In the spring semester of 2014, The LAMP was hired to complement an after-school Common Core test-prep program at The Magnet School for Technology and Communications (TMSTC) in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. The LAMP has partnered with this school for a number of years, delivering in-school media literacy workshops to elementary students covering everything from basic visual literacy to news and advertising literacy. Throughout those in-school programs, The LAMP delivered unique, customized curricula while working with the teachers to incorporate specific learning units. This new assignment, however, was something different. How could we integrate our curricula into a structured test-prep program, providing a fun and interactive learning environment while reinforcing Common Core-aligned skills? The school was now mandated to improve from some fairly poor test scores, and so the school’s primary goal was to improve test scores – not deliver media literacy skills. On top of the challenge of boosting scores and staying true to our mission of teaching media literacy, we were also faced with the school’s history of low attendance rates in after-school programs. All things considered, we had our work cut out for us and approached the project with the same zeal we hoped to inspire in our students.
The program spanned twelve weeks, meeting twice a week for two hours. Students spent the first hour of each session with The LAMP, analyzing and creating media messages, and the second hour with their test-prep instructors, working through Common Core ELA prep books. The twelve weeks were divided into four skill cycles: 1) Key Ideas and Details, 2) Craft and Structure, 3) Integration of Knowledge and Ideas, and 4) Close and Careful Comprehension. Over one hundred students signed up for the program, spanning 3rd, 4th and 5th grades. For our sections of the program we grouped students by grade, with 4th graders comprising about 40% of all students, and 3rd and 5th grades splitting the difference. At least two teaching artists were assigned to each grade, with additional teaching assistants and volunteers brought in as necessary. We also involved the school’s test-prep instructors, which was very important for the organization of the classrooms and the consistency of instruction. The test-prep instructors were present in the initial planning session and provided feedback on the schedule and project-cycle alignment. During the program, the instructors assisted The LAMP’s teaching artists in guiding the students’ project planning and design, supervised students during the production phase and were able to conference with students throughout the editing process. Our strategy was for the instructors involved in the program to take some of the program concepts and activities back to their own classrooms.
Using Media and New Literacies to Meet Goals
Because our programs already align to over sixty Common Core standards, it was not necessary to create completely new programming, but we did need to align our current programs with the specific skill cycles of the test-prep program. We were also conscious of infusing our programs with more specific Common Core language, in which the students’ prep books were used as resources.
Each program cycle used a scaffolded curriculum, so that it began with a specific medium literacy and ended with a production component. Students critically evaluated and analyzed media messages across a variety of forms and styles, eventually creating their own media projects using simple creative and editing software, cameras, and audio recorders. In addition, each program cycle was designed to build from and expand on the skills learned in the previous cycle. For the first cycle, Key Ideas and Details, the students produced comic books to practice basic visual literacy and storytelling skills. Emphasis was placed on using images and text to identify and communicate the elements of theme, character, plot and setting. Students worked in small groups to choose their own story topics, and used Comic Life to construct the comic book pages.
For the second cycle, Craft and Structure, students expanded on the visual literacy and storytelling skills practiced during their comic book projects, while also learning simple video production and editing skills. The short video narratives could not include spoken dialogue, had to 30 seconds to 1 minute in length, and needed to utilize a clear story structure with a beginning, middle and end. The students learned how to use different shot sizes and angles for telling their stories, and also used a variety of locations, props and costumes to communicate character and setting. Learning basic editing skills in iMovie allowed the students to arrange their shots in a coherent structure, layer music and sound effects to create mood and rhythm, and include text and transitions. The students had particular trouble with the ‘no dialogue’ parameter, but it proved to be a good learning opportunity. The students found that projects which concentrated on the visual elements storytelling had much stronger narratives than did the projects that relied heavily on text.
For the third cycle, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas, students moved from visual literacy to news literacy. The 5th graders worked in small groups to produce one-minute audio pieces, and chose their topics with a focus on current events in their community and school. Each podcast team conducted research to gather quotes and facts and figures appropriate to their topic, identified interview subjects amongst their peers and teachers, and wrote scripts. They then recorded their scripts and interviews and used GarageBand to edit their podcasts and layer in music and sound effects.
Meanwhile, the 3rd and 4th graders worked in larger teams to produce three- to five-minute newscasts. Each production team was given three different story segments to produce; the segments were eventually edited together into a larger newscast with introductory and interstitial material. Students conducted basic research, wrote scripts and produced storyboards. They recorded their interviews, B-roll and ‘on-the-street’ and ‘in-studio’ material, and finally used iMovie to piece it all together. Each project empowered the students to frame relevant issues through their own perspectives while also exploring their community. Emphasis was placed on asking and answering questions, gathering information from a variety of sources, using that information to form a critical perspective, and finally on presenting that information and perspective in a structured, informative and entertaining form.
For the final cycle, Close and Careful Comprehension, all students produced short documentaries, building on and combining the visual literacy, storytelling, news reporting, and audiovisual recording and editing skills they learned throughout the previous cycles. Again, emphasis was placed on research and gathering of information, formulating a point of view and integrating multiple sources of information into a presentation appropriate to the documentary form.
After twelve weeks, the program culminated with a showcase where students presented their projects and shared their experiences with parents, faculty and other students. What’s more, attendance for the program was 92% – a new record for this historically struggling school. Plus, those test scores did go up by 58% for ELA, and 78% for math. Principal Dr. Garcia credited The LAMP as a significant factor in meeting difficult goals around attendance, testing and student engagement.
Response to The LAMP’s work was overwhelmingly positive, and the students enjoyed the program while noticeably improving their comprehension and communication skills. Parents told us on numerous occasions that their children wouldn’t stop talking about the projects they were creating. Our classes constantly ran over time because the students and teachers were so wrapped up in a project, and we hated to pull students away from working so hard to get their projects just right. As we are constantly reminded, students want to tell their own stories; they want to pursue their interests; and they enjoy learning in a fun and creative environment. Students are more motivated to participate and finish projects when they’re given the freedom to express themselves, and when they have those expressions celebrated.