UB Program Offers Video Arts as a Teaching Tool to City Students

By Mary Cochrane

Release Date: July 25, 2007 This content is archived.


BUFFALO., N.Y. -- Suzanne Miller, director of the City Voices City Visions digital film project at the University at Buffalo, tells the story of two Buffalo Public School high school students who last year created "a really interesting video on the Jim Crow laws, and were looking for some music to go along with it.

"The mother of one of the girls suggested the recording of Billie Holiday singing 'Strange Fruit,' which is a powerful song about lynching," Miller said. "The lyrics talk about 'strange fruit,' or bodies, hanging from the trees."

When the girls played the movie for their fellow students, "it was absolutely still in the classroom. People were so moved by the power of it. The film became part of what they know. It seems they see the world in a different way now," said Miller, an associate professor of learning and instruction in the UB Graduate School of Education.

"After that, the girls went into the cafeteria, where two other students, two boys, were fighting about sneakers. One had dirtied the other's white sneakers. The girls went over to break it up and said, 'Do you know what we've been through? Do you know what people have gone through so we can attend the same school? You're not going to fight about this.'"

City Voices City Visions is a partnership between UB and the Buffalo Public Schools that provides teachers in grades 6-12 with innovative approaches to using digital video arts as a literacy tool in their classrooms. The goal is to raise the academic achievement -- and thus increase the post-graduate opportunities -- of these students, who attend classes in a variety of urban neighborhoods.

The New York State Education Department provides funding to the program, which is a partner with other area organizations, including Squeaky Wheel, WNED Television and the Western New York Writing Project. In addition, the John R. Oishei Foundation is funding the program, including support for a large-scale evaluation of its impact.

Now in its seventh year, City Voices City Visions (CVCV) has offered annual professional development institutes and year-round support to teachers from a total of 20 city schools.

During the training institutes, Miller, her staff and CVCV teachers demonstrate how teachers can use video technology to help students better learn and understand classroom curricular content. Participants receive digital video cameras to use at their schools and 28 hours of instruction on planning and storyboarding videos, researching in books and online, writing scripts and narratives for the films and acting out skits prior to filming. Miller and her staff of six graduate students then offer continued support to participants during the school year through regular visits to their schools and bimonthly reunions at which the teachers can share their experiences of using digital video in their classrooms and screen their students' videos.

According to Miller, a majority of the teachers report back that the technology has energized their students and themselves. "Most of them integrate it in their classrooms and most really fall in love with it as an embodied way of learning and they end up doing three to six projects a year at their schools," she said.

Keith Hughes, who teaches U.S. history and government at McKinley High School in Buffalo, said participating in the City Voices City Visions program has improved his teaching and his students.

"I have constantly challenged my students and myself into producing a wide range of digital videos. The result has been higher scores on my students' Regents examinations," Hughes said.

The most valuable thing he learned through the CVCV institute is to allow himself to learn from his students.

"I've learned that as a teacher I should see myself less as a storyteller and more as an executive producer. While lecturing still works for me, seeing students create authentic expressions of meaning related to my curriculum has transformed the way I view teaching. Their immersion into the historical content as they plan, film, edit and screen their work is meaningful. And their learning is then transformed into a thematic essay on the exam.

"It really is a marvelous tool to get kids interested and thoughtful about what they are learning. Video has a way of altering how you view not only the world, but your world."

Miller agreed, saying she is especially proud that the program offers a chance for non-traditional learners to excel.

"We've seen kids who are marginal students, who have been marginalized in the school, who suddenly come alive. They become academic stars. That's because 'Darryl' is making a movie and everybody knows he is, but that movie also is connected to a novel he read that is connected to his life. So it brings the life and the curriculum together and makes it personal and powerful," she said.

Preliminary studies have shown that City Voices City Visions has a powerful impact on student learning, engagement, attendance and student achievement, according to Miller, who is conducting a full study over the next year.

The results in one of the participating school classrooms -- too small a sampling to proclaim the results as irrefutable, Miller admits -- are positive. At the school, one teacher of two 8th grade classes let students in one of the classes create digital videos based on the novel they had read, while the other class did not.

"Those who made the DVs wrote about the novels they had read on their state tests and all passed the tests," Miller said. "In the other class, not all students passed the tests."

She also likes the fact that bringing up-to-the-minute technology into the schools levels the playing field between teachers -- or classroom authority figures -- and the students, who more often are experts in using the equipment.

"These kids are growing up in an age where there was always an Internet," Miller said. "They're different kids, with their ability to multitask using digital tools. So bringing the technology into their schools changes the power dynamic in classrooms. Teachers have recognized that when students can become experts at something it becomes a more mutual, respectful relationship and lots of learning of all sorts can come out of that."

As a result, "teachers can see some potential that they might not have seen before, that some students are really smart in ways that maybe aren't always the ways schools allow into the classroom doors," Miller added.

Next year, WNED-TV plans to produce a documentary about the program, and Miller also is organizing a CVCV showcase for October so more people can see how the program has promoted different ways of representing meaning.

Despite its successes, Miller cautioned that City Voices City Visions may not be for every teacher.

"We want people who are already leaning toward teaching subjects in alternative ways. We give them a way of thinking about how that can engage students."

For information about City Voices City Visions, call (716) 645-2696, ext. 1158.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York. UB's more than 27,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.