Mohonasen High School teacher Marvin Veeder didn’t know how much his students in the school’s video production class would be able to accomplish this year, what with the split student schedules and limited in-person activities.
The school’s media production program, which this year included just over 50 students across three class sections, has long produced morning announcement segments aired during homeroom classes. But homeroom was dropped and students were spread across different rotating schedules of in-person instruction, spending much of their time learning remotely. Thanks to social distancing rules, students wouldn’t even be able to sit next to each other at the production studio’s anchor desk.
“When I saw the way they set up the schedule, I thought, I don’t know how we are going to do any of this,” Veeder said during a recent interview.
But Caitlyn Breen, the senior charged with leading the program this year as student director, set her sights on doing as much as possible to use the production program’s platform to help connect students.
So rather than retrenching, the student-run production team expanded this school year, producing their longstanding morning announcements for students in school and at home, providing live broadcasts of athletic events with limited in-person attendance and playing the role of in-district C-SPAN for school board meetings and a meet-the-candidates forum.
“Caitlyn was driven to make it successful,” Vedeer said. “She wanted to take what the kids last year had done and go even further… The amount of stuff she has been able to get done this year is incredible.”
Breen, who plans to study media at SUNY Broome in the fall and eventually SUNY Binghamton, got special permission from school administrators to go into school five days a week to help keep the program running. As student director, Breen was charged with overseeing dozens of students involved in the program, handing out assignments and balancing the experience of students with the wacky schedules required to limit the number of students in school on any given day.
She acclimated to taking her online classes remotely from the production studio, which expanded into an adjacent classroom this year and contains video recording equipment, a small desk for the announcement and a tall director’s chair with Breen’s name on it – a gift from last year’s student director.
“I am so grateful I could come to school and do this even with everything going on,” she said. “This is like my second home – I’m probably here too much.”
Breen said she wasn’t initially interested in film or video production but thought the class sounded interesting. Now, she is planning to pursue work in the field.
“The class sounded cool, and I guess I ended up falling in love with it,” Breen said.
The class put out morning announcement videos five days a week throughout the school year, making the videos available to students both in school and at home. Breen said they tried to punch up the presentation since the person-to-person, on-camera interactions were limited.
“It’s important that it’s more lively,” Breen said. “Because we have done the announcements for so long, it’s a taste of normalcy.”
And rather than reduce their production ambitions under this year’s restrictions, the students expanded into live broadcasts of athletic events – complete with play-by-play announcers and multiple camera angles – and continued to produce the morning announcement segments. Some students produced public service announcements on COVID rules or short documentaries, including students who worked entirely from home..
“This year because of COVID we couldn’t have spectators, so we took on all the sports,” Breen said.
One week in late May, the students broadcasted six events in five days, including varsity lacrosse and basketball games, a music awards show and a celebration dedicated to seniors. Teams of students headed out into the field with recording equipment, established a live stream and went for it. Sophia Brown, a junior who will take over as student director next year, gave a play-by-play for a lacrosse game – a sport she knew little to nothing about.
Breen had to manage the logistics of each event, ensuring the teams were prepared with the proper equipment and know-how to pull off the broadcast. Some of the students had a steeper learning curve this year because they could only get important hands-on practice in the studio two days a week.
“I know who I can trust to start a stream, who can go out to the field,” she said.
Vedeer said Breen earned the respect of her classmates and that the broadcast program gained increased appreciation from school and district leaders.
“They respect her immensely,” he said of Breen’s fellow students. “The district found out our program was crucial in holding the whole year together. They realized just how powerful our message is to be able to connect everyone in the community.”
Vedeer said he received emails from people in other schools thanking Mohonasen for the sports livestream. Some of the events drew more viewers than Breen had anticipated.
“It was unexpected – no one is really trying to watch a Mohon J.V. whatever,” Breen said of her initial thoughts. “To see people are actually enjoying what we’re doing because we were working so hard, that was nice.”
Breen said the experience she gained leading the school’s production program this year will be invaluable as she continues in her education.
“I’m going to college and I already know what I’m doing,” she said.
Vedeer said she definitely put in the hours.
“The amount of stuff she has been able to get done this year is incredible. She put in hundreds and hundreds of hours,” he said. “It wasn’t mandated for the class. It’s because she cared about it.”
Vedeer said he expects the program to produce its athletic livestreams next year, continuing to finetune their approach. The impact of this school year will be felt for years, he said.
“I think it’s made us a stronger program,” he said. “Made us a more respected program. We’ve thrived because of this.”