Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Marco Torres: I Can

Okay. From a distance of twenty-four hours, this is what sticks in my mind from yesterday's morning session with Marco Torres. First of all, Marco is a sort of videovangelist. He's had terrific success with Mexicano kids in Los Angeles County by having them make short films. Marco said yesterday that he thinks one of our goals as teachers should be to provide a space in school so that the students can be who they are.

His predominant educational assumption seems to be that "there are opportunities for learning in how you produce information." It's not news that a great deal of traditional instruction asks kids to be passive recipients of pre-selected knowledge, nor that most assessment that we conduct involves asking students to do something with a pen and paper. That doesn't work for some students, and it certainly doesn't work for most Mexicano kids in L.A. So Torres asked himself, "What else is available to assess student understanding besides pencil and paper?" And one of the answers is film.

It's also not news—and this is one of the Big Questions that I've been wrestling with for the last ten years—that a lot of what we typically ask students to do in school is not connected in any real way with the lives students have outside of school. So how do we help students to make that connection? Marco asks his students to create "projects that have wings, that can live outside of the classroom." The films the students make show the world they live in and allow them to speak of their own lives in their own voices. (If you want get some sense of the nature and scope of the work his students are doing, go to the online site for his I Can film festival, and you can spend literally hours viewing the students work from the film festival from this and previous years, which has been archived. The film festival each year has turned into a major community event.)

He showed us onscreen a paragraph from Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and let us look at it for 30 seconds or so, and even then some of us had trouble placing what we were looking at. Then he played a one second audio clip of MLK's voice, which was instantly recognizable. He then showed a short video clip from the speech, and we were all right back there. He cited a civil rights leader who has argued that "people do not give photography and film enough credit for the progress that was made in the civil rights movement." It wasn't until the technological tools became available to give a broad audience a sense of what was going on and what was wrong with it that enough people were mobilized to make a difference.

He then asked us to think of the three most significant events of our lifetime, and then projected on the screen images from the Vietnam war, the assassination of JFK, the Challenger explosion, 9/11, and a few others. He asked for a show of hands if any of those images were connected to the events we had thought of, and almost every hand went up. His point: the most significant events of our lives are almost always things we have seen, not things we have read. And most of them we did not see first-hand, but through the media. Those images were produced by someone, using expensive tools.

Now the tools are cheap and omnipresent. Marco's question: If we can communicate that effectively by sharing, producing, and broadcasting video, why are we still doing the same thing in the classroom that we've always done?

Marco's goal is to help his kids find one channel, one vehicle of communication, that works for them, by which they can do something that is going to get them a pat on the back for a job well done. He showed us several student videos, including one in which a girl filmed an interview with her grandfather telling the story of how when he first came to America all he knew how to say when he went out for breakfast was "coffee and donut," until one day a guy in front of him went up and asked for "ham and eggs." So the next day the grandfather was able to go in and ask for ham and eggs, and that was the beginning of his assimilation into the new culture. The video worked as entertainment, as ethnography, and as a testament to the life of the man himself. Making the film made a difference in the life of the student who made it.

So that's the wrapup. From my point of view, it's hard to argue with any of what Marco Torres is saying or doing. But it does pose us with a dilemma or two or three. So tomorrow maybe I'll try getting into that.

Photo by Marco Torres

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