The best teachers often have a touch of the master storyteller, skilled at shaping a narrative arc for their pupils that at once engages and illuminates.
Bryan Duff, education senior lecturer in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, strives to impart that skill to his students as they prepare to become teachers in their own right, and he has made filmmaking a central mechanism to showcase the power of storytelling in the classroom.
Twice a week throughout the semester, a dozen Cornell students in Duff’s Engaging Students in Learning course have ventured off campus as part of an afterschool program with the Ithaca City School District. Working with three teams of DeWitt Middle School students, the Cornellians hone their skills in curriculum development, assessment and instruction by helping the students create 10-minute films.
“Good storytelling has a lot in common with good teaching,” says Duff. “Effective teachers, like good storytellers, know how to draw people in, know how to keep their attention, know how to get them to think and enjoy doing so.”
Cornell students mentor the middle school students but otherwise let the youngsters take the lead in writing, acting, directing and editing. In the process, the sixth- and seventh-graders learn technical skills involving camera and film techniques, but the real learning goals go beyond the tools at hand.
“Filmmaking is just a vehicle for far more important lessons,” says Duff. “The kids have to work with diverse people – people who may want a different genre, different main characters, different music. Listening to others explain their reasons, weighing merits and compromising without creating an awful mash-up that no one would want to see, there’s science and art in that.”
As might be expected of plots devised by middle school students, the films often follow fantastical storylines, with this year’s films featuring teenage super spies in one and a weather-controlling supervillain in another. The third film chronicles the story of a student framed for pulling the school’s fire alarm, and features a cameo appearance by Anna Ziemski ’16, a human development major in the College of Human Ecology.
“It’s the best class I’ve taken at Cornell, by far,” Ziemski says of the experience helping her students craft an idea and turn it into a finished product. “One of the biggest challenges for any teacher is being comfortable with the fact that things will go awry, and you have to be able to change on the fly.”
Many of the Cornell students come in without a background in filmmaking, but that lack of experience is not a deficit, says Duff.
“Actually, being a novice — at least temporarily— can strengthen someone’s acumen as a teacher,” he says. “It’s like a re-charging of our empathy for people hearing terms and trying to make sense of something for the first time.”
A public film festival showcasing the students’ work will be held Friday, Dec. 4 at 3:30 p.m. at DeWitt Middle School.
Matt Hayes is managing editor and social media officer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.