Historical portals

Maryville High School students bring historical research to life at film festival

Maryville High School students annually transform their classrooms into portals to the past during the school’s American Studies Documentary Film Festival.

The festival is the culmination of a large volume of work the students do for English and American History. At the festival, the students showcase their research through film and research portfolios on a variety of subjects from the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Suffrage, the dropping of the atomic bomb, the Roaring Twenties, the Watergate scandal, the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, Immigration, the 1960s and Sept. 11.

English teacher Dr. Penny Ferguson and American History teacher Mark White have coordinated the large scale project for five years.

“This year we had next to no glitches,” Ferguson said of the film festival held on the evening of March 29.

Ferguson said there were 25 films and 103 students involved. “Students have to be dressed up or in costume to introduce the film, show the film and then answer questions afterward. We have a list of questions they can anticipate being asked, but we tell the judges to ask anything,” she said. “I’ve gotten so many comments from judges that this is great preparation for college. Most of the students were so poised. They did such a great job of displaying knowledge, and the judges and parents thought it was a great experience.”

White said the project is a collaborative effort with individual aspects. “Students know the grade they get will not necessarily be the same as everyone in the group. They all work on the film and are judged by a panel of judges. Those grades are a collaborative thing, but then each student creates a portfolio of work,” he said.

White said each year the project begins with the students choosing a topic and starting research. “As a group, they pose an essential question -- a question that doesn’t really have a correct answer. It is this question that is used to start the research,” he said. “Here’s an example: Should the U.S. have considered and possibly carried out an alternative to dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?”

The students then take the essential question and work to address it using four primary sources. “We divided those between purely historical documents and things like items from the National Archives, literary documents or works of fiction, such as an excerpt from ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ Then they analyze the data and write an essay,” he said.

“Every student wrote two articles as though they were journalists, and we took those articles and cut and pasted them, and they were on display on the day of the film festival,” he said. “The Idea was to immerse people as quickly as we could into the specific topic of the film.”

The students then write their conclusions, addressing the original question. White said, for example, the students who studied the dropping of the atomic bomb came to the conclusion that the decision President Truman made was the right decision in wartime, and they defended their decision.

Ferguson said the portfolios of research each student completed consisted of about 50 pages of research and writing. “Then it was time to write the script before filming. We told them they could act in film, have pictures and video clips as long as they do their own voice-overs,” she said.

White said the students could have some canned footage because the school has a license with United Streaming and Discovery Channel that allowed the student to legally incorporate footage into each group’s documentary. “We limited that in their 15-minute film to no more than a third of the film. Sometimes you want to use something such as Nixon’s resignation speech,” he said. “We told them to spread those out so you weren’t using them all at once. They had to put their mark on it in some way with music or voice-overs.”

Crazy Talk software even allowed the students to make still images of historical figures appear to talk. “They did really neat things like interview a person in the Civil Rights movement. It looks like they are actually interviewing a person from that time period,” Ferguson said. “Some used a green screen like they were news producers, and they had events going on behind them.”

For two days before the film festival, White and Ferguson screened the films with the students to check for any glitches and go over some of the questions the judges might ask.

“With film projects, one of the first things we have always done is preview the film over two days,” White said. “We also have a chance to look for things. It gives us a chance as their teachers to question them at the end of film. That’s the only good chance, other than taking them home, for the teachers to see these films. During film festival we don’t that opportunity.”

White said students are increasingly tech savvy. “This plays to their strengths and plays to their interests,” he said.

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