April 20, 2017
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Teaching Film to Seventh Graders with Dalton Plan
by Doniphan Blair
Two students play FedEx delivery people in the middle school film '
Girl in a Box
.' photo: OCA student
LAST YEAR, I WAS INVITED TO TEACH
two classes at a middle school in East Oakland, the first of which was very easy.
By the end of day one, about twenty 11-to-13 year-olds were designing, writing and shooting away at what became an impressive monthly newsletter, filled with articles on school events, animals (of immense interest), the Trump candidacy, terrorism and other news (they absorb surprising amounts), and short stories.
Indeed, a team of four girls co-wrote a sophisticated tale about five BFFs, four of whom decide to do away with their mean ringleader—it was the Halloween issue, after all (see story
). But when the conspirators drug and kill the mean girl, AND frame the clown stalking them, I thought, “Better check with the principal.”
“Fine,” came the reply, in a brief email, “except remove the four letter word,” which the mean girl says while dying, and the authors rendered as “Sh—.” While some censorship seemed legitimate in the seventh grade, the school’s overall scholastic style was markedly liberal.
Now called the Oakland Charter Academy, the school started in 1993, when it was one of California’s first—and Oakland’s very first—charter school. Organized by teachers and parents and based on a “charter,” or agreement, with the city and state, which foots the bill, charters require better behavior and grades, reflecting their own agreement with parents and students. That same educational group now runs three middle schools and one high school.
Charter schools have been criticized for draining resources from school systems but they are also self-starting innovation machines, which can reinvigorate the system, especially since personal effort and responsibility are central to any education. Indeed, Oakland has been a laboratory for charters with philanthropies pouring in cash and the race for school board heating up. If anyone disses this development, please note: An old high school building can easily house a handful of new, small academies, sharing the cafeteria and other facilities.
While Newsletter Class was easy, Yearbook Class was not. Neither the school nor I had offered or taught yearbook before and we neglected to note that yearbooks come at the end of the school year, leaving little do in the interim. Although I soon had some kids taking photos and writing, and an extremely talented eighth grade girl doing the yearbook cover, the 20 other students were growing increasingly bored.
Kids playing after school along side the Oakland Charter Academy. photo: OCA student
Fortunately, OCA had almost none of the disrespect or bullying we might expect from a school in a tough neighborhood (it endured a half-a-dozen murders in 2014). Indeed, it maintains a fully modern, multicultural vibe, with the students surprisingly straightforward and balanced about race, despite the complete absence of white kids. The student body is about 80% Latino, with Asian-Americans and African-Americans splitting the difference.
“How am I going to teach these kids,” I wondered, as I watched the Yearbookers degenerate into doing handstands, throwing things or pursuing their favorite activity—not checking their phones, which they all had but were prohibited from using in school (and generally abided), but talking.
Although “Education is the one thing no one wants to get their money’s worth,” as my father used to say, their phenomenal need to socialize in person was understandable given their immersion in the digital age.
As the class entered free fall, I again reached out to the principal. But, undoubtedly overwhelmed dousing other fires, guidance was not forthcoming, so my twenty-something supervisor and I decided to change the curriculum on our own to include filmmaking.
We started with slide shows, formed from the hundreds of stills the students were shooting at school events or while roaming the halls, using the two used Canon cameras the school had purchased, $200 bucks each and almost identical, in look and function, to my Canon 7D camera ($4000).
Actually, they enjoyed shooting so much but were so sloppy about it, we had already developed and were vigorously drilling “The Six Rules of Photography” (see it
). As soon as we had a few slide shows going, we graduated to scripts, written collectively.
“Who has an idea for a movie?” I asked the class, at one point. “Anybody? What type of movies do you like?”
After a long pause, one student: “Vampires.”
“Great! Who can spell ‘vampires?’ Please write that on the board. Anything else?”
Short pause, two or three students: “Zombies!”
