This post provides tips for integrating your professional work experience in your curriculum design, with a special focus on film and media courses.
A mantra I always repeat to my film students is “think and act like a filmmaker.” Essentially, be as professional as possible. My evolution as a professional has led me to make major changes to how I teach. I find ways to increase the real-world components of accountability, visibility and professional quality of student work.
When I first taught filmmaking as a high school teacher, where I created a video production curriculum from scratch, I was young with limited professional experience–some television and corporate video work. After I left the classroom, I was a professional filmmaker for 10 years. I did take opportunities during that time to co-teach a documentary high school summer course. Three years later I designed and taught a Duke TIP eStudies summer course, Documentary Filmmaking: Your World, Your Story, for mostly middle school students. I’ve taught these programs while juggling my roster of clients.
In each subsequent phase of teaching, I was able to pull from my ever-growing bank of experiences as a professional filmmaker to help me craft my curriculum and better guide my students. As a professional, my personal goals include honing my skills as a cinematographer, editor, producer, writer, while at the same time keeping my business thriving and growing and making sure my clients are well served. My goal as a teacher is to use all of that experience to design my best curriculum.
How does your professional experience influence your curriculum design?
Puzzle Me This
At its heart, filmmaking is like solving a puzzle. How do I tell the story I want to tell with the resources at my disposal? Will I ever have enough time, money, skills, equipment? As a professional, it’s a good idea to assume the answer to all of those questions is no. So, how do I solve the puzzle? That’s where all the professional experience comes in so handy.
In a film I produced about a deaf student athlete for a local school system, I had to help him tell his own story. How do I communicate his thoughts, ideas and words? His athleticism would tell the story visually but how would I capture his voice? We talked through a translator to better understand his motives and goals. By doing this, I could interview him directly (since he read lips), and mic the translator, which made for a more interesting, better film. His personality and intelligence shone in a piece I am quite proud of.
- Example Project: The “In-Camera-Edited” film. One way I teach puzzle solving is by assigning this project early: students have to create a film where they will not be able to edit after they shoot. Their shots must tell a story in the order in which they were shot. It still has to be a good film, so they have to pre-plan, practice good film skills. This challenge requires them to understand shot composition, editing, effective storytelling, timing, and many other aspects of filmmaking. They must see the movie from beginning to end before they hit Record.
100% Customer Satisfaction!
A professional filmmaker has one great advantage over a student filmmaker: paying clients. What does that mean–that you’re gonna be rich? Not likely. Paying clients put outside demands on the filmmaker because they have spent their hard-earned money hiring you to further their goals. Outside pressures are real-world goals that you don’t often get in the classroom.
One goal relevant to classroom work is that, like a working filmmaker, students must strive to make others understand their art, to respond to it, and to evaluate it as a voice in the marketplace of ideas. This is not always an easy thing to do for any artist. Clients are essentially strangers. They don’t have to be nice to you and merely applaud your efforts like your friends and family. This was a hurdle I had to overcome as a professional: how to take feedback and criticism for my work without making it about me. As a filmmaker for hire, it comes about when your client suddenly wants 10 changes to what you thought was a masterpiece. Through experience and communication, I had to learn to meld what I wanted from the project with what they wanted and see how we might come to an agreement. I had to learn how to take different visions and make one film.
In the three videos I produced for Duke TIP, I had to visualize the scripts as well as the director’s vision in two and was both the director and cinematographer on one. At one point there were ten voices in the mix that I needed to address. In each, I had to deal with multiple actors, locations, cameras, sets, green screen studios, costume issues, locations, among others. I also edited each of the projects, requiring hundreds of hours wrangling footage to craft the best story.
- Architecture: Discover, Dream, Design
- Creative Writing: Adventures Through Time
- Discovering Science and Medicine: Disease, Outbreak, and Epidemiology
Clients are a great proving ground, and the experience of dealing with multiple voices is invaluable to students. As an instructor, I am the de facto client whose demands students need to meet.
- Example Exercise: Production Proposal. For each film my students produce they must turn in a production proposal that outlines their goals, the audience they want to reach. and a brief outline of the methods they plan to use to accomplish them. I have to approve it before they can start production.
Raise The Stakes
When I taught high school filmmaking, my students were not always 100% motivated on their films. They were often high-achieving students whose AP courses, “the ones they need to get into a good school,” outweighed my assignments at times. I sometimes would face a student who assured me that doing poorly in an elective “didn’t matter” to their college of choice. While I assured them that this was untrue, convincing a determined teenager that they might not have all the facts is sometimes a hard task.
So how do we make the stakes higher? The project has to be “real” for the student for them to fully invest and give it their best effort. If at all possible, it has to be bigger than getting a grade on an assignment. Outside pressure is a great motivator. Making students accountable to someone beyond themselves opens up many opportunities for growth and success. Here are some ways I’ve redesigned curriculum toward that end.
- Find students a client. Match young filmmakers with a project that requires them to work for someone else. Quitting on a client is a much bigger deal. You lose the job, and your reputation, which can mean not getting the next job or the next. Now it’s serious.
