Marquette Senior High School

Scriptwriting Class

Student in this course learn to write, plan and produce for video and television. 

 In the process, they learn to shoot, capture, edit and publish videos from a variety of genres.  We are, for all intents and purposes, a T.V. station and video production studio disguised as a classroom.

The work we produce is broadcast to the public.  Productions may appear on MQTv (our daily announcements), MQTube.org (our website), Charter Cable Channel 8, at film festivals and at other public performances.

  

Students in this course learn to plan, script, produce and present a variety of productions including:
 *   News and/or Feature stories
 *   Commercials
 *   Instructional videos
 *   Live Studio Broadcasts
 *   Live Event Broadcasts
 *   Short Films
 *   Photo and Video Montages

 

We spent some time with Eric Hammerstrom, the instructor of this great program.
SVN: Tell us about your background and how you decided to start teaching TV/Video production?
I started teaching “Scriptwriting” at Marquette Senior High School when my predecessor, was laid off due to major budget cuts.  I was computer literate and enjoyed using PowerPoint, but had never shot video or edited in my life.  I was, however, a journalist before I became a teacher.  Our principal, Bob Anthony, believed in the importance of the class and asked me to try my hand at it.  I thought it would be fun to put my language arts background to use in a creative format and to learn new skills.

SVN: How did you obtain initial funding for your program? How do you fund the class now?
My predecessors started the program through grant funding, but had no regular budget for equipment.  By the time I arrived on the scene, the grant money was gone.  Students had been particularly “hard” on the equipment. Of the four handicams available to me, only one was in working condition.  We had two tripods and one shotgun mic.  Fortunately, there were firewire ports in our CAD lab, so we had a full windows computer lab for editing.  But that first year was an adventure.  Two of the cameras were repairable, and I received a grant to purchase anohter, so we had four cameras for 30 students by the end of the first quarter.

We still have no regular budget, but I’ve built up our equipment arsenal in a variety of ways.  We started by selling “Happy Birthday” ads on our daily announcements for $5.  Over time, that allowed us to purchase firewire cables, tapes, DVDs and more tripods.  My students produce commercials and PSAs as a class project, and from time to time local youth-related organizations give us a donation in return for running their commercial/PSA.  That’s how we generate petty cash to purchase all the RCA and audio cables, connectors, converters and million little things this kind of course requires.
I write grant proposals constantly.  Local grant organizations have been good to us, and we received a MACUL grant this year.  My students and I have received more than $5,000 in grant funding in the past three years.  While we still have no annual budget, we have been able to improve expand our capital inventory each year.

SVN: Did you have equipment available?
Did I mention we only had one working camera for 30 students when I started?  Bill Thum, the owner of Superior Productions in Marquette, was like a super hero for us in my first few years of teaching this class.  When I stopped by his shop to ask for some advice, he made great recommendations (Bill’s a perennial WEVA award winner).  He even hired me part-time in the summer so I could learn from him.  Then, instead of selling his old Panasonic video mixer, Hi-8 cameras, VHS decks and other odds and ends on e-Bay, he donated them to my program and we made sure he got the tax deduction.  What was obsolete to him was a treasure to us.  Since then, we’ve acquired a great deal of old equipment.  Most of it is unused on a daily basis, but you never know when you’ll need to conver someone’s old VHS-C  tape or dub a VHS, so we accept every equipment donation we’re offered. Through grants and donations from local videographers, we’ve put together a functioning studio.

SVN: How many kids are in the TV/Video Production classes?  How is it broken down?  Is it a multi-year program?
Five years ago, there was one section of the course with 30 students.  The next year, we had two sections, and this year we expanded to three sections.  The program has grown steadily, despite a decline in our student enrollment.
“Scriptwriting” is a year-long fine and practical arts elective.  Students can take it for a second year as a general elective.  Students are able to take the course for a second year, as an elective.  Second year students have a great deal of responsibility for producing our daily show.  During the first semester, students learn to plan and storyboard a variety of projects, basic camera technique, editing, and the basics of broadcasting daily announcements to our school.  They also tape at least one school athletic contest or other event.  The second semester is focused on writing scripts for short television segments and original films.  Those projects are broadcast on MQTube.org and at the MSHS Film Festival in May. 

SVN: Can you tell us a little more about the sessions:  How long are the classes? How many students? What types of projects?
This year, our classes were shortened from one hour to just 48 minutes.  It was a HUGE change.  I remember one day where I handed out equipment for half the hour, then checked it back in for the other half without helping anyone directly with a project.  Things have gotten smoother with time; the kids are more efficient and I’m constantly pushing them to stay on-task.
While the majority of the class works on group or individual projects, a small group of students will plan and produce the morning’s announcements.
By the time it’s all said  and done, students will have produced:
• Themed Montages
• Commercials/Public Service Announcements
• Instructional Videos
• Chromakey Project
• Two school event productions (sports with play-by-play, concerts, plays)
• Talk-show segment
• Original film


In June, the final exam for Juniors is to work for Charter Cable as the production crew for a live broadcast of our High School Graduation.  Don Gladwell and Scott Jandron at our local Charter office make this happen each year.  My kids work as cameramen, grips and producers, run the switcher, mixer and character generator, all under the direction of professionals.  The broadcast goes live on cable.  It’s the only exam I’ve seen that kids wish they could take again.

