The launch of the most transformative project in my academic experience was exciting, yet equally unexpected. All 52 students in my 11th-grade team gathered in a classroom as our teacher and project creator, David Roney (known as “Roney” to his students) explained the basis of our coming project. He began the conversation by explaining that we would be developing and publishing short documentaries reflecting ecological landmarks around San Diego County… Sounds interesting, right?
It wasn’t until we came back from winter break that we received an unexpected twist to our initial plans: this project would be a collaboration with our 10th-grade counterparts. The class groaned in unison. We couldn’t believe we had to work with these kids, these… youngsters. This was going to be a disaster.
As class ended and we started lunch, there was much discussion about the upcoming partnership. Most of us expected the cooperation between the lower and upper class to be dreadful. This wasn’t just an anti-10th-grade prejudice: after two years of remote learning, many of us hadn’t ever met one another. And for many of us, this was our one chance to be 11th graders and we had to spend it with 10th graders. In a sense, this did bring us closer together: we bonded over the shared disappointment.
Just one week after our return from winter break, Behind the Scenery officially began and we were assigned to our groups (our 11th-grade groups, that is, the 10th graders had not yet arrived). Each of us was tasked with interviewing a member of our group and designing a draft documentary around their interests. My group consisted of two other juniors and myself, and the deadline for the minifilm was tight –four days to be exact.
Describing our mental state as panicked would be an understatement: how on earth were we each supposed to create our own high-quality mini-documentary that told a valuable story about our subject? There was a great deal of hysteria as the assignment started to sink in. However, in the midst of the panic, many of us missed that Roney specified that the intent for this was to get to know each other, not make professional-level films. My group, specifically, really homed in and used this assignment as a fun way to get to know one another.
Quickly enough though, our anxiety was no longer relevant. We had to begin work immediately and didn’t have time for such reservations. While some students complained the entire four days, the week was quickly over and most of us had a rough version for our mini-film launch. This, however, was simply a launch and the idea was to get to know one another. We had a whole ‘nother product that was just beyond the horizon, and this time, we’d have company…
Following the mini-project launch, Roney brought together the entire 10th and 11th-grade team of students for the first cross-grade meeting. It was during this time that he more clearly outlined our process for the next few months. He gave a speech. It covered a lot of ground, but ultimately only one sentence really mattered: “In 12 weeks, you will create a professionally developed mini-documentary that tells a story about your ecosystem.”
After the speech, we gathered with our ecosystem groups. These groups were split among five different ecosystems. They consisted of the 11th-grade groups that had made the mini-documentaries, plus two or three 10th-graders, ultimately each group had a total of five or six members.
Now, it is important to note that even though we were working in cross-grade groups on a single product, each grade was in charge of a different element of filmmaking. Specifically, the 10th graders were in charge of all the sound aspects, and the 11th graders were responsible for the visual elements. In addition, the tenth graders were making a podcast, but we didn’t have anything to do with this. We were to collaborate with one another to make sure the audio and visual elements actually lined up and told a convincing story, whatever that may be.
In order to achieve this, we would need to do the following, though not necessarily in this order:
The 11th-grade portion of our group was the same that had made the mini-documentary. There were three of us: Me (Drew), Frankie, and Mitchell. The 10th-grade team consisted of four members: Alex, Kayla, Lia, and Ryan.
After some hemming and hawing about the topic of our story, we were still torn. In fact, we had pretty much no better idea than to tell the story of human impact as our presence encroached on the local wildlife. However, after our initial field trip to Mission Trails, we drove past a mountain that appeared to have been cut in half. The entire van went suspiciously quiet as we pondered the reason that half a mountain would be sheared off. That very suspicion is what drove our interest in pursuing industrialization as a story later down the line.
The first few weeks went considerably smoothly as the cross-grade groups started to settle in with one another. Our initial field trips proved successful as we worked together to begin the development of our story. In fact, the time we spent together every week became something that some of us actually really looked forward to.
Co-constructing a rubric refers to the process of creating an evaluation tool collaboratively with the students and staff involved in the project. The essential co-construction process in this project took three full days (five-plus hours) and began by having students choose from a list of professional, full-length documentaries to watch.
