The Whole Student: How Educational Video Center Remains at the Forefront of the Gap Between Educational Demands and Active Citizenry

As an alumna of the Educational Video Center’s (EVC) Youth Documentary Workshop (1999), I recall with co-director Tanya, my youth producer cohort attending schools all over New York City, both traditional and alternative (now known as Transfer Schools). We spent mornings in our individual schools taking core subject classes: English, History, and Science, and were released early to attend EVC’s Youth Documentary Workshop (YDW) from one to four in the afternoon, four days a week for a full semester.  At EVC, we earned additional credits in these same areas while developing the necessary skills to be successful in life after high school.  At that time, taking and passing the New York State Regents Exam was not a requirement.  It was two years later, in 2002, that the Regents became mandatory as part of the No Child Left Behind Act for High School Students. Since then, this shift in testing requirements has made it increasingly difficult for under-credited high school students to attend EVC’s afternoon workshops. There is a growing reluctance among teachers to have students miss any afternoon test preparation classes, even though they would gain new experiences and skills and earn credit through EVC’s YDW Program.

Many youth media practitioners that have relied on relationships with the public schools, like EVC, increasingly find themselves competing with other after school test prep entities that prepare students for the Regents Exams. Additionally, for a growing number of students, the structure of their participation in EVC’s YDW is shifting.   Many now receive surplus credits or, as we will discuss, come to EVC through the Transfer School’s new Learning to Work Initiative and receive a stipend to participate. These shifts have not impacted students’ learning outcomes.  But they have significantly impacted EVC’s ability to recruit and provide essential credits to the most under-credited youth.

EVC’s Youth Powered Video Curriculum meets the Common Core State Standards and our educational model of problem solving, research and using multiple perspectives to build an argument through documentary filmmaking are the same skills that students will need in order to pass state tests.  In addition to helping students meet the standards for graduation, youth media also develops technical skills needed to be successful in the job market. At EVC, we work with the whole student to develop necessary skills to manage life, school, and work. We present two student case studies in this article.  One student attended our Youth Documentary Program and received academic credit, while the other received a stipend for  participation. Both show how EVC students have been successful in school and beyond while preparing for standardized tests.

Deconstructing Labor Market Readiness

Prior to 2000, high school students were able to intern at youth media organizations throughout NewYork City where they both gained valuable workforce skills and simultaneously worked towards their high school diploma. Today, the pull between preparing students for Regents Exams and the labor market has resulted in independent endeavors.  Currently at EVC, we see a shift towards providing stipends to participants of these same internships through the Learning to Work Program (LTW).  As a result, students who are “under-credited” are required to stay in school in order to meet graduation requirements, while students close to graduation attend EVC’s Youth Documentary Workshop Program as a career enrichment program.

According to the New York City Department of Education website:

Learning to Work (LTW) is an in-depth job readiness and career exploration program designed to enhance the academic component of select  Young Adult Borough Centers (YABCs) and Transfer Schools.  The goal of LTW is to assist students in overcoming obstacles that impede their progress toward a high school diploma and lead them toward rewarding employment and educational experiences after graduation. LTW offers academic and student support, career and educational exploration, work preparation, skills development, and internships. 1

The Alliance for Excellent Education reports that “relationships that supplement the student-teacher interaction can give students a clearer understanding of labor market expectations and help achieve their aspirations.” 2 At EVC, we continue to align ourselves with NYC Transfer Schools and believe in the coherent integration of four areas that comprise EVC’s educational rubric: Documentary Arts, Social Emotional Development, Critical Literacies, and Civic Engagement. These areas are crucial to preparing students for the workforce, active and critical community engagement, while also meeting the requirements of graduation.

It is imperative that we are not only developing youth for the new knowledge and innovation centered workforce, but that we are looking at these young people in a holistic way in order to develop the social and political efficacy required in rapidly changing times. We expand traditional learning-time structures by developing not only curious learners and deep thinkers but also healthy and active community members. As schools rethink their structures, EVC aligns itself with them to prepare students for success not only to enter a shifting workforce, but also to support them to become active citizens as creative artists and critical intellectuals, empowered to advocate for themselves and their communities.  From this vantage point, our notion of work readiness is not merely technical or vocational, but also intellectual, political, and ethical. Whether students receive credit or a stipend for their participation in our programs holds no weight with our learning outcomes and the richness of their EVC experience.

EVC Students and Youth Documentary Workshops

Raelene’s Story

As many youth do, Raelene came to EVC’s YDW through her school’s internship program.  She was working towards her General Education Development (GED) Exam and therefore did not qualify to receive core subject academic credits through EVC. Instead, school administrators encouraged Raelene to join YDW to develop her social skills, gain technical experience, and help build her story development and revision skills as part of her GED preparation.

