Undoing Hollywood (How I Learned to Love Teaching High School Media)

Guest post by high school media production teacher, Jay Miles.

Video cameraNot long ago, I found myself in a solid position, professionally. I was teaching media production at a local college and working for two major cable networks. I had a short commute, steady income and great coworkers. I was shooting freelance projects, traveling to exciting cities and meeting interesting people in my field. I even had my own coffee cup imprinted with the college logo. Then the bottom fell out.

In less than six months, shows were cancelled, my hours dried up and freelance clients started shying away from video projects. Then I learned that the for-profit entity that owned our school was ending the video production program. I had to make a significant move, almost immediately.

New Opportunity

Thankfully, my phone rang. A friend had turned down a job teaching audio and video production at a public high school and had given my name as a candidate. I played nice, did the interview and quietly laughed to myself: me? Teach high school? Yeah, right. Then I realized that this gig could work until the next college opportunity arrives.

That ‘temporary’ solution just completed the first marking period of its fifth school year, and I am proud of the growth of my students and our media program. I admit that my rather smug ‘I’m a college teacher with 20 years of production experience’ attitude took a pounding those first few weeks, as the particulars of my new world began to show. It wasn’t the easiest of transitions, and I am still revising my procedures, assessments and methods. Why? Because I am faced with new challenges that the students bring to my room every day. And I’ve learned that there are huge differences between these two levels of media students.

Adjusting from College to High School Instruction

How have I had to adjust my approach? From that very first class to the present day, I’ve faced four major concerns:

  • the comfort level the students feel towards technology
  • a maddeningly diverse range of learning styles
  • a varied range of attitudes and motivations
  • the limitations faced by each student and their particular reality

For my college courses, students purchased their own camera package as part of their tuition. They were expected to bring a certain digital savviness to the learning environment, care for their own equipment, sign out additional gear from the school and be able to manage their time to complete various video assignments. After all, these were aspiring directors and producers. I immediately realized that none of these applied to my high school students, some of which didn’t enjoy such luxuries as cable TV or internet access at home. Most had never touched a camera or used a Mac. That first year, I struggled to adjust to their tech comfort level, unable to lend out equipment to those who needed extra practice and astonished at those who couldn’t ‘right click’ with an Apple mouse. Higher order concepts baffled them, their treatment of the gear was often careless and many simply froze at the prospect of exploring new software.

But that wasn’t the only issue. At the college level, I simply delivered the content and expected the students to utilize it in their work. At the high school level, I faced a broader range of learning styles, from those who responded more to visual information to those who were traditional textbook learners to those who only absorbed knowledge aurally. This grounded my best efforts and I stood astounded at the students’ inability to complete basic assignments. Slowly I understood that I needed to modify the delivery and the assessments in order to help these students grow and I am still exploring new ways to maximize student learning potential.

Changing delivery of the curriculum

I now differentiate my delivery, allow students to complete quizzes verbally and by flipping portions of the curriculum. For example, my students rarely receive written homework. Instead, I assign in-class web hunts, chapter tours and vocabulary searches to replace the typical ‘read the chapter, do the exercise’ model. I also rely heavily on opportunities for the students to experience hands-on learning, a crucial tool for mastering the techniques in media production.

High school classroomDespite this, I remain challenged by those students whose attitudes, motivations or character hinder their chances at success. At the college level, the students paid their tuition and were given access to the content. Put simply, they got the grade they earned. While this is still somewhat true of my outlook at the high school level, my college students didn’t exhibit the same tendencies for skipping class, sleeping through class, ignoring direction, not contributing to group projects or forgetting assignments. I’ve taken to asking my students on the very first day why they are in my class. Based on their responses, I try to tailor how I measure their success to outcomes that are realistic for each student. For example, the student who loves movies and wants to make them will get pushed by me in a different manner than the student who is simply there to complete the required tech credit for graduation. Different learners deserve different expectations, so long as they all give me their best.

I have grown more comfortable with the idea that part of my job is helping them find a path to the success that makes the most sense for them, at the moment in their lives. I also have come to be more tuned in to factors such as time of day, day of the week, proximity to lunch and other elements that can affect their chances of success in my classes.  In other words, I must be constantly mindful of who they are at any given moment as I help them to reach their potential.

Shifting focus – Empowering every student

Finally, I’ve come to recognize the reasons behind the behavioral issues that typify today’s high school students. Job concerns, parental or home situations, financial constraints and sleep, nutrition and health issues can all compromise their academic performance. I’ve come to be more understanding of these factors and how they affect learning. In fact, I have abandoned the idea that my role is to develop aspiring Hollywood gurus. Instead, I’ve shifted my focus to empowering every student, asking them to embrace challenges, work collectively, listen actively, think critically and to adapt, adjust and amend. I drive them to explore new options, pay attention to details, respect deadlines and varying opinions and to take responsibility for their work, their learning and their success.

I feel that these 21st Century skills are exactly the ones that a generation of digital natives most desperately need. By flipping the relevant portions of my classroom, challenging the students to embrace the content and engage in the process and tailoring the outcomes and expectations to their abilities, I’ve (mostly) been able to make it all work. And, yes, I still fuel the aspiring filmmakers with all the glories of the medium that I can manage. More importantly, however, I try to give all of my students a sense of confidence not because of the technology, but through the technology. All in all, things have turned out to be very successful, especially for a ‘temporary’ solution.

Jay MilesJay Miles teaches audio, video and TV news at East Haven High School (CT). His students have received numerous awards for their video work. This January, he will be re-assessing his own methods once again, while teaching a grad-level intro production course for Quinnipiac University. His first book, Conquering YouTube, details 101 pro methods for completing awesome and affordable video projects, both in the field and in the classroom. His website is jmilestv.com.

This content was written for our quarterly education newsletter, the Learning Lounge, written by educators, for educators. If you want to read more pieces like this, subscribe!