Reading, writing and…filmmaking
The fundamentals of film and video production are fast becoming a core language for L.A. Unified's learners.
Melrose Ave. Elementary third-graders use tablet computers, green screens, lights, costumes and actors
to tell the story of the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution. (Frank Guttler)
By Samuel Gilstrap | Nov. 26, 2018
HOLLYWOOD – When educators speak of language arts, the words video production aren’t usually the first to come to mind. But, that may be changing in the years to come.
Melrose Avenue Elementary School is taking a fresh look at video and film production as a way of teaching students the fundamentals of storytelling — through media that are increasingly commonplace in the 21st century world.
“A major part of elementary education is language development,” said Melrose principal Mathew Needleman. “While we still teach the principles of writing and storytelling with pencil and paper, we are expanding the media at students’ disposal and building their expertise in an increasingly important skill area.”
With a background in film production himself, Needleman helped introduced the medium as a teaching tool two years ago, inviting Frank Guttler – formerly with the Screen Education Program at the American Film Institute and now an independent media literacy coach – to provide professional development to his third grade teachers. The program has since expanded to second grade, and Guttler comes to the school twice a week to provide hands-on lessons to students and coaching for teachers.
“The media of film and video are everywhere,” he said. “It’s a phenomenon already familiar to students and teachers. And, while most students are adept at producing videos with iMovie and other tools, what they don’t necessarily know are the fundamentals of film-making — which haven’t really changed in the last century.”
Media literacy coach Frank Guttler provides Melrose second-graders with a lesson on the common types of shots used in film and video production.
(Samuel Gilstrap / L.A. Unified Communications)
Guttler recently sat with a classroom of second-graders teaching terms like establishing shots, long shots, medium shots and close-ups. The students took to the lesson quickly and enthusiastically.
Teachers build on these types of lessons to guide students on film-making projects, and Guttler helps check in on progress.
“We are giving teachers ideas about how to converse and give feedback to students on their work,” Guttler said. “It’s the same as in any other medium. There are rough drafts and then more polished drafts and final drafts.”
Guttler further supports teachers with rubrics on how to give feedback and guidance on the students’ projects.
View a sample project by Melrose second-graders telling the story of their visit to a nearby farmers market.
More and more, Needleman says, the idea is to use film production as a new way for students to connect with core content.
“This is not an extracurricular activity,” he explained. “They’re learning to use these tools to relate to social studies for example. Our third-graders recently underwent a project in which they used video to explain the Preamble in the Constitution.”
Needleman says the effort has yielded additional benefits, such as raising student engagement levels and ultimately helping attendance rates.
“When kids are excited about coming to school, attendance rates go up,” he said. “Our chronic absence rate is the lowest it’s been since I became principal here.”
Excitement is not limited to students. Many Melrose teachers have also expressed enthusiasm.
“This has opened up new doors for a lot of our young writers,” said second grade teacher Kevin Gaffield. “The way Mr. Frank [Guttler] is teaching them — taking apart and understanding the elements of a movie — it has bolstered their understanding and excitement about how we tell stories through all media, including traditional books. They are learning that whether we’re dealing with words or with film, it’s still a type of language.”
There are additional benefits, Gaffield said.
“This provides another avenue for a teacher to connect with students who may struggle with traditional writing tools,” he explained. “Students who are English learners or those with special needs. It’s been only a short time, and already we’re seeing these students more engaged and thriving.”
View a sample video project by Melrose third-graders on the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution.
Providing instruction in film-making is not new to L.A. Unified schools.
Nearby Hollywood High School offers a New Media Academy, which began a decade ago as a California Partnership Academy and then certified as a Linked Learning pathway. Now a magnet program for several years, the school attracts students from around Southern California.
“We offer a career-readiness program that is authentic, shaped by input from the community and interdisciplinary,” said Hollywood magnet coordinator Ali Nezu. “What makes the program successful is its focus on teaching fundamentals and then providing hands-on opportunities for students to create and defend their work in professional settings.
“Whether or not they have aspirations to pursue careers in the industry, they graduate with the ability to work in teams, show initiative, take constructive criticism and engage in data analysis and problem solving.”
Nezu is working with grant funding to turn space on the campus into a fully-functioning production studio that mirrors the layout of film studios. The school hopes to open the new space in the 2019-20 school year.
At Sun Valley High School, veteran filmmaker Jamal Speakes is building on the school’s long-successful visual, media and performing arts program with development of a film production training and certification center.
“The center will house a curriculum designed around everything from content production to directing, cinematography, grip and electric, film musical scoring, production design, video editing, hair and makeup, broadcasting and virtual reality technology,” Speakes said. “The goal is to partner with major Hollywood film studios and be the premier high school content creation facility placing students directly into career technical education opportunities.”
Sun Valley is already working with Warner Brothers to guide development of the facility and provide mentorship opportunities.
Speakes says many recent Sun Valley graduates are now enrolled in some of the top film schools in the nation.
But while film study programs and facilities have been flourishing for years in secondary schools, elementary programs are far less common.
“This is Los Angeles, and so of course there are pockets of educators doing really innovative things related to film and video production,” Needleman said. “As far as other elementary schools that area doing what we’re doing? I don’t know of any at this point.”
As the program at Melrose becomes more established, Needleman said, he hopes more elementary schools will be inspired to build programs with similar models.
“Our approach is helping build expertise in the kids, but it goes beyond movie making,” he said. “Frank has a lot of energy and provides terrific guidance and inspiration for our teachers and students. But, the most important thing is increasing the overall rigor of writing we are teaching. That leads to student achievement, which is ultimately our measure of success.”