Making the Video: How Students Grew While Making a Documentary

Jessica Lander is a Teaching Associate at the Edwards Middle School in Charlestown, MA

What happens when you pass out hot fuchsia flip-cameras to eleven sixth graders with the plan to make a movie?

If you are in Room 213 you might see shots of bright yellow Jordans, impromptu rapping, or angled dance moves filmed covertly while a teacher is talking.  There will be close ups on a nose, or a blinking eye, and classroom whiteboards spun into vortices.

Having grown up assembling Marx Brother-esque shorts and PlayMobil stop-action epics, I jumped at the opportunity to co-teach an apprenticeship on documentary filmmaking.  Little did I know what I was getting into.

Our class of eleven was a middle-school microcosm.  There were the best friends and the loners.  There were the troublemakers and studious types. There were students so quiet it took minutes of cajoling to get them to share a thought and others who required constant reminders not to call out.  We had Spanish SEI (Sheltered English Immersion) students, Chinese SEI students who spoke limited or halting English, and one autistic boy who dreamed of becoming a filmmaker.

By week five I was dubious that any movie would result.  Class seemed to be more about juggling emotions and attitudes than an intense study of cinematography.  We finally settled on a fitting topic: what it was like to be a sixth grader.

And, slowly, a movie emerged.

Students climbed onto chairs or lay, backs flat to the creaky wood floor, to capture the most interesting angled shots.  They fanned out silently to record daily life: homework help in the cafeteria, the step-dance team in the hallway and a range of apprenticeship lessons in the classrooms.


At the culmination of ten weeks, we presented our movie to students, parents and teachers.  All the elements were there: a storyline, interviews, b-roll, voiceovers, odd angles, even bloopers so as to include the yellow Jordans and the covert dance moves.  But more than that, the movie held together as passionate and playful portrait of 6th grade life.

What the audience did not see, however, was the ten-week transformation of the film crew who sat, bashfully, near the front of the stage during the premiere.

No, they weren’t suddenly all best friends. But over ten weeks I had witnessed subtle shifts in their attitudes and their assumptions of each other.  I saw mainstream students reach out to Chinese SEI students and take the time to listen and respond to their halting English.  I saw the shyer students improvise eloquent voice-overs when the talkers of the class grew hesitant.  And I watched as the autistic boy in our class, who struggled constantly to stay on task, walked purposefully and silently through the halls and classrooms of the school, camera in hand.

It is this still-unmade documentary I wish the audience could see.

Here is the documentary that the students did create: