Modern Media Makers Shine at NAMLE 2009

By NAMLE member Cary Gillenwater, Doctoral student, Education, Culture, Curriculum, and Change; University of North Carolina

The 2009 NAMLE conference was my first media literacy conference, and I was very excited to finally have a chance to interact in a more formal setting with scholars and practitioners who emphasized media literacy in their research and teaching. As the conference approached, I searched through the program and planned to attend many potentially wonderful sessions. As I reached the end of the program and found that the Modern Media Makers (M3) would be closing the conference proceedings, I was intrigued. I discovered that M3 was a production camp that provided an intensive production experience to youth from the community in which the conference was to take place. I felt elated that NAMLE had not only recognized, but also incorporated an educational aspect to the conference. The simple act of having this camp run parallel to the conference as well as having the camp conclude the conference indicated to me that NAMLE recognized the importance of connecting research to practice – a connection that is often neglected in other scholarly organizations. After reading up on the M3 camp, I began to rethink how I was going to spend my time at the conference.

Prior to teaching, I worked in Hollywood for a few years and therefore had professional experience in media production. However, since I have become an educator I have had very little opportunity to work with youth at a hands-on production level. Though I had my days full and was excited about the myriad of presentations I was going to attend, the opportunity to work with students was too compelling so I decided to contact M3 director Brian Cohen about getting involved with the production camp. Upon my arrival in Detroit, we met and he welcomed me to the team.

Before the students arrived, as instructors we agreed that we would take a student centered approach, that is, we would follow Dewey’s philosophy and allow the students to pursue ideas and engage in the process of media production in order to own the knowledge gained from the experience. Our role as instructors would be more as guides and helpers, instead of dictating the course of the project and the final product. This decision was predicated on the shared belief that the students were the focus, and that they would potentially learn more if allowed to pursue their own goals within the parameters that we as a group had established.

The students arrived on Saturday afternoon, and we all set to work on producing a documentary. I introduced the students to some basic media literacy ideas, including the need to recognize, comprehend, analyze, and interpret media messages in order to ascertain their constructedness and to ultimately help them to become more active participants, which in our case meant actually producing media. Brian Cohen, Henry Cohn-Geltner, and I then led a brainstorming session with the students. The result of the session was a common theme of current technology and its influence on people’s lives, but there were two divergent approaches to how to cover this topic. The students were divided into two groups; the first focused on media’s influence on politics, and the second group pursued the question of the generational divide created by media. The political group’s focus was influenced by Barack Obama’s successful use of media in his presidential campaign, while the generational divide group was influenced by the social networking and mobile technology aspects of media. After brainstorming, each group planned vignettes that included interview questions and discussed how the two short films would ultimately be combined into a final product. The students also completed storyboards that were to act as a guide for filming in an effort to help them to understand that even a documentary must have a plan in order to remain coherent both thematically and visually. This process further emphasized the constructedness of media texts, in this case a text that is often perceived as pure and objective. The students then spent the next few days filming interviews of conference attendees and the general public as well as shooting b-roll, editing their respective films, and creating additional post production components such as music.

Though the process was sometimes “stressful”, as the students put it in their closing remarks to the conference attendees, it was also rewarding. All but one student were novices in film production, and that one student had only used I-Movie earlier in the summer for the first time. Yet, the students put a great deal of effort into creating the films and were willing to ask questions at any point during the process. There were several definitive moments during the production process that signaled successful execution of production techniques. For example, one student spent nearly an hour and half laying b-roll over part of an interview in an effort to compensate for a poorly framed shot. This task is a difficult one to do because it involves separating the audio from the video as well as dealing with synching and timing issues. When he successfully completed the edit, he was ecstatic and felt as if he had truly learned and accomplished something.

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, the students often commented throughout the process about how their conception of being media literate was being shaped and informed by those they interviewed as well as the process of constructing their films. The success of the M3 program really “hit home” for me during the closing session when the students described their experience. In addition to acquiring insights into the construction of media, they talked about the effects of participating in the M3 camp: “It increased my confidence,” said one. It resulted in “knowing what I’m capable of doing,” another student commented. And another stated that “the experience has given me bragging rights.”

As a result of their experience, the entire panel of students demonstrated a much clearer understanding of media literacy and their involvement with media. The M3 production camp is an excellent example of how constructing media is a very important experiential component of media literacy education. In synthesizing the elements required for (in our case) a documentary, our students had a complete experience in becoming media literate.
Though I was only able to attend a few sessions of the NAMLE conference, I feel that my experiences with the students of the M3 camp were just as enlightening and rewarding. It was powerful to witness the students not only learning new skills, but also beginning to have a more nuanced understanding of the effect media has in their own lives. As an educator I have attended many conferences, but this is the first conference I have ever attended where theory was put into practice in conjunction with the conference itself. I hope that NAMLE will continue to recognize the M3 camp as an important and fundamental component of the conference, to both maintain the bridge between theory and practice and to provide opportunities to youth who may otherwise never have such a rewarding and educational experience with media.

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