Undergraduates lead summer film camp for middle school kids

Middle schooler Rayne Blake and her dad at the Aug. 3 screenings of the Summer Film Academy movies.

Fifteen students from the Dryden and Spencer-Van Etten middle schools made movies at Cornell this summer in a program that emphasized visual interpretation and expression, and technical and teamwork skills needed to develop a story from idea to film.

The Summer Film Academy is run by Cornell students in the education minor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). Four undergraduates spent the spring semester preparing the curriculum and field trips, learning CPR and mastering filmmaking equipment.

The program, now in its second summer, is a spinoff of the afterschool film club that senior lecturer Bryan Duff and students in the course Engaging Youth in Learning run each semester in Ithaca. For the summer program, “we focus on youth from rural areas because their access to summer enrichment tends to be limited,” said Duff, who directs the education minor.

The young filmmakers had to follow a few simple guidelines – the films had to be rated PG, contain at least one outdoor scene, have a story with a rescue or quest theme, and feature an underdog as an unexpected hero.

The two short movies they made premiered at a screening for family members and guests Aug. 3 in Stocking Hall. “Manhunt” – “a story about bullying retribution gone awry” – and “Spirited,” “about the strength of family bonds,” both feature cameos by adults and “the kinds of random-juxtaposition humor that early adolescents excel at,” Duff said.

Split into two teams supervised by Cornell student counselors and overseen by Duff, the middle school students took on different roles for their projects – filming and editing, recording sound, acting, writing and directing, and designing titles and a studio logo (“Siberian Tiger Films”). They also produced a short public service announcement on cell phone etiquette.

“For the students, it’s really involved,” said Sydney Smith ’17, one of the counselors. “You need every student to embrace their part and contribute. … They’re taking an activity that’s beyond the traditional classroom setting, and they can apply it when they go back to school. They learn about storytelling, which relates to their English classes.”

“Making a movie, even a short one, is a great vehicle for youth development,” Duff said. “For one thing, it requires compromise. Developing a movie that a diverse group of people will like is hard … sometimes the teams had to vote or change direction.”

Field trips were interspersed with writing, filming and editing. An early visit to the Cayuga Nature Center provided teamwork training; hiking and swimming at Robert Treman State Park built appreciation for the outdoors and “burned off energy that, unleashed in the hallways of Stocking Hall, would have tested the patience of our wonderful hosts in the Food Science building,” Duff said.

A scene from "Spirited."

Saige Connor ’18, a human development major, has worked with the program for two summers. “Middle schoolers are not as bad as they’re made out to be. I had so much fun,” she said.

“They brought lots of laughter,” said Smith, who graduated from CALS in May with a major in international agriculture and rural development and a minor in education. In February she begins work with the Peace Corps in Rwanda. The summer program “allowed myself as well as the students to think openly and creatively. As a learner and as a teacher, it’s an opportunity that doesn’t always happen.”

Nicole Oliveira ’20, an ILR major, said she saw new friendships being formed, and observed “how thoughtful the kids were with each other” in valuing each other’s input.

“Filmmaking as a project brings out the talents and abilities of the kids way more than any other project that I’ve ever worked on,” said Brendon Nguyen ’20, a computer science major/education minor who plans to become a teacher. “It takes so many different skills.”

The program was funded by an Engaged Opportunity Grant.

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Lindsey Knewstub