English goes digital

Olean High School senior Kay’Leigh Kenyon-McDade uses the school’s recently purchased iPads to take a video during film club Wednesday afternoon. The OHS English Department is introducing more film study and other digital media into its classrooms to engage students.

OLEAN — Olean High School students are studying more film and other digital media in addition to regular print texts, thanks in part to grant-funded iPads.

Students have used the iPads this year to create videos, whether it be adaptations of famous works of poetry and or their own short films, after the OHS English Department received a $1,000 grant from the National Council of Teachers of English and a $500 grant from the New York State English Council. The iPads are also being used in the school’s film club, which has expanded from only analyzing films last year to actually creating films this year.

It’s all part of the department’s push to better engage students — many of whom grew up with smart phones — and make them more media literate.

“So much of their literacy is digital,” said Sally Ventura, chair of the OHS English Department. “Why fight it?”

It’s a push going on in classrooms around the country as technology like iPads and video streaming becomes more accessible, said Frank Baker, a media literacy consultant and author. For 11 years he oversaw all films and videos for Orange County (Fla.) Public Schools classrooms, and formerly consulted the NCTE, which endorses teaching non-print texts.

“A teacher that has kids read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ most likely also has them watch a scene from the movie,” Baker said. “Definitely video is the hook. We know whatever we put on that screen gets our students’ attention.”

OHS’ digital media push started last summer after Ventura and other OHS English teachers attended a professional development conference led by UB, Houghton College and Cattaraugus-Allegany BOCES, and focused on teaching film.

The conference inspired Stephen Sorensen to apply for the grants to purchase five iPads, which the school acquired this past fall.

“Before I was able to get (the iPads), kids were creating videos for class with their phones and they were making really great movies, but it was only the kids who had those phones that had those features,” said Sorensen, who teaches ninth-grade English and runs the film club. “So I wanted to get a hold of this so that everyone could have access to it.”

In addition to using iPads to create films in their regular English classes, students are also using the tech to create videos for fun during the weekly film club.

One of those students is senior Kay’Leigh Kenyon-McDade, who is making a documentary on high school life by interviewing both current and graduated OHS students.

Making videos and helping start the film club last year has Kenyon-McDade thinking of studying film criticism in college. She said the English department’s focus on film and access to video technology has also piqued her peers’ interest in film, as well as English as a whole.

“When you hand them book, they’re like, ‘Eh, it’s a book,’ but when you hand them an iPad, they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s an iPad. I can work this. I can physically do this and it’s nice,’” Kenyon-McDade said.

Using more video in the English classroom could get more students to pursue the subject in college. The number of bachelor’s degrees in humanities like English declined 8.7 percent from 2012 to 2014, falling to the smallest number of degrees conferred since 2003, according to a study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

“It gets them through the backdoor,” Sorensen said. “They learn something because they want to make something great, rather than, ‘I have to learn this because I have to make something.’”

However Baker warns that while classrooms have more access to digital media, teachers and students are not necessarily more media literate. He said not enough teachers are trained in critical media thinking like what an advertisement image or camera angle means. He said that can be particularly problematic in era of “fake news” where many are questioning how to identify what information is true and what is false.  

“We’ve pushed video so far into the classroom, but we haven’t advocated strongly enough for those critical viewing skills,” he said.

But professional development, like what OHS teachers got this summer, is a good place to start, Baker said.

Teachers involved in that summer conference are trying to create a network of schools focused on digital media like film, an effort being led by Tim Clarke, CA BOCES program manager for professional development. That network could include an annual student film festival.

“It’s something we’re committed to here in our school, but we also want to grow it in the area and work with other schools as well,” Sorensen said.

While many teachers have embraced video in English classrooms, not all are as enthusiastic. Ventura said some educators are feeling pressured to align their teaching with the state’s Common Core curriculum, which doesn’t include film or media literacy.

“There’s things about the Common Core curriculum that are good, but teaching to the exam leaves no freedom, creativity, and those are qualities I think are really important in exciting classrooms,” she said. “We’re lucky here at Olean. We have a very supportive administration. They’ve been very supportive of this.”


(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at tdinki@oleantimesherald.com. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)

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