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Spaces for Teachers to Learn: The Origins of EVC’s Teacher Education Program

by Steve Goodman, founding executive director emeritus

This is the third in a series of guest blog posts written by EVC’s founding executive director emeritus, Steve Goodman, on EVC’s early years. Read the preceding blog post in this series here.

On the last day of the inaugural class I co-taught with teacher Liz Andersen at Satellite Academy, the students gave me a memorable gift: a bright red t-shirt with “Satellite Video Master” printed on it in raised white letters. I couldn’t have been happier and more grateful. I still have it all these years later. But the truth is, I was far from being a “video master.” I was just starting out on my journey as a filmmaker and educator. The “masters” were the experienced educators I had the great good fortune to be surrounded by along the way. 

I was determined to spread the success of that class and teach as many students as I could. I knew that I could connect with just 25 students each time I taught a class. But I figured I could reach exponentially more students if I taught teachers who would then bring video production into their classes. Developing teachers' skills became my plan for spreading EVC’s educational methodology. 

My timing was perfect. EVC’s founding in 1984 coincided with the flourishing of the progressive education movement in New York City. The New York City Office of Alternative High Schools and Programs had just been established under the leadership of Superintendent Stephen Phillips. This expanded on the first wave of alternative schools started by teachers and community activists in the 1970s. Ted Sizer founded the Coalition of Essential Schools the same year, and Debbie Meier launched  Central Park East High School a year later. These schools followed the same kind of student-centered, interdisciplinary, collaborative, project-based learning practices and principles that EVC used, and this made them fertile ground for collaboration. Alternative-school leaders Alan Dichter, Alan Baratz, Mark Weiss, and Nancy Mohr actively supported our work with their teachers and students. 

Fueling this momentum, a new arts education funding program from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) made it possible to bring EVC’s video programs into additional alternative schools. After that inaugural class, I began working alongside various teachers at Satellite Academy’s Forsyth Street and Chambers Street sites, and then at Bronx Regional High School. Filmmaker and media educator (and former college roommate) Dave Murdock soon joined me and expanded our work, teaching classes in Pacific High School, Boys and Girls High School, and Julia Richman High School. 

As we worked in these schools alongside teachers and put VHS cameras in their students’ hands, the students soon began producing a great variety of creative projects. Students in a Julia Richman High School English class created a video called “The Living Dictionary,” in which they acted out the meanings of vocabulary words in  comedic skits. For example, in one skit exploring the vocabulary word “dilemma,” a student faces a “dilemma” when he promises to take his girlfriend out on a date but is then invited by a friend to go to a Yankees game on the same night.) 

Teachers began to see the power in putting cameras in their students’ hands so they could document the world outside the school walls. Teachable moments arose out of these young filmmakers’ seeing people and places around them with fresh eyes, learning to ask probing interview questions, and engaging in unexpected conversations with people on the streets of their neighborhoods. 

Chambers Street students took their cameras a few blocks from their school to the Manhattan courts. They interviewed the director of the Andrew Glover Youth Program, which provided alternatives to incarceration for justice-involved youth. Bronx Regional students interviewed people about the homelessness and abandoned buildings in their surrounding neighborhood. Visiting Grand Central station, it was a revelation for students to simply point their cameras up and notice for the first time that there were stars painted on the ceiling.  Julia Richman High School students filmed and discussed the meaning of a Francis Bacon quote–“knowledge is power--carved above the main entrance of their school and which they had passed unnoticed day after day. Boys and Girls High School students traveled from Brooklyn to Harlem to document the places where Malcom X had lived and worked, and they documented community oral histories from people who had heard him speak.

Summer Intensives

Dave Murdock began running summer documentary workshops at EVC, and these workshops extended students’ school-based learning experiences. We helped students not only investigate their own neighborhoods but expand their horizons by taking them on trips to other communities. Some students won scholarships to attend the summer film program at the State University of New York Buffalo. Other youth came with me to a summer documentary camp I started in the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee. I also took two students with me on a trip to Minnesota to document the Hormel meat-packing strike, where we ran into presidential candidate Jesse Jackson and documentary director Barbara Kopple, who was filming what would become her award-winning documentary, American Dream. (We were tear-gassed with the strikers on the picket line there—but that's another story.)

EVC’s goal in collaborating with and mentoring teachers in the classroom was to make ourselves redundant by developing teachers' skills to the point where they would no longer need EVC. This was easier said than done. Even experienced teachers in schools with inspired school leaders were rarely able to continue teaching video independently without us.

Codifying the Curriculum

We learned that we needed a more systematic program for teacher professional development. We identified the bundle of skills that were  needed to facilitate our video projects, and it became clear that while technical skills, such as camera operation, sound recording, and editing, were absolutely necessary, they were only the beginning. Our fundamental goal was to support student-centered inquiry and expression for sparking community explorations, investigations of critical issues, and amplifying youth and community voices. To accomplish this, we needed to teach educators our approach to student-centered pedagogy. 