There were a variety of films to choose from with options ranging from climbing Everest to befriending an octopus. I chose the octopus film, My Octopus Teacher. While three days may seem like an awfully long time to create a rubric, it’s important to remember that this step was what set the expectations and goals for us to follow throughout the remainder of the project, all 12 weeks of it.
After watching the entire film, we were asked to take notes and share our thoughts on what we liked and disliked about the film. Smaller groups (about five to six students) sat around a table and filled out a graphic organizer with our peers who watched the same film. What we liked, disliked, and would like to replicate in our films was also an element of this organizer. After mini-conferencing with our smaller groups, we came together with the rest of our class to share our thoughts. In total, the co-construction process lasted about five hours and was broken down as follows:
Monday & Tuesday: Watch and evaluate full-length model documentaries independently.
Wednesday: Discuss thoughts with smaller groups of students who also watched the same film.
Thursday: Roney presents a synthesized version of the graphic organizer to the class for review.
Friday: Final rubric developed and presented based on graphic organizer revisions with further edits made as needed; finalized “indicators of excellence” for our films.
By co-creating the rubric, everyone had a clear understanding of the standards and expectations, which helped guide our work and focus our efforts on producing a high-quality documentary.
Towards the end of stage 1 (pre-production) and about six weeks into the project, the project gods pitched the nastiest curveball. It started to become very clear that the 10th and 11th-grade partnerships weren’t working according to plan. Specifically, there was an increasing concern in the amount of workload being put on both grade levels as the planning moved towards execution. So in the name of student voice, Roney decided to survey the students. The results? Well, my class of 11th graders expressed concern that we were pouring too much time and energy into this and were worried that many of the 10th graders wouldn’t step up to match the sound design to the quality of visuals that we were producing. On the flip side, the 10th graders’ survey responses showed that they were stressed about having to manage a second major project deliverable.
So, the proposed solution? Split the deliverable, but keep working through the process together. This meant that we would continue our partnership in fieldwork, but gave the 11th graders the ownership we were seeking and the 10th grade a more manageable workload. What this meant in practice was that the 11th graders were now responsible for the full film (audio and visual) and the 10th graders were focusing exclusively on a podcast on the same subject. This was tremendously helpful: the 10th graders were able to focus on the podcast and stop splitting their attention, and the 11th graders had full control over the film.
I asked Roney about what it was like to make this choice from his perspective. Here’s what he said:
It wasn’t like we were switching things up and had a lot of things to figure out. It was more like our original plan was going to require us to figure all these things out and if we made this shift, we would just eliminate a lot of stress for everybody.
Now, with the 10th grade firmly focused on producing podcasts, it was time to record some interviews.
Going into weeks six and seven, the work towards the final (group) documentaries began, our group divided work based on our known strengths and weaknesses. Besides a few little communication hiccups in the beginning, our group functioned remarkably well together. That said, however, many of our peers struggled with this delegation process as they shared skills and interests with one another and there were tasks left unclaimed. Once the time for planning and interviews rolled around, many groups felt overwhelmed as they approached what my group so fittingly referred to as “the contact phase.” The three of us were thrilled to finally be meeting some professionals who would hopefully be able to tackle some of our unanswered questions.
After a great deal of back-and-forth with prospective interview candidates, we scheduled a time to sit and chat with two in particular. In the case of my group, we selected our interview subjects based on profession, with the intent to highlight perspectives from two totally different professions. So it was set: in the coming week, we would interview a politician and an isotope geochemist Ph.D. student. It was important that we got a story from both a political and a scientific lens.
It was becoming increasingly apparent that this phase was going to be a logistical nightmare, trying to coordinate several interviews per group with a combination of dozens of different professionals. What made it even more complicated was that many of our interviewees followed a nine-to-five schedule rather than our school hours of 8:30 to 3:30. This added an extra layer of difficulty in coordinating schedules and finding suitable times for interviews that worked for everyone. To counter this evolving schedule issue, Roney used the floor-to-ceiling folding whiteboards in our classroom to coordinate which groups were doing interviews and when. It was a massive calendar with sticky notes labeling groups on certain dates and times.
