The 4th, 5th and 6th graders arrived to the cafeteria with great energy and, for the most part, smiling faces.

It was time for these 80+ students towatch their respective “movies” that they’d spent the better part of the last two months making. By “movies” I don’t mean Hollywood-style, feature length narratives. Their movies were grade-by-grade collections of their individual responses to the question, “What’s important to you and why?”

This exercise was a first step of a larger research project in search of student perspectives on school and education. Our aim as a small research team was to get to know the students, help them and their teachers get comfortable with production and editing technology and exercise students’ expressions of their worlds.

Having already watched their movies, I was paying more attention to their reactions to themselves on the screen, than to the movies themselves. I wanted to know what they saw, how they felt, and what it meant to them when they saw themselves on the screen. Having worked for years with K-12 students and cameras, I knew at least a little about what to expect. In past projects, I had found that students largely enjoyed seeing themselves on the screen, particularly in fantasy acting roles and in live, camera exercises involving the pointing of a monitored camera around the classroom. They tended to “ham it up” and vie for attention. Seeing themselves on the screen generally seemed to put them in a perceived place of importance and boost their self esteem.

But, this project was a bit different from most of the others, being more of a confessional in nature. It was about them specifically and what they valued in their personal lives. A student would appear on screen, say his or her name, what was important to them and why Their reactions to screen were, to my surprise, different as well.

We began with the 4th graders. Their first reactions were mostly expressions of happiness and awe at the size of their faces on the large auditorium screen. But as time went on and the novelty of the screening subsided, a discernable routine unfolded. Most, if not all, of the students in the screened child’s class would burst out laughing, then wildly search the semi-dark cafetorium for that child.

It wasn’t easy because most of the time the child being sought would have immediately covered his or her face in his or her lap. The unfolding routine involved a hearty laugh, a turn away by the subject, and almost always a return look back to the screen to watch the rest of their own performance on the screen. Most expressions were 10 seconds so there wasn’t a whole lot of time to get used to one person before the next one was on the screen being laughed at.

What surprised me wasn’t the laughing. It was the turning away that I didn’t understand. Perhaps embarrassment? Perhaps peer pressure? And it was interesting how short-lived most of the “turn-aways” were, before the students looked right back at themselves on the screen and took the performance in, usually with a look that reflected at least some degree of accomplishment.

Funny, for three non-comedy movies, we were generating a lot of laughter! But why? Was it because the students were making fun of and trying to hurt each other? The teachers wondered the same thing when we discussed the screening later. They talked about one particular student who was very sensitive and tended to cry a lot, usually in response to imagined insults from her peers. They were glad that she was one of the few students absent that day.

Having paid close attention to the student reactions at the screening, I remembered the student they were referring to, and the response of her classmates and honestly couldn’t discern any difference in the nature of the laughter around her in comparison to the others. At the heart of it, the laughter was pretty equal from my observation point, which leads me to believe there might be something beyond simple peer pressure and playground power relations going on here.

Certainly, the best way to find out is to ask the students themselves, and there is time ahead to do just that. Until then it merits at least a little thinking aloud to consider what value there might be in knowing.

What do they see when they look into the “mirror of the screen, and how could knowing this matter? In the study, we are trying to unlock students’ expressive voices through video stories, to share their views of school and effective education. What we’re finding already is that students are not used to being asked how they feel about their worlds. They also have very different ways of articulating factual knowledge, opinions and feelings than the adults who are asking them questions and teaching their classes. We need to learn to listen to their voices and ways, rather than waiting for them to conform to ours. For instance, most adults don’t laugh when they are watching each other on screens. That simply wouldn’t be an appropriate adult behavior.

Why did they laugh? Though there might have been a teasing, child-like quality about the laughing indictments of individual students, there also was a form of spontaneous ritual unfolding. Each student was taking his or her place on a virtual throne in front of the audience, and the sheer irony of their momentary importance could have caused the laughter. After all, surprise and irony are two of the most common roots of comedy.

Why did they hide their faces? In his book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, cartoonist Scott McCloud explains that one of the most effective weapons of good comics is understanding the way we “see” ourselves as individuals when we are away from a mirror. He explains:

When two people interact, they usually look directly at one another, seeing their partner's features in vivid detail. Each one also sustains a constant awareness of his or her own face, but this mind-picture is not nearly so vivid; Just a sketchy arrangement...a sense of shape...a sense of general placement. Something as simple and basic as a cartoon.

I have experienced this mind picture phenomenon between my trips to the mirror. In short, the further I get from the mirror, the younger I imagine myself to be!

The feeling of “Is that what I look like?” …might be the reason why the children turn away from their bigger than life image on the screen. To confront the differences between the image in their minds of themselves juxtaposed with the vivid image from a camera. It’s a contradiction not unlike the experience of hearing the sound of our voice from a audio recording and asking, “Is that what I sound like?”

The most fascinating question in all of this for me is, “Why did the children turn back to the screen after the laughter and the burying of their heads?” The easiest explanation for me is that despite the laughter of their peers and the differences between themselves on the screen vs. themselves in their minds, there was still something for them worth taking in—that they enjoyed something about what they saw on that screen.

The late social scientist Herbert Blumer would likely call it this a form of symbolic interactionism: how people, young and old, negotiate meaning as their lives unfold in front of them. In the case of children looking back at the screen, they could be seen as confronting the contradictions of their images and making adjustments to their “comic sketches” of themselves…kind of like in front of the morning mirror, when I plop some gel on a badly behaving tuft of hair shooting out the wrong direction from my head. I came to the mirror with an expectation. The mirror humbled me, and after a slight adjustment I made new and better cartoon of myself (hoping that hair didn’t spring right back up after I left the mirror). It usually does.

m schoonmakerMichael 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 coverage of the 1988 Games.  He has spent more than fourteen years working with K-12 students and teachers.


He is the author of Cameras in the Classroom, Rowman Littlefield publishers.