We began to take a more systematic and multi-layered approach to our professional development work. We addressed teachers' expressed needs, concerns, and institutional constraints. Partnering with the New York City Writing Project at Lehman College in 1989, Dave Murdock and I launched our first multi-week summer video institute for teachers. Principal Nancy Mohr of University Heights High School on the Campus of Bronx Community College gave us free use of classrooms. My now former partner Suzanne Valenza helped to forge this collaboration, as she was an English teacher at University Heights and also an active member of the Writing Project. That first summer,the teachers made projects about the Bronx Zoo and the on-campus school Hall of Fame.

We designed these intensive summer experiences to give teachers sustained time for learning away from the pressures of school. Working on mini projects, they experienced as both learners and media makers some of the same challenges and successes their students would experience. The learning process carried them through collaboration with others as they planned, shot, and edited their video inquiry projects, exploring issues of their choosing. New York City Writing Project leaders Marcie Wolfe and Ed Osterman collaborated with us to integrate daily journaling as a method for teachers to reflect on their experiences. We collected the teachers’ journal entries, production notes, and pictures and created a scrapbook recording each group’s summer experiences. These scrapbooks are now a part of EVC’s archive.

Often, on the first day teachers would feel overwhelmed by the challenge of using the video equipment. Here is what two teachers wrote in their journals at the beginning of their workshop:

“I have a fear of making a video. My lack of mechanical ability is my biggest fear. I felt awkward handling the equipment…”

“Sending kids out on their own into the field I’m sure would cause me anxiety. Not feeling 100% sure of their technical abilities (like my own) I would feel nervous that they might encounter difficulties which they could not solve.” 

Over time, teacher journal entries began to reflect their increased comfort with the technology and the collaborative production process:

“Today the camera became more of a friend than it felt like yesterday. Combining both the mechanical and the spiritual aspects of the camcorder required a great deal of thinking, planning, and concentration.” 

“I felt so excited about holding the equipment, making or capturing images, and hearing myself speak.” 

“Individuals trying to interrelate for a common goal. Can this work? Egos are cast aside (supposedly), so that at the end individuals who started are now one. Group dynamics thus refutes the laws of mathematics; in group dynamics the addition of many becomes a single entity.” 

Thanks to this early professional development collaboration, daily journaling and reflection would be an integral part of EVC’s approach. It helped us to expand our understanding of literacy. We made new connections between written and visual expression, and used printed and spoken words and images for storytelling, inquiry and creative expression.

Student-Centered Approach in Era of Standardized Testing 

As New York City’s small schools movement grew, so did New York State’s data-driven regime of standardized testing, surveillance, and social control. School administrations increasingly asked to use our video projects to help teachers improve their students’ attendance and test data. While we worked within these constraints, we kept the focus on our guiding principles: developing teachers’ capacities as student-centered educators. And so, we sometimes came to think of ourselves as bringing a Trojan Horse into the gates. We gained entry into a school as a video program, but once inside we would also teach the “hidden curriculum” of lifting up student and community voices, and doing the deeper work of student-centered teacher change and school reform. In this way EVC was doing systems-change work from the inside.

In some cases, simply helping teachers obtain the bureaucratic permission to take their students out of the school building to interview people in the surrounding community was a pedagogical victory. We also helped teachers to increase student engagement by relaxing control, to feel comfortable navigating the local community, and to trust in and learn from their students and people in the community. In the age of increasingly rigid standardized testing and curriculum, these practices could seem radical. 

Beyond Summer Institutes: Teacher Network and Mini Grants

To expand our support for teachers, we started an EVC teacher network where they could remain connected after attending our summer institutes and returning to the classroom. We had periodic gatherings at EVC where they problem-solved, shared lesson plans, screened some of their students’ latest videos, and socialized. 

We also awarded teachers mini grants for video equipment and special projects. Bronx Satellite teacher Pam Sporn used her grant to take her students to Mississippi. As a media-literacy critique of the film Mississippi Burning, Pam’s students undertook a remarkable  documentary project about the murders of Civil Rights workers during Freedom Summer in 1964.

Pam and Middle College High School teacher Mario Chioldi, who both attended the first summer institute, then team-taught our second summer institute in 1990. Their teachers made projects about consumerism and sneakers and overcrowding in urban housing. 

I was inspired by the teachers we worked with who remained dedicated to a student-centered approach, despite being stretched beyond capacity, pulled in many directions, and working under sometimes dehumanizing institutional constraints. Teachers consistently told me and other EVC staff how invigorating it was for them to learn to work in partnership with their students and to facilitate their self-expression. As one told me:

The major thing I learned was not to stifle a young person’s vision or dream. And not to put so much adult thinking into their production...this was an opportunity for me to actually step back and let them do it. To be patient and let them explore their own gifts and that was the major thing for me...something I had to fight myself to do. 


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