“Very good, who knows how to spell… What else is important to you—EVERY day!?!”
Students drilling each other on the class developed Six Rules of Photography. photo: OCA student
Finally, one student, female: “Well, you could have a boy and a girl…”
“OK! Romance—“ and with that the ideas started to roll until we racked up a handful of topics, on which we voted. I lobbied against vampire or zombie films, given the extra makeup and locations involved, and for stories set in class rooms, which seemed to me both easier and more germane.
About fifteen minutes into our first script session, we had an ambitious effort, which was eventually co-written by the arty couple of the seventh grade. A ten-minute piece called “Flowers for Aria”, it concerned two girls, BFFs (we ruled out inter-gender as too distracting), on the day one of them is transferring schools, although she is going, it turns out, to a hospital for chemotherapy (see script
While “Flowers for Aria” was excellent, after I transcribed it to screenplay format and printed copies, we deemed it too difficult for our current skill level and postponed production. In our next script session, a shy-ish seventh grade girl offered up, almost fully formed, the story which became the three-minute “Girl in a Box” (view film
By now I was racing to stay ahead of the students, inventing curricula and techniques on the fly. Since “Flowers for Aria” suffered from too much planning, I figured we should jump right into “Girl in a Box”. After the students voted on the script, notably the twist ending, and who would play which roles, I brought my camera, tripod and microphones to the next class and started filming.
Since the author declined to star, the lead role went to her more outgoing classmate, who was confirmed by the class. Indeed, her acting abilities were obvious, given her penchant for performance, including the occasional outburst or falling to the ground (a popular seventh grade move). In a more middle class setting, she would already have years of acting, singing or dancing under her belt.
“Girl in a Box” was followed by “
The Floor Licker
” and its partner, the ten minute mockumentary “
Behind the Scenes with the Floor Licker
”, which gave some quieter students a chance to shine.
Three other collaboratively created but unfilmed scripts can be found here: "
Billy the Bully
El Chapo in the Seventh Grade
", and "
Frank Can Dance
" (feel free to use one of these scripts but please contact me first
As you can see, these seventh graders have a lot to say cinematically but learning how to teach them also offered me a window on education, which has long fascinated me. Despite appearances to the contrary, I enjoyed grade school and adored high school—almost never cutting a day or even a class in my life, largely because I was lucky enough to attend one of Manhattan’s premier progressive high schools and experience the pedagogical theories of its founder: Helen Parkhurst.
An early 20th century educator, Parkhurst (1889-1973) followed the progressive ideas of John Dewey, studied with the world-famous education innovators, the Montessoris, and formulated her own a teaching program in Dalton, Massachusetts. Shortly thereafter, when she was only 30, in 1919, a group of wealthy New Yorkers entrusted her with a ten-story building on 89th Street, near Park Avenue. It was called Dalton or the Children’s University.
Instructor/article author Blair and two students enjoying a humorous editing choice, while making the 'Behind the Scenes with the Floor Licker'. photo: OCA student
Parkhurst’s “Dalton Plan” features “laboratories,” open-study study halls with teachers present, or full independent study. Starting in the seventh grade, students have lab periods, along with regular classes, when they work on projects from a list or developed with a teacher. They also sign contracts stipulating completion dates and other criteria, paralleling the agreements involved in charter schools. Even regular academics are divided into weekly assignments and self-scheduled, albeit backed up by rigorous testing.
The Dalton Plan was tried in China and a few places around the West, notably Holland where it took off, but the ideas remain mostly associated with my alma mater, now a ritzy private school on Manhattan super-rich enclave of the Upper East Side. While the high school was all-girls and attended by ethereal, arty-types until the 1960s, when it turned coed, Dalton gradually became synonymous with the spoiled, super-rich, as quipped in Lena Dunham’s “Little Furniture” (2005).
Regardless, the Dalton Plan stands at the pinnacle of liberal pedagogy, the embodiment of the Socratic Method, and extremely effective at fostering self-motivation and creativity but also rule-adherence.