Raelene is a three-time participant at EVC.  Having completed a basic workshop in spring 2012, which focused on the New York City Police Department’s controversial Stop-and-Frisk policy, her goal for returning in the fall was to strengthen her confidence as an interviewer and public speaker. The fall semester experience challenged and strengthened Raelene above and beyond her expectations. During that time, EVC was partnered with the West Harlem environmental justice group, WE ACT, and focused on an environmental justice documentary, entitled Breathing Easy. Raelene’s return to EVC at the time of this partnership provides evidence of the program’s impact and success in focusing on the whole student. As a lifelong West Harlem resident of New York City public housing, the projects, Raelene had revealed that the apartment she grew up in was riddled with mold, pest, and chipping paint issues. She was, by all accounts, a perfect person to feature in the film. As the semester unfolded however, it became clear to everyone, especially Raelene, that researching the causes of her living conditions and documenting her story was emotionally overwhelming. As she faced her deep-rooted beliefs about how her living conditions negatively shaped her outlook on life and community, Raelene began resisting the documentary focus on her story.

Raelene’s emerging resistance to being profiled towards the end of production catalyzed other students in her group to demonstrate their social and emotional development as they tried to understand and care for Raelene’s feelings. Additionally, their problem solving skills and creativity in documentary arts were challenged as they sought alternative approaches to document her story in a way that honored her feelings. Her resistance also became a catalyst for WE ACT to not only help educate Raelene’s family on ways to stay healthy, but to advocate vigilantly on her behalf to authorities with the means to rectify the documented injustices within her public housing environment. Making this film became a transformative site for community building among the youth producers and with community organizers. It also became a site where, for the first time, Raelene began to feel hope.

By the end of production, Raelene took ownership of the process. As she allowed her peers to document her home and family, and as she documented her frustrations and revelations regarding her living conditions through her own confessional videos, she began to shift her perceptions.  Additionally, her leadership of interviews conducted in her community, the editing process, and her constant engagement with WE ACT, cultivated Raelene’s confidence in herself and in her sense of what is possible through civic engagement. In the end, Raelene indicated that EVC made the difference. The support, structure, and challenge of making that film impacted her outlook and approach to life.

When Raelene returned to EVC for her third semester, it was through her school’s Workforce Development Program. She met the requirements for our Advanced Youth Documentary Workshop (AYDW) and received a stipend for her time at EVC. During her final semester, her documentary team focused on the problem of bullying. By this time, Raelene not only had the technical skills to successfully create a documentary, entitled Beyond Bullying, but she was able to develop the story using points and counterpoints including the bully’s perspective, to speak publicly about the issue, and think civically and critically through community outreach.

Jasmin’s Story

Jasmin has twice participated in EVC’s YDW. At the start, she explained that she was new to her Transfer School. She was attending a traditional high school and scheduled to graduate, but found out on graduation day that she did she did not pass her Algebra Regents Exam and therefore did not qualify for graduation. After transferring, Jasmin was placed in an advanced English class and Algebra Regents Preparation class. She spent the rest of her time in school and after school interning at EVC through her Transfer School’s LTW Program.

Jasmin’s first documentary focused on the saturation of alcohol in New York City communities. Through that experience, as with most of the youth participants, Jasmin began looking at her community through a new lens, with a new awareness of the impact of outside influences. She told this story through visual images, interviews as well as a mapping of the neighborhood. Jasmin and her peers counted every alcohol ad in select neighborhoods and developed original statistics for the film. In addition, Jasmin spoke on the issue of alcohol live on a WHCR community radio program. This experience provided Jasmin not only with valuable work skills, but also supplemented her Regents preparation through the real-life use of algebra. The next semester, Jasmin joined AYDW with Raelene and eleven others. She arrived one day with a big smile–she had just passed her Regents Exam and qualified for high school graduation.

Many public high schools in the United States are under-resourced or overwhelmed in general, and incorporating media education into their practices often creates additional tension or resistance, whether due to a lack of know-how, time, or resources. Some schools support having equipment in the hands of young people, yet devalue the need to apprentice students to its uses and applications in the learning process. In the face of this, EVC’s model remains at the forefront of what is possible for students’ critical thinking, artistry, social/emotional development, and civic engagement when you put cameras in their hands.

Each semester, EVC offers its YDW for twenty-five students. Two basic skills workshops are offered in the fall semester, and both a basic and an advanced skills workshop run in the spring. Structured this way, we are better able to develop cohesion amongst the youth production teams, produce four quality films each year, and remain within the capacity of EVC’s resources.