SVN: How many kids to do the morning news broadcast?  Do you also do a weekly broadcast? Special events coverage?
We’ll usually have two students reading as anchors, with others on the camera(s), audio mixer, video switcher and one on the computer that plays our pre-taped segments.  Students rotate through this based on interest and completion of their group and individual projects.  Most days, we broadcast live, with a pre-taped opener and closer, and with taped “Happy Birthday” ads and student produced commercials and PSAs mixed in at times.  When the school schedule makes things difficult, we pre-tape the whole show and broadcast tape-delayed.

We webcast athletic contests with video and play-by-play on a regular basis, through MQTube.org, the web domain we created this year.  The site hosts sports and entertainment from the first semester.  Volleyball, boys’ and girls’ basketball, hockey and wrestling matches are tape-delayed at this point, but we hope to try live audio and video streams in the future.  We also broadcast entertainment on MQTube.org, including original music, short films and montages.  We don’t have our own television station and have been unable to secure a regular public-access time slot, so we decided to go directly to the web with our broadcasts.  It’s been a huge success.  The public really enjoys the site and some of my students are becoming accomplished broadcasters.

SVN: What jobs do the kids do?  Do the kids rotate through on-air talent and crew positions or are they “hired” for a specific task? Do students audition for on-air positions?

During the first semester, students rotate through different jobs to learn the basics of each.  In the second semester, kids who enjoy begin the “talent” can focus on that, while the “technies” focus on working the boards and doing the editing.  They self-select their “department” based on interests in news, sports or entertainment.  What we cover changes a bit each year, based on the students’ interests.  We don’t run formal “auditions” at this point.

SVN: Do they write the content?

For our daily show, my students write the opening, closing, commercial and PSA segments (which are pre-taped so I can preview them).  The news content concerning meetings and sports scores are submitted by club advisors and coaches, then edited and typed into our prompter by the students.

SVN: How long does the show run?

We have a daily four-minute time slot at the start of 3rd hour.  If there are a great many announcements to make on a given day, we keep cut the PSAs and commercials.  If there are just a few announcements, we’ll run short entertainment pieces or news stories in the available time.

SVN: Do you submit programming to independent contest such as those sponsored by StudicaSkills and SchoolTube?

We submit work to the MAB Awards (Michigan Association of Broadcasters) each December.  I’ve had a dozen students receive awards in the last four years.  Groups have won the Large Group Production category, placed second in the Sport Play-by-Play and PSA categories, and received several honorable mentions.  We haven’t submitted to other competitions as a class assignment, but my students have done so independently.

SVN: Can your broadcast be viewed outside the school? District-wide?  Local cable access?  On your school/district web-site?

Our daily announcements are seen only in school on closed-circuit television.  The other content my students create airs, depending on copyright compliance and talent permission, on our website (http://www.mqtube.org).  We don’t have a page on SchoolTube, since we’ve built our own domain and have our own server to host the site, but hope to post future work to SchoolTube to gain a wider audience.

SVN: Do you have an equipment list you can share with our readers?

When I took inventory at the end of last school year, I catalogued over several hundred items.  It amazed me, because five years ago we had one working camera, three broken ones, and two tripods.  Since then, I’ve collected every obsolete hand-me-down camera, tape deck, mixer and mic I can sweet-talk someone in to donating.  You could say that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure applies here.  Much of our equipment is “dysfunctional” in some way, but it serves a purpose when we need it.

We’ve been able to purchase new, totally functional equipment, through grants and advertising revenues, including:
• a Focus Enhancements MX-4 Digital Video Mixer
• a Firestore FS4 DTE direct to editing drive
• two BeachTek boxes, which allow XLR audio cables to patch into inexpensive camcorders

SVN:  Eric, Do you have any quick start tips for other schools?

Absolutely!  First, stop at a local videographer’s shop and introduce yourself, then get to know the people at your local TV stations and cable companies and tell them what you hope to accomplish.  They’ll be excited and will want to help kids learn about broadcasting.  You’d be amazed what might be collecting dust in their basement but might be useful to your students, and donating it to a school is often a better option (tax deduction) than trying to sell it on e-Bay or throwing it away.

Also, don’t spend budget money on fancy video editors.  Most of what you want kids to do can be accomplished with the software that’s already on your computer.  Movie Maker and iMovie a just fine for single line, non-linear editing, and it won’t take students a semester to learn how to use the software.  Focus your spending on cameras, tripods, microphones, and a video mixer (in that order).  And whatever you do, don’t forget that you’re teaching KIDS.  They drop things.  It hurts your program a lot less when a $400 camera gets dropped than if a $2,500 GL2 bites the dust.  Buy things you won’t be afraid to let kids handle for several hours every day.  An inexpensive camera and the software that’s already on your computer can do more than $5,000 cameras $20,000 machines could do 15 years ago.

Focus on teaching about techniques and skills—not about equipment and software.  Equipment and software change and become obsolete, but camera and editing technique and presentation skills remain useful.