We started interviews with a unique sense of excitement; we were anxious for answers and thought surely our community partners would be able to help us with our presently fruitless research. As we began, each of the interviews was unique in the sense that we framed questions differently for each of them. We asked local district member, Raul Campillo, questions like “How are you involved with Mission Trails?” and “What steps can be taken by members of the community to help preserve regional parks?” Contrary to that, our time with Emmet Norris (Geochemist) was spent on more scientifically technical questions like “Why is quarry mining so environmentally damaging?”
After completing the interviewing phase of the Behind The Scenery mini-documentary project, it was time to move on to the storyboarding and b-roll footage shooting phase. During this phase, we learned about the importance of b-roll footage in helping to tell a visual story. B-roll footage is, in essence, the stuff you show while somebody is speaking (when you aren’t just showing that person’s “talking head” ). So, for example, while someone talked about a hurricane, you might show “b-roll” of trees lashing in hurricane-force winds. This footage is important because it provides additional context and helps to illustrate the main narrative of the film. By including b-roll footage, we were able to show the behind-the-scenes process of creating a film and give the audience a more immersive and comprehensive understanding of the story we were trying to tell.
As we delved deeper into the world of film production, we were taught the importance of storyboarding. With this powerful tool, we were able to bring our vision for the film to life on paper, mapping out each shot and scene with vivid detail. We carefully planned out the visual narrative of the film, crafting a series of storyboards that would guide us through the b-roll shooting phase and help us capture all of the necessary footage. However, as we moved through the editing and post-production stages, we found that the process was not always linear. Sometimes, as we reviewed the footage and made revisions to the film’s narrative, we needed to go back and rework the storyboard to fit our current vision for the project.
At least, we thought we needed to go back and adjust the storyboard. As it turns out, this was not what Roney had in mind: our storyboard was intended to be the launching point for our film, not an accurate recreation of our final product. But at the time, we assumed the two had to match perfectly, and so, every time we edited the film, we went back and edited the storyboard as well.
Once we had a storyboard, we needed to actually shoot the footage we’d dreamed up. As we prepared for fieldwork, I couldn’t help but feel a mix of excitement and angst. On one hand, I was thrilled to finally be out in the field, free from the classroom to capture the footage that we had spent so long storyboarding and planning out. On the other hand, I knew that this phase of the project was one in which the 10th and 11th-grade collaborative aspect would really become a crushing reality.
When we showed up at the Mission Trails Visitor Center, we were greeted by majestic views throughout the valley and that oddly familiar smell of sage. We were set free to go hike, walk, and most importantly, document. We took pictures and shot b-roll footage while the 10th graders got sound clips of the creek flowing. As our day trip was drawing to an end and we made our way back to school, something caught our eye. On the outskirts of the park, there was an unmarked construction site that resembled an industrial mine and had carved out a noticeable portion of the mountain. The views were both breathtaking and bewildering, leaving us wondering what kinds of things could possibly be going on behind the green fence. After hours of research and a little help for our community partners, we were able to identify the Superior Ready Mix concrete quarry. In the following days, this quarry became the focal point for our documentary and was the topic we built the story around.
Despite my class’ constant whining about the 10th graders in the beginning, working together proved to be a bonding experience. Everyone ended up getting along pretty well in my understanding and we built a strong community. Nearly every single one of us had never previously met; distance learning proved especially difficult when it came to hallway chatter and cross-grade bonding. That made these field trips into our ecosystems so valuable, both for our research and for our relationships.
The organizational element was a huge roadblock for so many teams. It was kind of a trial-by-fire situation where the groups who were diligent about organization, in the beginning, were set up to be much more efficient in this stage than those who didn’t. My group didn’t. It was purely an oversight. In the beginning stages of editing, we found that our lack of appropriate file naming made it exceedingly difficult to track down and use desired clips, including all the different takes and angles. Obviously, hindsight is 20/20, but I wish we had been more diligent about organization from the beginning. It would have saved us a lot of headaches later on.