When I first heard about it, in elementary school, I was incredulous. When I transferred to Dalton two years later, my mind was blown. Although I learned little about Parkhurst's theories during my time at Dalton, I lived her practicum to the full. Indeed, I returned to her ideas in my 20s, when I started studying Spanish.
Foreign language acquisition, as it happens, was the one gaping hole in my otherwise stellar Dalton experience. Indeed, I flunked French almost every semester and considered myself linguistically impaired. But, when I became fluent in Spanish during six months travel in South America, I realized Dalton failed specifically because they didn't to follow the Dalton Plan. Language is infinitely easier to learn by doing and speaking, in a laboratory setting, than sitting and listening in a classroom.
I came to ponder the Dalton Plan again while trying to get my daughter an education at Maybeck and Berkeley High, two of the top high schools in Berkeley, and again, right after accepting the offer to teach in East Oakland, when I visited my Dalton art teacher.
The two main actresses in 'Girl in a Box' do each other's makeup. photo: OCA student
Now 94 and living in a small town in Connecticut, Aaron Kurzen was still showing and working on his classically-styled drawings, surrealist paintings (some 20 feet wide) and funny assemblage sculptures (like a Hitler head in a bird cage, with browned-out cigar holders for teeth).
Not only did Kurzen know Parkhurst personally, “She could have a sharp tongue,” he said, he instituted her Dalton Plan to a “T” in the school’s art department. While he rigorously taught classical techniques and Renaissance perspective, he also got kids going on ever-larger art projects.
So slight was Kurzen’s scholastic hand, I came to see him, with his bushy mustache and white smock, as a shaman, laying out an esoteric knowledge buffet, while hiding his own particulars, which added to the mystery and interest stimulation. Even as high school seniors, we never saw his studio, only a short stroll from the school, and he didn’t favor a style or period, an agnosticism which would evaporate if we saw his surrealist paintings.
But how could the Dalton Plan be instituted in an inner city school, I asked Kurzen, where kids run amuck, thugs rule and teachers live in fear or become thugs themselves? (I had not yet started teaching and was unfamiliar with actual conditions at the Oakland Charter Academy.)
“Well,” Kurzen said, in his slow-start manner, “You have to get them to buy into it concept-by-concept, step-by-step, and you make the first steps easy. You remember in your first art classes, how your first assigment was a collage from ripped-up pieces of black and white paper?”
Admittedly, any attempts to enact the Dalton Plan in less lucre circumstances will aggravate accusations of privilege and wealth. On the other hand, Socratic instruction is about mentation, by definition, and can exist apart from special equipment or facilities. Indeed, Parkhurst first developed her “independent, objectives-driven learning” in a one-room schoolhouse, with the children of itinerant African-American laborers, shortly after she graduated from teaching college.
Certainly, OCA had enough space and equipment, from well-lit classrooms to $200 cameras and Chrome Book computers to do the job (although I had a bigger machine for film editing). With its pioneering charter system, perhaps it was ripe to adopt aspects of the Dalton Plan?
But how, specifically, to apply it to teaching film in East Oakland?
Helen Parkhurst as a twenty-something, around the time she developed 'object-based learning' in the 1910s. photo: Dalton Schools
Parkhurst's pedagogy worked perfectly for the newsletter class: After the hard part, which was getting students to agree to write a specific article (sign a contract), you simply had to keep on them to do the research, either online or in interviews around the school or by phone, and then write. Although the last step seems hard, there's the easy journalist mnemonic: First, summarize what they're going to read; second, tell them the facts; finally, summarize what you told them.
But film was another story. Arranging all the moving parts of movie making is difficult, especially doing an in-class shoot, since the kids had trouble stopping their incessant talking, which ruined takes.
Nevertheless, I was determined to institute the Dalton Plan and they were often startlingly sophisticated, despite a reluctance to participate, due to shyness, the absence of acting or filmmaking from their education, or outright obstreperousness.
