64 Hours and Student Engagement

By Ian McFeat, Principal at La Canada High

A few weeks ago, students from Mr. DeSimone’s LCTV classes and Mr. Eick’s Theatre classes met in room 603 to hear about a new film festival. “Ladies and gentlemen, listen up,” Mr. Eick addressed the 60+ students, as they focused towards the front of the classroom.  “You must include a logline, this specific prop, this character, and this camera angle,” he said as he pointed to the guidelines upon the whiteboard. “Again, you only have 64 hours to create your 7-minute films. What questions do you have?” I then heard a student chuckle with excitement as her friend, brimming with energy buzzed around her.  Students were poised to begin this powerful project, and they were not even getting a grade for it.

Grading at times can confuse learning. By the time students enter high school as Freshman, they’ve sat through over 11,000 hours of education. This is the time that for many of them can feel monotonous and repetitive, overburdened with the galloping standardization of the education machine. For many of them, education represents a slog, a conveyor belt of sorts. In Ben Power’s English 4 class, each year he shows a TED Talk video from Sir Ken Robinson that speaks to this construct. Robinson reminds students that:

“… given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.

Passions in education can be obfuscated and become obsolete when the institutions themselves are not reflective of their educational practices. Schools can play the game too, defining success in narrower and narrower terms as learning is reduced to a numerical value; a score on an AP exam, or only “A’s” and “B’s” on report cards. Instructionally, this takes the form of assignments to honor assignments, tasks that do little to ignite the interests and values of our students. Yet, if one takes a more detailed dive into LCHS programs, the talents and interests of our students begin to take shape.

For the past ten years the Los Angeles County School for the Arts, (LACSA), has engaged students in a film festival that has become a hallmark for their school. This festival – the 64 Hour Film Festival – has engaged students in new and novel ways that showcase student creativity, ingenuity, and drive. This year, LCHS created this same program and the requirements of the festival are very specific. The films had to include a specific prop. They needed a specific line of dialogue, a specific character, film angle, prop and sound effects. Students then had to, design, write, create, film, and edit a 7-minute film on a given genre. The genres were outrageous and included a Marching Band Romantic Comedy, a 1940’s Spy Thriller, Vance: the Security Guard: the Action Film, a Westworld Mockumentary, Dracula Cast Party Horror Film, a 1980’s coming of age film about Jeff, Justin, and Jason, and a Summer Sports Camp Disaster Film.   

These student productions, the editing, the film work, the script writing, the acting reminded me about Rayford’s Song, a poem by Lawson Fusao Inada. The poem is about a student’s yearning to have his story, his creativity, reflected in the curriculum of his classroom as his teacher seeks to ‘correct’ his thinking:

Our songs, our songs were there–

On tips of tongues, but stuck

in throats–songs of love,

fun, animals, and valor, songs

of other lands, in other languages,

but they just wouldn’t come out.

Where did our voices go?

Rayford’s song was Rayford’s song,

but it was not his alone to own.

As I listened to the opening moments of the film festival, I was heartened to see the joy on the faces of our students, a validation of their stories, cherished, molded, and displayed for our community to celebrate. Creating assignments with our students at the center requires the sort of thinking that went into the creation of the 64-hour film festival. At LCHS we really do know how to make spaces in school where students find their voice, spaces that allow for creativity and ingenuity, spaces that allow them to share their diversity of experience, spaces that help to define the texture and uniqueness of our student body.  One need only to look at our culinary, visual arts, language courses or Graphic Design programs for ready examples.

For this assignment, there was no grade, no points value, and no extra credit. Students learned because the learning was compelling. Thank you, Mr. DeSimone and Mr. Eick.

Go Spartans!