Wednesday, July 25, 2007

County: Students oughta be in pictures

Lights, Camera, Literacy! is first phase of Montgomery’s three-year, $10 million middle school effort

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The gazette
Asante Matlock, 13, of Silver Spring looks on as Brian Ayeh, 12, of Silver Spring edits their film ‘‘Stuck” on Thursday at the Lights, Camera, Literacy! class at John F. Kennedy High School.
Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Martin Scorsese may soon have some competition on their hands.

This summer, roughly 135 county students in five middle schools have been using camcorders and Apple laptop computers to film and edit feature films.

With the 3-hour, 30-minute class — called Lights, Camera, Literacy! — the students are the first to test the school system’s highly touted three-year, $10 million effort to overhaul the middle school curriculum.

It was a raucous scene as 21 students from Sligo Middle School in Silver Spring turned Room 250 at John F. Kennedy High School into their own editing room. Some students tussled over what to cut while others simply used their school-issued camcorder to film their classmates in action.

The movies will be shown during a film festival Aug. 3, the last day of class.

The students already have gone on a field trip to the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring to watch ‘‘Akeelah and the Bee.” Last week, the students were scheduled to learn the differences between documentary and narrative by watching another movie about a spelling bee, 2003’s ‘‘Spellbound.” This week, they were scheduled to learn how to interpret a script.

These lessons are part of the reform, approved in February by the school board, meant to make classes tougher with more technology-based instruction.

The first phase of the reform costs $2.5 million and the movie-making class will be taught after school this fall at Benjamin Banneker in Burtonsville, Roberto W. Clemente in Germantown, Montgomery Village, Sligo in Silver Spring and Earle B. Wood in Rockville.

The class will then be phased into the curriculum and offered at all 38 middle schools in three years.

Middle schools have long been an enigma in Montgomery. While scores on the Maryland School Assessments have increased in all grades the last few years, reading and math proficiency levels tend to flatten in middle school.

Others say the schools are more transitional and focus on building self-esteem and not enough on academics.

Times are changing, said Linda E. Ferrell, the school system’s director of middle school instruction.

‘‘Whether or not they realize it, they’re still doing work,” Ferrell said of the moviemakers, smiling as they rushed back from a break to continue editing their footage. ‘‘It’s interesting for them. It’s more fun. And it taps into something they want to do. They’re still learning our curriculum, just in a different way.”

The old ways of instruction, where educators stand in front of a class teaching from a book, are becoming outdated; today’s students are more computer-savvy, school administrators say.

‘‘I hope [the class] will give a new motivation, a new way of learning,” said Arla Bowers, an instructional specialist for communication literacy. ‘‘I’m hoping they go into school this year with a lot more confidence. This course might reach kids who aren’t normally reached.”

On a recent morning, the students were split into groups of four and asked to spend the class editing their footage.

Then, at the end of class during ‘‘reflection,” teacher Kelli Meehan asked the aspiring directors to write down on yellow sticky pads what they learned about editing and post it on a big sheet of paper on the classroom’s chalkboard.

‘‘I learned about constructing a film and iMovies!” read one note.

‘‘I learned that it is FUN!” read another.

Some students, like 12-year-old eighth-grader Christopher Gardner, want the class to continue during regular school hours — instead of after school — this fall.

‘‘I’m working on it,” Bowers said to Gardner, who asked if the class could be given during regular school hours. ‘‘My wheels are turning. This program is so new that everything is open for discussion.”