Matters of the Moviemaking Mind: What School Means to Kids

m_schoonmaker"The important thing is not so much that every child should be taught, as that
every child should be given the wish to learn."
—John Lubbock

What is school to kids?
This was the question I found myself asking when I learned that C. Robert Bingham School was going to close at the end of the school year.

Bingham was not only the school I was basing my current media and urban education research on, it was also the place where my kids went to middle school only a few years ago.

I suppose I should have seen the writing on the wall given the daily news reports about the troubled city school district and shrinking state budgets. There was always talk this time of year about which of the many schools in the district would be next on the chopping block. But this was, in so many ways, MY school!

If it hurt a fairly removed affiliate like me, what must it be doing to the kids who called it their school? I tried to imagine how I would have felt as a 4th or 5th or 6th grader to find out that my school, the school I was learning in, would no longer exist at the end of the year.

Maybe the novelty of the idea would have been funny for a second, in a child-like “I hate school” way. I admit, I uttered the phrase at key points in my upbringing, especially the day before a big test, but deep down, I didn’t really hate it.

My parent’s might even have rationalized it away for me as a, “Well, you have to leave elementary school some time, why not now?” kind of explanation. Dealing with change is part of growing up, right?

My 72 year-old father-in-law still feels an emptiness when he passes his old, closed school. “At least your school is still there!” he lamented to his wife when she recently visited her old, and still functioning, elementary school. I remember sifting through similar feelings when my 7th grade math teacher unexpectedly died in the middle of the school year. No matter what I came up with to make sense of the experience, in the end someone, something died and the emptiness never went away.

Grieving
It happened that our research team began student focus the week after the announced school closing, so we were in a perfect place to gather their reaction. These focus groups groups (groups of students from 4th, 5th and 6th grades, 6-8 children per group) were created as a way to gather a sense of what urban education meant to students, toward a broader objective of involving students (a notoriously absent voice) in the process of curriculum design and educational reform.

When the talking began, I expected students and teachers to be much more disappointed than they were.

Their first reactions seemed more expressions of relief than grief.

“Maybe it’s a good thing.”

“It wasn’t that good a school anyway.”

“At least it wasn’t because we were failing, like some of the other schools. It’s just because we were bad.”

“Bad?” I asked.

The kindling had started the fire, and the subject of the school closing was only the beginning. In short, the idea of their school closing was just about par for their expectations and definitions of what school was to them.

School was a place where it was very easy to get in trouble even if you didn’t do anything wrong.

School was a place where you could count on people not listening to you and what you had to say.

School was a place where everyone suffered from the bad behaviors of a few. For instance, an entire grade had lost the privilege of a graduation (“moving ahead”) ceremony when a few “bad kids” acted up during one of the first weeks of school.

School was a place that felt like a prison.

Why should they care about whether or not Bingham School fell off the Earth?

They seemed much more interested in what school they would be re-assigned to next year. They were clearly past the whole “school closing thing.”

What was School to these kids of C. Robert Bingham K-8 School?
Based on the first focus group discussions, their school was a confirmation that they could expect little in their futures.

Mixed Reactions
In terms of the research project, the focus groups were certainly working as we had hoped. We were asking students to share their perspectives of school, and they were. They seemed to trust us, and were really opening up.

In our first meetings they displayed a range of emotions, but most often anger. In the second wave of meetings, they seemed noticeably less emotional, and considerably more introspective and reflective. Whereas they may have been critical of and angry with their teacher at first, they became more understanding and open minded to the challenges the teachers faced, and they expressed appreciation for the secure environment their teachers strove for. If there was a theme to the first meetings it would be something like, “Why I hate school.” The theme for the next session, “We need rules to get it done.”

As they continued to talk, they shared some reactions of sadness about the school closing.

“Why did they make us come here and get used to it, if they were going to close the school?”

“ Now I have to make all new friends at a new school.”

A Video Component
The focus groups were arranged not only to capture open and honest perspectives from the 4th, 5th and 6th graders, but also move to a “story phase” where students could use video cameras to express and share their perspectives in more of “their own” ways.

Just before our second meeting with the students, we spent some time with noted Media and Education scholar David Buckingham, Director of the Centre for Children, Youth and Media at the University of London. We brought him to the school, introduced him to the teachers and discussed our video strategy. He agreed that it was a good idea to capture their school stories and perspectives on video and audio and through brainstorming suggested one possible approach to gathering their perspectives: “Why don’t you have them make a time capsule for people who might be curious about what Bingham school was all about? Let the students tell the story.”

When we shared this idea with the teachers and student focus groups, they were very excited at the prospect. I was somewhat surprised at how anxious the students were to tell the Levy story, and even more surprised at the pride they exhibited in taking on the responsibility of representing a school that was closing its doors for good.

Despite their initial reactions of indifference, later reactions were demonstrating that these kids really did care about Bingham School and school in general, despite the fact that aspects of their school experience to date didn’t seem to care about them.

Thinking back to the first time we broke out the cameras with the students, I remembered one of my first surprises. Despite that fact that these students were going to a school labeled “troubled,” they were predominantly from neighborhoods labeled “troubled” and/or “disadvantaged,” when answering the question, “What’s important to you?” the vast majority proclaimed (second only to “family) “School!”

Such reactions stand in clear contrast to the frustrations kids shared in focus groups, not to mention their day-to-day classroom behaviors that their teachers describe as, on whole, very bad. School is someone else’s thing, not theirs.

Kids know what adults want them to say and think about school, but when they are on their own, they are not, at least so far in my interactions with them, connecting school to anything in the direction of lifelong learning, something like Lubbock’s “wish to learn” education is designed to inspire.

Conclusion
As both a parent and a careful observer of classrooms in urban settings, I have seen many people involved in the often paralyzing grind of making education work. They share a common belief in the lifelong value of education and a will to make it better. I find this inspiring.

But there are SO MANY ways to make education better, that these ways cannot help but to operate in a series of conflicting vacuums, rather in concert with each other. And, there doesn’t appear to be a “conductor” with a magic baton to bring all of these ways together.

Until one is found, it is certain that a continual stream of the objects of education—students—will continue to fill classrooms and search for the good things in life it promises.

Given no institution is perfect, schools will likely continue to deliver bad news like school closings, and kids will feel the emptiness but still go on to productive lives. But when school becomes the place where emptiness is the rule rather than the exception, where few seem to listen or care about how you feel, there is only so much time to respond that situation before it passes down generations as a negative force in their lives. And the wish to learn, if it still matters, must come from somewhere else.

As a believer in school, myself, I’m optimistic that schools can meet this challenge, especially if they stay close to their students. Involving kids in the process of making education work doesn’t have to be an indictment on education. I’m betting they will tell us if we have the will to ask and courage to listen to them.


Schoonmaker

Dr. Michael Schoonmaker is Chairman of the Television Radio Film Department at the Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University. He began his production career at MTV, then moved to NBC's Olympic Unit for coverage of the 1988 Games. He has spent more than thirteen years working with K-12 students and teachers.

Dr. Schoonmaker is the author of Cameras in the Classroom, Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, and is a regular contributor to School Video News