Indeed, with some practice, they efficiently and democratically decided on stories, dialogue, who would act which roles (first ask for volunteers, then keep moving from refusal to refusal until a student reluctantly accepts), music selection (which they enjoy, although they prefer more danceable than sound track-appropriate music), movie titles, any graphics (assign the best artist, who may be reluctant to go commercial but will eventually concede), and, finally, the edit.
You get a kid committee to review and rate takes, which is easy if you supply them with a lined, labeled sheet with columns like “take number” and “opening line quality,” where they can mark “good,” “medium,” etc.
We even co-composed and performed title songs.
I tried to enlist assistant directors and cinematographers but, in the interest of time and quality, I did the directing, camera and final edit—based on their consensus, of course. Filmmaking is a collaborative activity, where one often has to follow a director, plus, a good final product might inspire the participation of more kids, I thought.
It was a truly incredible learning experience, for me as well as some of the kids.
Alas, teaching in general is extremely difficult, as I finally realized, both after my first week and when a friend developed PTSD from a fight in the high school class he was teaching. Moreover, schools with tight budgets and teacher-churning sometimes simply don't have the staff or time to be super well-managed.
Although I offered to come in to get an orientation on my first day teaching, the school declined and didn’t even provide a manual stating school policy on fighting, disrespect or detention.
Instructor/author Blair teaching the Six Rules of Photography. photo: OCA student
“Perhaps they are so into Parkhurst and liberal pedagogy,” I thought, “they figure 'Hand’s off is the best policy.'” Unfortunately, 20 rambunctious kids, full of energy after school, are a lot to manage, especially getting them to stop talking, which is mandatory to shooting scenes.
Plus I made a big mistake: too much democracy.
At one point, when they were dragging their heels on a shoot—talking incessantly, refusing to do the scene, I thought it might be efficacious to pull a Parkhurst, to produce a contract and get them to agree to statements like, “It is fun to make movies,” and “I will work on what the class decides,” including a signature.
Alas, much like the opponents of England’s Brexit or the advocates of Colombia’s Peace Plan, I was shocked when the majority voted no. Despite the fact that they were thoroughly modern, each with their own cellphone and Instagram and Facebook accounts (they would rummage through my accounts for compromising photos or quotes to spit back at me), they weren't enthralled about acting, being up on Youtube, etc.
Plus, I failed to follow the suggestions of seasoned teachers, Internet recommendations, or even my old art teacher, Aaron Kurzen: make teaching a shamanistic process, a learning journey, irrespective of outcome. What that means in practice is that you neither raise your voice NOR do you brook any misbehavior. Indeed, you call kids out and give them demerits, detention or other punishment, fairly and with room for explanation and redemption, but still fairly regularly and rigorously, if need be.
Alas, I was not informed of the school's discipline policy AND, as I learned on my own, I found there was no detention in the afternoon, when my classes were held, although they could be sent the following day.
On the other hand, I could simply use my voice, a technique I hit upon, after noting their obsession with their own chatter. Certainly, they could understand a voice, especially when it was raised.
In this manner, I came upon my “constant hector” policy to obtain results, getting in their faces and upping the volume: “Will you PLEASE be quiet;” “Can you PLEASE focus on the work;” or, while filming, repeating, “Will everyone PLEASE SHUT UP!!!” The trick is to never to be ill-mannered or ill–tempered, just loud. You can see how this turned out in “Behind the Scenes with the Floor Licker” (see it
And, after all this work, learning to deal with the kids, developing methods and scripts, and applying the Dalton Plan? Not invited back, naturally, although I did achieve the immense satisfaction of inspiring some students, hearing what they had to say (incessantly) and making some interesting movies:
Girl in a Box
The Floor Licker
Behind the Scenes with the Floor Licker
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Oct 17, 2016 - 05:53 PM