The editing process involved a lot of collaboration and teamwork, particularly between the 10th and 11th-grade students. Although we were working on different final products, we shared the process and many of our resources during the stages of editing. We had been paired up with community partners and professionals in the field, so it was essential that the editing for the final films created a cohesive and polished product.
During the editing process, we incorporated sound design to enhance the overall impact of the film. We used a variety of techniques to make the documentary a more immersive experience. For example,we learned about splicing clips, and adding background music, sound effects, and voiceovers (particularly those from interview subjects) to enhance the storytelling and really help us convey the message that we wanted for the final product.
Most of our preliminary feedback for our project took place in the form of gallery walks, where we presented our work to our classmates, peers, family, and then our teachers. The process of critique happened such that it was a very “layered” system, where students would first critique each other (several times), and then the teachers would cycle around for their critique
With the feedback we received, we took it back to the “editing room” to start many parts over. While it wasn’t a complete overhaul, my group quickly realized that we were missing vital clips to match the interviews that we conducted. We took the feedback and, after a brief moment of angst, began the process of reshooting several clips and editing them in. Throughout the feedback process, it was sometimes difficult to remember that people were being critical of the product, not of us. Looking past our momentary personal difficulties, we found that nearly all of the feedback was helpful in some way or another; oftentimes it was just a matter of figuring out how to interpret what we received. The feedback helped us to improve our project, and we are grateful for it. I remember a brightly colored sticky note on my desk near my project after a critique session that instructed us to “fix the colors.” The critique was oddly vague, but it gave us the opportunity to consider a variety of possible adjustments and experiment with color grading.
After completing our rough cuts, we shared them with our interview subjects (community partners) to ensure that the films accurately portrayed the message we wanted to convey. This was an important step in the process as it allowed us to get feedback from the people who were most closely tied to the subject matter. We also took part in several gallery walks to collect feedback from our peers. This feedback helped us to make revisions and fine-tune our films before moving on to the final stages of production. We made sure that we addressed any concerns or suggestions that were provided by our interviewees, as it was important to us that the films were a true reflection of their experiences and perspectives.
As exhibition grew closer and weeks turned into days, my group became increasingly anxious about our final deliverable. We became extremely critical of the film, and the pressures of the upcoming deadline only amplified these critiques. Even after our formal “critique deadline,” we continued to make adjustments to the film. Oftentimes, the critique we received was from parents, siblings, or peers who happened to glance over our shoulders and see something. Although this feedback was sometimes unsolicited, we greatly appreciated it, as it helped us to see our project from a fresh perspective. Each time we made an edit to our then-“Final Cut,” we had to re-export and upload the film all over again. We continued to make edits up until the day of exhibition, each time naming it a different variation of “Team 3 Final.” In total, we re-exported our final cut seven times.
Exhibitions are a big part of our project-based curriculum and the exhibition for this project was no different. It required weeks of planning, during which students stepped up to lead different aspects of the planning. There were dedicated sub-teams to lead the event coordination, IT and systems, and even a social media and public-relations team. All of which were instrumental in the process. The exhibition took place at the Mission Trails Regional Park Visitor Center, where all groups presented and screened their films from the previous 12 weeks. The exhibition was an amazing chance for students to present their hard work to the community and for everyone to gather together and witness the project’s impact firsthand. It was also an opportunity for us to reflect on the process and to see the final product that we had created as a team.
Finally, after hundreds of hours, countless late nights, and a handful of weekend field trips, the three of us stood with a sense of pride in front of the Mission Trails auditorium and shared our work. We described our process and introduced our interviewees. We had a whole presentation prepared that, naturally, we veered away from in the moment. With that, our film began. During the eight minutes and eighteen seconds that our documentary screened, we stood awkwardly right up front, trying not to move. Why we chose to stand is still a mystery to me; it would have made a whole lot more sense for us to sit down and watch the work that we poured so much into. I like to think that our awkward posing was a deliberate choice, but the more likely reason is purely that we were paralyzed at the thought of being done.
Clearly outline the project and expectations in writing from day one
No exhibition is too over the top
Let students wonder… Not every question requires an immediate answer.
Allow room for flexibility, but stick to the point of the project
Make it “real world”