-second film is that you have enough time to create and screen it. If you have more time or are in a public library, you can consider making these longer, but I do not recommend going longer than five minutes.
- “A Day in the Life” projects, where students document life at their school or in their community.
- Short documentaries. Broader than the “Day in the Life” category, these would be free-choice films to raise awareness or simply document something interesting on campus or in the community. Interviews would also work in this format.
- Comedy sketches. This might be hard to pull off with teens who are not comfortable mugging for the camera, but for a free-choice program, like one at a public library, it would appeal to the comedians in the group.
- Book trailers. Ask the students to promote summer reading or create short films for particular books. Creating live-action previews will still require them to plan, film, and edit.
If you’d like to try developing a film project, please feel free to use the materials on my wiki (msludwig.wikispaces.com), or contact me! To view the winning PSA, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fKLZjcbnd4.
Sarah Ludwig is the academic technology coordinator at Hamden Hall Country Day School in Hamden, Connecticut. Formerly she was the head of teen, technology, and reference services at the Darien (CT) Library, where she developed the library’s first teen program after serving as the head of library services at Wilbraham & Monson Academy in western Massachusetts for three years. She is currently the chair of the YALSA Advocacy Resources Update Task Force and a member of YALSA’s Teen Tech Week Committee. Her book, Starting from Scratch: Building a Teen Library Program, will be published by ABC-CLIO in May 2011.