When I was 12 years old, I went to the 'Humanities and Communications Magnet' at Eastern Middle School in Takoma Park, Maryland. I didn't realise it at the time, but a lot of what we were doing was project-based learning. I've written before about when we put Montezuma on trial for crimes against humanity, but the most high-profile aspect of the school was its film and TV programme. In my first year, we produced a weekly game show, wholly designed, conceived, and run by students, called 'Mr Head Injury Person' (titles like this seemed hilarious to us in the nineties - remember this was when a show called 'Mr Show with Bob and David' was a cult hit). In our second year, we produced 'Personal Profiles', an altogether classier half-hour interview programme. Both of these shows went out on a local cable channel, so in theory, we had an 'authentic' audience. Having said that, I can't remember a documented instance of anyone having actually watched a show (this includes our own families).
The film I was most proud of was a 'mockumentary' I co-produced with my friend Anil Mundra (now a journalist). It was modelled on the films that we got shown in health class warning us off drugs, and it was all about a fictional drug whose street name was 'duck's breath', but whose technical name was pyrodoxine hydrochloride (which is actually vitamin B12 - we got it off the back of a cereal box). To say that our video, which included a brief interview with a French artichoke, owed a debt to Monty Python would be putting it very mildly indeed. But I still think it was pretty funny. Our teacher agreed, though she tactfully suggested that it not be shown to her bosses, given its content.
I promise this post is going somewhere, bear with me a moment longer...
The follow-up to the Eastern Middle School programme was a programme at Blair High School. I didn't go, but most of my friends did. So I was pleased to see the video 'Photographic Journey: Life at Blair, created as a final project by a student at Blair High School, featured as a 'staff choice' on Vimeo's website (it's also been picked up by Jezebel.com and a bunch of other sites - in the parlance of our times, it has 'gone viral'.
The video is worth watching simply because it is stunning - but I'd like to make two observations about it - and about student projects more generally:
1. This is a project with an authentic audience. Vimeo isn't showing me its total views, but it has 482 'likes' and counting, and comments from around the world that range from 'this is beautiful' to 'how did you pan doing the time lapse?' I remember showing our mockumentary to my Dad and a few friends in summer vacation, and feeling incredibly proud - but there was absolutely no way my work was going to get international distribution.
2. This is the culmination of a lot of work - not just on this project, but over years. In his description of the video, Omokehinde writes 'Not much to say besides the fact that this is my last time lapse of Montgomery Blair High.' That's 'last', as in 'last of many'. And because he's been uploading them to Vimeo, you can follow his development as a filmmaker.
Omokehinde's artistry owes nothing to digital technology. I have no doubt that he'd have been making beautiful films if he were at Blair when everyone was shooting on film and video. In fact, he'd probably be making beautiful art if he'd been born in the 15th century. But for an 18 year old to already have a portfolio of short films that you can view from anywhere in the world, and that people from all over the world are critiquing - this is really, really different from how things used to be, and really exciting.
We'll be talking more about project-based learning, and how to do it in your school, at our Flipped Conferences in Manchester and London. You can find out more, and sign up, here