- What I found works best is to find a small, local non-profit entity or a cause that needs some media exposure but does not have funding.
- This outside pressure and societal goal makes the filmmaking process real. This benefits everyone. In my Duke TIP eStudies course, this type of client or issue is required for the final film project completed by my students.
- Find ways students can show their work to others. Maybe connecting young filmmakers with real clients isn’t always an option. Sharing with other audiences is often a feasible one. Putting student work out where it can be seen is the main point of creating media; so that others can see and react to it.
- Find a film gallery space–such as WeVideo or Vimeo.com–that they share with all the other film students as an arena for review and feedback. I use this space and sharing process in my online course, which works well for students who are geographically separated. Take care to ensure student privacy and safety by using a “walled garden” type of space.
- Film Fest. Try a small screening after school or weekend. Students can organize and advertise it, which will give them additional skills in distribution and marketing. Area schools and local filmmaking organizations hold film festivals of all sizes.. This could even be a fundraiser.
Labor of Love
Standing up before the world to ask them for their attention and feedback takes courage. Separating yourself from your work is how you develop professionalism. Being able to give my students this same type of experience is key to helping them grow and strive in a competitive field.
The documentary my wife and I produced for ourselves–about a young person’s journey through the world of vinyl records–was very instructive. is also very instructive. We spent about a year filming Vinyl Dinosaurs, then spent another year editing and finding ways to get our film out into the world, all in between paying gigs. Some of the feedback we received from film festivals was great and some was discouraging. Positive feedback is wonderful and makes you feel great, but negative feedback, though painful at times, is even more helpful. It helps you become better.
Which advice to heed, which to ignore? Why did this person understand the film and this one missed the point entirely? My years of experience as a professional helped me navigate this territory. This, in turn, helps me prepare my students for displaying their work.
- Example Exercise: Create a panel of judges to review student films. It can be a peer review of three fellow students or it can be you and two other teachers. Set parameters for constructive feedback that discusses techniques and skills learned in the course. This helps the students both as filmmakers and as reviewers to be cognizant of how other’s opinions of creative work have impact. In a virtual setting, I use the WeVideo gallery space for this.
Filmmaking is a Technological Art Form
To be a filmmaker you must synthesize multiple skills: literacy, storytelling, creativity, and technological skill. In order to tell your story, you must understand how to use your technology–and technology that changes rapidly. When I co-taught the “School of Doc” summer camp, I helped students with the professional video equipment as they worked in small crews learning how to operate cameras, professional lights, audio equipment, and editing software. This experience is very different from the eStudies course I currently teach where the students work mostly alone with smaller, simpler acquisition tools like smartphones, inexpensive audiom and cloud-based editing tools. Both are very valuable skill sets to learn and hone and make for a more well-rounded professional filmmaker.
One way that I help students master film tools via the online environment is with my Tech TIP videos. I created three tutorials, camera, tripod, and audio, to mirror training I would do face to face. This helps them visualize what you want. I integrate these videos early in the course so students can get familiar with the tools before they start actually producing films. Working with tech is like sports:practice is key. For teachers recording their own tutorials, make sure you understand your tech as well as possible and utilize the same technique and skills you want them to emulate. For example, when it comes to shooting with smartphones, shoot in horizontal aspect ratio, not vertical.
For my eStudies course, I give them early camera assignments to tell stories using stills instead of video. It makes them concentrate on shot composition and focusing their attention on how to tell stories visually before getting distracted with all the fun bells and whistles of editing software.
- Example Exercise: Students take 20 different stills of inanimate objects. These objects should look like a human face (car grill, AC outlet, etc). Students then pick 12 to tell a story in slide show format such Google Slides.
Those Who Can, Teach
One thing I learned as a filmmaker and as a teacher is that perfection is a fear to be overcome. We all think we want to be perfect, but there is no such thing. Students used to achieving in the classroom can get caught up in the quest for the 100.
Filmmaking doesn’t work that way. It’s about communicating your vision to others. It’s okay to fail as a filmmaker. It doesn’t mean that the film failed, or that you are a failure. It means that harnessing your technology and your storytelling skills didn’t meet your expectations in this one, narrow instance. Were I to wallow in negativity, I could go through each of my films and point to all the perceived mistakes.
My career as a filmmaker has taught me to embrace every “failure” and use it to feed my creativity in how to make the next film better. Every mistake is an opportunity to grow, to keep moving forward. Take that failure as a challenge to improve. One thing I often tell my students about failure is that it’s okay to fail on a first draft. Did it affect the audience? Did they respond? The goal is to answer this question: did the viewer understand what you were trying to say? If not, they can re-edit and improve their films. More often than not, they’ll see that the new version is better.
What I brought to my classroom as a young film teacher was a youthful enthusiasm to share the curriculum I was just creating and some film theory. What I can offer my students today is years of successes and failures of what works. I can offer my students lessons learned about why and how to engage an audience to see what I want them to see, to understand what I want them to understand, and to feel what I want them to feel. Filmmaking is hard work and the payoff is making effective films that impact people, who in turn, impact you with their response to your work. Hopefully this makes you a better filmmaker, which is kind of the point.