Schenectady County

Schenectady film projects fire up student academic focus

Students in Schenectady High School’s 10-Prep program, for students who failed ninth grade last year

Freshman Vincent Scorsone has no interest in writing essays. They’re boring. And hard. If he’s given an assignment to write about a pressing issue facing teenagers, he says he can’t do it.

But if the 16-year-old is going to get to put his ideas on television, suddenly his pen is flying on the page.

He and other students in Schenectady High School’s 10-Prep program, for students who failed ninth grade last year, are putting their lessons on screen through a new partnership that started this school year with Proctors and Open Stage Media.

Their films will be shown at the Jan. 20 Art Night, and will air on Cable Channel 17, the public access education channel.

The 10-Prep students aren’t the only ones making movies.

Proctors is running an after-school program for middle school students from Schenectady, Duanesburg and Schalmont, who are bused twice a week to a Proctors studio to produce their own films for the public access channel. Mohonasen’s elementary school students, who already produce a television show, now upload it to Channel 17 for other students to see. Niskayuna is planning to join.

It’s a big change from the way Channel 17 looked before Open Stage Media took over it and two other channels in 2010. Proctors is overseeing the operation, under a controversial change that some have questioned.

The channels used to be controlled by a nonprofit called SACC-TV, but Proctors and city officials said they could improve the quality greatly.

Under SACC-TV, the school district ran Channel 17 and aired mainly announcements about Schenectady High School events, from bake sales to plays. Films produced through the school’s well-known Sayles School of Fine Arts were also shown, but there weren’t nearly enough to fill up 24 hours of broadcast every day. Those shows still air on the channel, amid the many other films.

“There was a little bit, but not a lot. There’s a lot more now,” said Program Manager Zeb Schmidt.

The Sayles program films are generally of high quality because the students are taking specific electives in how to act, write scripts and produce shows. The Fine Arts wing of the high school also has a dedicated production studio.

The new additions are shot in whatever space the students can find — a nurse’s office, an empty classroom, even a quick shot of the outdoors during a fire drill.

Academic goals

The films are also far more focused on educational goals for English and social studies classes. One 10-Prep film, for example, features students acting as aliens discovering Earth and observing its cultures. There’s no budget, so there are no costumes and very few props. And the point isn’t really to make compelling shows. It’s to teach information that might otherwise not make an impression on bored students, film instructor Michael Feurstein said.

“How many times are you seeing the same information? On the script, during editing, during filming — and if it’s takes like today, how many times do you see the actors saying the same thing?” he asked his students after a recent shoot. “If you got the same information in a worksheet, how many times would you read it?”

Scorsone laughed. “None.”

Translating social studies concepts to film hasn’t always led to exciting shows. Still, as students see each other’s work — both in class and on television — they are inspired to do better, Feurstein said.

Students who won’t edit their essays are now willing to spend eight hours editing a 60-second film. Feurstein thinks the visual nature of film is teaching them that they can improve their creation significantly if they work on it.

“An hour in, they were like, ‘Uh, we’re done, right?’ But for the next two hours, they didn’t complain because they saw how adding music and sound were making a better product,” he said of one recent editing session.

They’ve learned to add special effects — one of the alien films now includes several explosions — and they’re starting to think about how to tell strong stories.

One group created a short video entitled “Games Not Gangs” in which they showed two frames, side by side, of the same group of students playing a basketball game and playing in their gang.

In the one, they greet each other on a court and begin a pickup game. In the other, they meet outdoors and get into a fight, beating one boy. At the end, one frame shows the friends shooting a basket. In the other, a gunshot is heard and one boy falls down dead.

Catching on

Teachers are now eager to add filming to their classrooms as they try to teach students the value of editing and polishing their written work.

They’ve also noticed a side effect: Students tend to hush the trouble-makers during filming. Feurstein noticed this during a filming session earlier in the school year, then a class clown kept “blowing up the shot” by misbehaving.

“Usually they’d be, ‘Ha, ha, he’s funny,’” Feurstein said. “And they were like, ‘Will you stop? We’re trying to finish this shot!’”

Proctors officials said the program is so successful that it could use twice as many film instructors. For now, in the first year, there’s only Feurstein, an employee of Proctors.

But Proctors officials hope that even with just one teacher, they will be able to put together a film festival of student work, similar to what Schenectady High School offered in the past. And everything will be on Channel 17.

“The goal is more community involvement with public access,” said youth and community programs Manager Joey Hunziker. “We live in a world where everyone’s all about technology, everyone’s got their phone, but they’re not channeling what they have to say.”

The public access channel should be their outlet, he said.

“We’re just trying to grab the kids who want to tell their story, and give them the means.”

Students said they love the camera.

“This is the most funnest part of Schenectady High,” Scorsone said, adding that it’s his main reason for coming to school every day. He failed ninth grade after skipping most of his classes last year, he said.

“Now you want to come back to school to do it,” he said.

Reaching out

Fellow 10-P student Jalen Quinn, 16, added that the camera gives his a sense of freedom that he doesn’t get when he’s trying to compose essays.

“You don’t have to do exactly what somebody else wants you to do,” he said. “You can come up with your ideas and actually use them.”

Quinn’s film team was asked to write a script for a short film that middle school students would watch. The goal was to warn those students about problems they could face in high school.

Quinn’s team decided to write about an illicit party that led to one teen dying while another woke up handcuffed to a bed in a hospital detox unit.

Although they have few props, Feurstein was able to acquire a set of handcuffs and volunteer adult actors to play the roles of a police officer and a counselor.

As Lyndsey Davis, 18, held a boom mike just over the actors’ heads in the back of the high school nurse’s office, Quinn tried again and again to get just the right shot.

“There are consequences to having fun,” he explained after an hour of filming to get a 10-second shot right.

His main character is told, by the police officer, that his friend died the night before. Then the character, still handcuffed to a bed, is arrested on charges of murder.

“Drugs can kill you. If you distribute drugs and someone dies, you’re going to be held responsible,” Quinn said of his vision for the film. “We chose something we would want middle school students going into the high school to know, so when they see ‘everybody else doing it,’ they know. I’m trying to stop them from even thinking about it.”

It will play repeatedly on Channel 17 when Quinn’s team finishes editing it. The students are looking forward to seeing their show on television — and they’ve already started watching the channel to see what other classes and other schools have created.

For Schmidt, who worked at the public access television station long before Open Stage Media took over, that’s a welcome change.

“That’s what the education channel is for. It’s for the kids. It’s their channel,” he said.

He’s hoping the shows will encourage some competition between schools, leading every student to produce better-quality films.

“Mohonasen is super-excited, and I think it makes them try a little harder,” he said. “It’s probably too soon to tell, but it’s an outcome we encourage.”

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