Our third year working with Secondary School for Law has come to a close, and this year was definitely our most successful program! Like the previous two programs, students once again produced their own PSAs (Public Service Announcements). This iteration, however, each production team was allowed to construct a message around an issue of their choice. During the first iteration of the program in 2013, students examined issues around gun violence; last year, students looked at bullying and domestic violence. While the students in each of those program were able to produce some wildly creative and distinct PSAs within the scope of those issues, the biggest feedback coming out of those previous iterations is that students were eager to pursue their interests and produce messages that they felt were more important to their experience.
Our students spent the last eight weeks before their Regents Exams exploring how ads target and persuade young people to think and behave a certain way. Students learned camera and editing skills, as well as the basic visual language of commercials and PSAs. Students researched a variety of issues, and designed and constructed media messages around those issues in order to raise awareness and communicate with other young people. In culmination, we were able to showcase and celebrate the completed PSAs at the Sony Wonder Technology Lab, screening their projects in the HD theatre and hosting a question and answer session.
This group of young people was very attuned to social issues and how popular media frame those issues. One team decided to research teen pregnancy, something they had experienced in their own lives with friends and family members. All of the other PSAs, news stories, and popular media they found stigmatized and degraded teen mothers. “In the media it’s always about shaming teen mothers, so we decided to do something different – show that they could be successful and to encourage them,” explained one of the students during the after-screening Q&A. Another student added, “Everyone has a bad outlook on teen mothers, like, oh, they’re not successful in school – so we made this PSA. And while we weren’t saying just go ahead and get pregnant, we wanted to say that even though you’re pregnant you can still be successful…That’s not the message you hear in the media. They are usually degraded or negatively labeled.” The final PSA is certainly a fresh message about teen pregnancy – you can watch it here. The students were hopeful that other students in their school would be inspired by their message, if ever they knew a young woman in that position. “We think that the most important thing for a teen mother is support. A young mother is afraid – that’s the first thing you feel is fear. You’re afraid that you’re going to be alone, or picked on, or bullied. So support is the main thing.”
Another team chose to examine the relationship between police and young people, inspired by all the recent stories of police violence in the news. The one critical aspect of these stories that stood out most to the team was how black and white the news coverage was. Everybody involved was either completely innocent or completely guilty! They found very little nuance in most of the news coverage they researched. It was important for the students to gain more background on police policy and interaction, so we were fortunate to have a member from the organization CopWatch come to speak with the students and help them shape their message. The final PSA attempts to show an incident gone awry between a young person and a police officer, and what motivates each character to make the decisions that lead to negative interaction. During the Q&A, one student thought it was important to communicate this message, because “young people should know their rights. And also to know what’s going on between you and a police officer, what they’re allowed to do and not to do in certain situations.” Another student added that a young person should know “what consequences your actions may have in a situation with the police…We do have good cops that are doing what they’re supposed to do and who are just trying to do their job and keep everyone safe.” You can see both sides of the story here.
The third production team researched factory farms and the mass production of meat in the United States. For one of the students on the team, this issue was especially pertinent because they were contemplating giving up meat. For their message, it was important to raise awareness. “We didn’t want it to be factory farming vs. local farming, we wanted people to think, like well, I bought this burger and all this happens because I want to buy this burger,” one of the students explained during the Q&A. The final PSA is full of facts about the meat industry, and many of the large-scale consequences we don’t think about when we’re eating a hamburger. “From our research what surprised [us] was how many effects came from just buying a package of chicken from the supermarket. That really surprised [us].” And they didn’t want their PSA to be the typical apocalyptic mood of many environmental PSAs. They really wanted to have fun with the way they communicated their message, which certainly comes across in the PSA – you can check it out here. One student’s favorite part of the program “…was the editing. Doing the jump cut and stuff like that was so cool, because I learned something that I didn’t even know could happen…Since we’re teenagers, we might be able to reach other teenagers. And we’re learning while also spreading awareness.”
For me, it’s always exciting to see students deconstructing media messages and talking back to the media by producing their own videos. But when they do it with this level of insight, maturity, and creativity, it’s much more – it’s inspiring.