Jenks (Okla.) High School teacher Clifton Raphael works with two student producers on their documentary.
I may not have been literally tearing my hair out, but I was frantically running my fingers through my hair and am sure few precious follicles were lost in the process.
I’m the film and TV teacher at Jenks High School, in a suburb of Tulsa, Okla. One of my students, Crystal Kayiza, was editing her short documentary about the historic black town of Boley, Okla.
This was Crystal’s third year in my program, and as often happens with my seasoned students, those who’ve “drunk the Kool-Aid,” Crystal had begun to excel at production values. This piece boasted artistic shots, expert pacing and visual variety.
However, the piece still wasn’t working―we both knew it, but we didn’t know why.
After watching it over and over, I got up and paced, and that’s when I assaulted my hair. Before I began teaching a decade ago, I worked 24 years in local broadcasting in Memphis and in Virginia as a newscast director and special projects producer. You’d think all that experience would have given me the answer, but I really think the pacing and hair-pulling are what did the trick.
“I’ve got it!”
I don’t know if it’s the fact that I had her solution that made Crystal smile, or if it was how crazy my hair now looked.
The answer was simple―embarrassingly so, since it’s the reason why most stories don’t work: “Why should I care?”
As Crystal had constructed the piece so far, she’d done a great job of providing a history of the town, how this group of African Americans had single-handedly carved out a space of their own in a part of the country where you might least expect it. However, the present-day Boley was at risk of dying out, as young people left for opportunities and didn’t return.
But why should anyone else―aside from native Boleyans―care if the town died out?
My wife Laura, a brilliant and beautiful librarian, provided the final puzzle piece when she secured for Crystal an interview with a library colleague who once led guided tours of Oklahoma’s historically black communities.
Why Should We Care?
So what’s that answer? Why should the rest of us care about Boley?
Watch the film to find out… it’s in the Cinema Plus section of our web site of student films: jpscinema.com
That’s where you’ll find other student films answering that same essential question: Why we should care about an eight-year-old girl whose brother faces severe physical challenges or about a father whose son was bullied or about a 92-year-old survivor of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921?
Since the school district and I launched this video program 10 years ago, we’ve concentrated on stories. From the outset, I wanted my students to produce stories that viewers would keep watching, and no high school-produced TV show I’d ever channel-surfed upon fit that definition.
Would high school students even be capable of such work? It took a few years of experimentation, but I learned that the answer is “yes.”
I learned that you can nudge (okay, sometimes push) students beyond the typical YouTube video toward work that makes people exclaim, “A high school student did that?”
So how do we do it? Working mostly in teams of two, my students produce four short documentary pieces in the course of a school year, with one main week of after-school shooting per piece. They spend four to six weeks of class time editing each piece, with extra shooting days provided for pick-up shots or additional interviews.
As they edit, I float from team to team, providing guidance on issues such as shot and soundbite selection, pacing and structure. When the videos are finished, we spend four days critiquing the short docs as a class. We always start with what worked, then go into detail on how to strengthen both the story and the production values.
Eventually, if they persevere, my students invariably drink the Kool-Aid and reap the sweet rewards.
These rewards include such things as full-ride scholarships to the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College; the first entirely high school-produced program on our statewide PBS affiliate; the top awards in the most prestigious national high school video competitions (including all-expense-paid trips to New York and Miami to study filmmaking); and many individual cash awards ranging from $1,000 to $10,000.
Oh, and Crystal’s short doc about the historic black town of Boley? It won a Heartland Regional Emmy, and in the professional (not the student) division, beating out the work of two Denver TV stations and tying for the honor with the Denver Post.
Why don’t all high school or college programs achieve this level of success? Surely their students are “drinking the Kool-Aid” too? Yes, but I think one of the advantages is that mine is sugar-free.
Students quickly learn that I don’t sugar-coat my advice and guidance. As one of my star filmmakers told a local paper, “As a student who has been pampered all through my school career, I felt that sometimes my ideas were better than his. But as time goes by I say, ‘Wow, he was actually right.’”
So now what do we do? How do you top an Emmy? We’d love to compete for a student Academy Award, but only college students are eligible.
Therefore, I’ve set my sights on mixing up tastier pitchers of Kool-Aid, so good that my students will gulp it down in gallons.
Then maybe they’ll win more, perhaps even sweeter, rewards. But you can be sure that I’ll always keep my Kool-Aid sugar-free.