The Basic Documentary Workshop (BDW) recruits students with little to no prior experience in video/film or audio production. Utilizing our Youth Powered Video Curriculum as the foundational teaching tool, we set out to work with students in four core areas: Critical Literacy, Documentary Arts, Social/Emotional Development, and Civic Engagement. These core areas are woven throughout the semester’s lessons and activities and are assessed by rubrics with learning objectives that focus on servicing the whole student. There are many ways we incorporate these rubric areas, from team building activities, rigorous research of topic ideas, critically analyzing forms of media, effective and creative use of production and post production equipment, journal reflections, as well as frequent group discussions. Throughout, students are coached to take ownership of the process and the film they are learning to produce.

Youth voice is an important concept to EVC’s mission. For students to take ownership of the process and outcome of the films produced, it is important that the choices regarding film topics and direction are in their hands. Some semesters, students have the autonomy to choose the theme and focus. At other times, partnerships with community organizations require students to choose topics within the scope of the partner’s work. In both scenarios, the powerful aspect to note is that because EVC films focus on social issues, students are asked to reflect on the community issues they directly face. Subsequently, the framing questions and the personal stories profiled in EVC films arise from the personal experiences of the student producers.

As Raelene’s story shows, the work of EVC and community partners can at times become a critical component in transforming the despair felt and lived by EVC youth producers. Additionally, as highlighted in Jasmin’s story, our work with students can shift the lens through which they view the choices available to young people and the external forces that impact the behavior and culture of the communities in which they live.

Student Success and Career Readiness

Jasmin went on to receive the Judy Doctoroff Fund for the Next Generation of Documentary Journalists (named after the president of Public Affairs Television, PBS journalist Bill Moyers’ production company). She secured a fully paid summer internship at Jigsaw Productions with Oscar, Emmy, and Grammy Award-winning producer, Alex Gibney. And this fall, she began her college career and moved into student housing.

Raelene passed her GED exam. With resume guidance and support from EVC, she was selected for a highly competitive summer internship at DeeDee Halleck’s Deep Dish Waves of Change. At the internship, she developed applications, websites and edited social issue documentary films that serve as activist tools to improve her community.

Both Raelene and Jasmin came to EVC through alternative high school programs. Raelene’s experience helped her further develop the academic skills necessary to pass her GED exam and the social and life skills essential to advocate on her own and others’ behalf.  It also provided her with a stipend helpful to her economic situation. In contrast, Jasmin received no academic incentive, but developed academic skills that were crucial to finishing high school but was paid through her school’s internship program.

In this article, we focused on these two young women intentionally, but their story is not unique. With only one in four students deemed college ready upon graduation, in spring 2013, one hundred percent of EVC’s graduating high school seniors participating in our AYDW transitioned into a media internship and are attending college this fall.

Moving Forward

Sites such as EVC need to be available to “under-credited” students, in a way that values their wholeness and does not merely focus on their deficient credits. The small contingent of Learning to Work and International High Schools that EVC works with agree. With educational assessment shifting towards standardized testing, these schools are reframing what youth media can provide to Transfer School students. While we agree with a new emphasis and value being placed on youth media as a career development opportunity, we also want to shift the narrow perception that media arts is supplemental to learning requirements.

EVC plays an active role in addressing and reframing workforce readiness in a holistic way. We believe that the kind of work schools are preparing “under-credited” students for, and the kind of workers schools are preparing them to be, requires some deconstruction. As such, the internship placements we strive to secure for EVC graduates are in line with the value we place on the whole student. Both Raelene and Jasmin continued working at nonprofit media companies committed to human rights, social justice, and community empowerment. The continued development of their active citizenship through their work experiences helps to ensure the kind of work they will do and the kind of worker they will grow to be.

We exist in the creative economy and media arts education is vital.

Bibliography

Alliance for Excellent Education, “Expanded Learning Opportunities: A More Comprehensive Approach to Preparing High School Students for College and a Career.” Issue Brief (August 2011): 1-9. http://all4ed.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/ExpandedLearningOpps.pdf.

Notes

  1. “Learning to Work,” New York City Department of Education, accessed August 20, 2013, http://schools.nyc.gov/ChoicesEnrollment/SpecialPrograms/AlternativesHS/LearningtoWork/default.htm.
  2. “Expanded Learning Opportunities: A More Comprehensive Approach to Preparing High School Students for College and a Career,” Alliance for Excellent Education, August 2011, 5, http://all4ed.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/ExpandedLearningOpps.pdf.