Monday, March 26, 2007

Old School

It's the last day of spring break. I spent today at school anyhow, attending the first day of a two-day professional development workshop with a presenter from Apple on "Digital Storytelling," which turned out to be mostly a pretty well-organized walkthrough of various features of iMovie. After showing us some sample student-produced videos, the presenter gave us a set of materials on disk—including film clips, images, and a music track, and a storyboard (for a short documentary about the Vietnam war) to work from—that allowed the sixteen teachers in attendance to get to know some of the features of iMovie and play around with the various editing tools and procedures in a pre-planned way. Tomorrow we will be doing filming some original footage and working that into the movie project we already have started.

Most of the content wasn't really new to me—I've made several iMovies before—but there were some interesting editing features I didn't know about, and it was good to refresh my memories about how to use the tools. The most interesting idea that came up during the day, and the one I'm thinking about now, arose in a side conversation that I had with a colleague, also an English teacher, who pointed out that both today's presenter and Marco Torres, when he was here last month, made a point of how important it is that students who are starting an iMovie project know exactly what message they want to convey and that they shape everything in the move to highlight that message. Both of them more or less insisted that the kids should have the whole film storyboarded out before they even put their hands on a camera.

At a strictly practical level, that makes sense to me. Making even very short films is a time-intensive process, and so I can see why it would be important to set parameters that will make the project time efficient and cut down on sprawl. But—and you have perhaps seen this "but" comiing—as a teacher of English and a practicing writer I do have some reservations the educational value of, well, message mongering. I've more or less beaten this topic to death in previous posts (here and here and here and here, for example), but it seems to me that the most valuable feature of writing as a discipline is that, when it is done well, it allows writers to discover what they don't know.

Writer after writer echoed, in one formulation or another, people like E. L. Doctorow ("Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go... Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.") and Donald Barthelme ("The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.") and Robert Olen Butler ("The literary artist works from the other end. She does not know, before the work begins, what it is she sees about the world. She has in her unconscious, in her dreamspace, an inchoate sense of order behind the apparent chaos of life, and she must create this object in order to understand what that order is. It's as much an act of exploration as it is an act of expression.") If this is what writers do, and we want students to learn how to write, then I think we need to provide them with the chance to do it: to face the blank page with the intention of finding their way toward something as yet undefined.

Of course there are lots of kinds of writing, and many of them are more mundane and more strictly functional. As a matter of practical necessity, I can see why it is necessary to storyboard a movie or do an outline of a thesis essay or pre-plan a twenty-five minute SAT essay, or, for that matter, to write out a grocery list or prepare a letter of thanks or a letter of recommendation. But that's not the only, or the most significant, kind of writing students can do.

So here's my question. What use of video technology would be the analogue of facing a blank piece of paper with a pencil in hand? What sort of filmmaking could we ask students to do which would be primarily, if not purely, explorational rather than expository or persuasive? It's clear to me that the analogue exists in other technology venues, even other Apple products. Garage Band, for example, allows students to go in and start with a beat or with a series of notes or with an instrument and begin looping and layering and shaping something which eventually emerges out of the process of play as something unanticipated and potentially delightful in the same way a poem might emerge on paper as something unanticipated and potentially delightful. So is there a similar way of thinking about film-making, a structure or a set of procedures that would allow students to use the technology as something other than tool for the presentation of ideas they already think they know.

And that's what has bothered me about a lot of the student films I've been shown as models. They're dramatic and they're visually cool and they're effective at making the point they want to make, but the point they want to make is often not very surprising, and the need for compression and economy often makes me worry about what the students have left out, or worse, what they haven't even considered. I have yet to be convinced that movie techonology, in its current interest, is a serious tool for investigation or generation of ideas. If any of you have tried out filmmaking of the kind I have been speculating about, I'd like to hear about it. In the meantime, I still think the best tool for what we're talking about may very well still be... the pencil.


Doug Noon said...

Before I discovered the internet, I was introduced to iMovie in a course called Multimedia for Teachers. One of the assignments we had was to make a slide show that expressed a mood. It had to have a soundtrack.

I used some pictures I took of a funeral we had for a beloved dog who died in mid-winter when the ground was still frozen. We dug the hole by keeping a fire burning day and night, repeatedly pulling the coals away and digging the thawed soil. It took two days to dig the hole. One of my young daughters authored and narrated the story over a music track. Everyone who saw it choked up. It was a huge success, according to the parameters of the assignment, and yet it was not really planned. The pictures served as the storyboard, I suppose. That project is what ultimately moved me to begin finding a publishing platform for kids to do similar projets.

Your posts about juxtaposition might be applicable to something like, uh...., visual multimedia poetry.

Maybe someone's already doing this??? Just a thought, prompted by your question.

Bruce Schauble said...

Thanks, Doug. That's a good idea, and more or less exactly what I was trying to think of.

The presenter went on today to suggest doing for students what he had done for us, which was to provide them with a "project kit" which would include some video clips and still art and music that could be imported into and used in an iMovie project as a sort of core or starting-off point. We were given that stuff and then asked to add our own content as well. One idea would be to combine his suggestion with yours and give the students a set of materials but a sort of open-ended task to make something on theme based on mood or theme or intuition, and then compare and celebrate the results, as we did in class today.