John Merrow Helps Teens Find Voice
With Video Cameras
Screenings at Teachers College
Give a teen a video camera and watch a powerful message emerge. Listen Up!, a national network of youth media organizations, is intent on expanding the visibility of youth in the mass media and letting the young tell their own stories. Through projects ranging from reactions to 9/11 to dealing with racial tensions, Listen Up! offers professional collaborations to youth production teams that write, shoot, edit, and produce films that explore life through their eyes. A recent screening and discussion of "The Way We See It: Youth Speak Out On Education," at Teachers College, Columbia University, illustrated the high quality of these short documentary films and the power and range of the young voice.
Following an application process, ten teams of young producers from around the country were each awarded $9,000 grants from the MetLife Foundation and Listen Up! to produce short videos that addressed the questions, "What makes a teacher worth paying attention to? and What makes a school worth going to?" In the resulting documentaries, the "cast" are students and staff in the featured schools, the unscripted words and actions are authentic, and the professional standards speak of hard work and lots of editing. The videos are intimate glimpses of education at its most successful. Five pieces from the collection were shown at the Teachers College screening. Youth Media of Oakland, California produced a film that illustrates the effectiveness of interactive instructional techniques featuring a helmet-wearing physics teacher encouraging students to shoot homemade rockets at him to demonstrate a principle, and a movement teacher joyously joining students in a rip-roaring dance sequence. In another, Thomas, in Espanola, New Mexico, does poorly in academic subjects until, in a school arts program, he discovers previously unrecognized skills and gains the confidence to tackle areas more challenging to him. Poetry is a tough sell to teens, but in Salt Lake City, Utah, a teacher sees himself as "a performer" and brings the students along by addressing different learning styles and making sure all are included and engaged. In Evanston Illinois, Jamaal has big ambitions, but decides to drop out because of a deteriorating home situation. Teachers and administrators gather round and give him needed emotional support, commitment, and respect. His grades rise and he wins a prestigious college scholarship. The Educational Video Center (EVC) in New York City "saved" Gerardo Vargas, a.k.a. "Promise," a gang member and high school drop out. After unhappy stints at various schools, he enters Satellite High School, a small, alternative school where, "I saw the difference." The "difference," crucial for him, is the small size, personal attention, sense of community, and access to resources such as EVC. Gerardo explains that his work with video "changed him as a student" and "made me realize that education is vital for survival in this society." He is proud to have "given back" by making a tape for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity that was used in the court appeal that may bring more money to city schools.
Youth produced media and Listen Up! have many fans. John Merrow, a media journalist, founder of "The Merrow Report," and the program's moderator, explains that very high standards were set for the documentaries. Collaborating with award-winning filmmakers from Learning Matters, Inc. via phone and e-mail, the students "didn't give up if they didn't get it right. They made it better." Merrow continues, "These weren't home movies. They had to be good enough for public television." Sharese Bullock of Listen Up! explains that they hope to reach teachers in training and unengaged students via DVD's. Patti Smith of The Education Alliance at Brown University, which helps large urban comprehensive schools create more personalized learning environments, reports that the films are already used for professional development because, "teachers in urban schools need images of possibilities."
Listen Up! is a five-year old project of Learning Matters, Inc., which produces documentaries on youth and learning for public television. "The Way We See It: Youth Speak Out On Education" is one of many projects. For the first time, Listen Up! is going global and, now at work in places as distant as South Korea, Sierra Leone, Columbia, and New York City, to name a few, are young video teams exploring the question, "What Causes Fear in Your Life?"#