The Video Volunteers training processes: teach new skills to reach new goals

Recently I’ve been focusing on the varied community correspondent training processes of Video Volunteers (VV), developed over the last 13 years. These trainings are fundamental to VV’s mission of “empowering communities through film.”  In order to do that, basic storytelling concepts must be taught: story development, cinematography, audio, data management, B-roll, interview questions, etc.  What VV instructional techniques have proven effective and allowed the NGO to reach it’s goals, and how is the training process continually refined?

Research in India based on questions from my colleagues in Minnesota

My colleagues at Gordon Parks High School asked: “What are efficient, effective and proven methods of training youth (with little or no media production background) to become empowered digital storytellers?” And from the classroom instructor perspective, digital storytelling trainings would need to be successful and efficient enough so that a student could then synthesize state standards.  This would parallel how a VV film seeks to synthesize a correspondent’s perspective on a social justice topic that solicits public awareness.  VV’s Community Correspondents aren’t making films for film’s sake, in the same sense that I’m not proposing that teachers carve out class time just for making films.  The digital storytelling process needs to be framed as the vehicle for the synthesized learning similar to how we consider the writing process. That’s a tall order, but I’ve seen the impact that this process can have on students and benefits to school culture, community and school identity.

This is a big topic, and I’ll need to return to it again.  Future blog posts will be on this topic as well.  However, after conducting a few introductory interviews I would like to paraphrase three comments I heard from trainers and staff this week that have stood out:

“The production quality of the final films doesn’t always reduce the level of impact that the film will have on policy makers.”

I’ve seen this myself at Gordon Parks, and have come to appreciate the raw and direct storytelling of students making their first films. The film making process requires a person to synthesize a lot of complex, multimodal skills. For many learners, it is a rich and challenging experience because visual composition is intertwined with written composition, making it more interesting. So what if the film is a bit jagged on the edges, because the process, not the product, is what most classrooms are aiming at. This comment reminded me though, that rawness and authenticity are more precious than the polished edges.  Here’s an example of a student film from Gordon Parks High School that exemplifies this.

“Trainers who sincerely believe in the potential social impact of the future correspondents are the best instructors.”

High stakes test driven school systems fail students and taxpayers for a variety of reasons, but one glaring reason is that they do not elicit the full faculty of the educator. Most teachers know deep down that the test is an ineffective measurement system. So, we need to root our teaching in sufficiently complex, broadly defined, intellectually rich, real learning targets. The community around a school (the taxpayers funding the school) is an essential partner with a school to determine the localized and important topics, not Scholastic or other mainstream textbook publishers.  The broadly defined, local social justice topics provide effective curriculum to educators because the topics inspire and speak to our common humanity.


“It seems that Community Correspondents with the least technological background often make some of the most impactful films.”

This comment really hit home and re-centered me.  Gordon Parks changed the world through his film making and photography, and began that process as a youth when he was homeless, navigating racism and classism just like GPHS students are doing today.  I think our public institutions, fueled by taxpayer dollars, can get real value out of investment in this approach to curriculum.  And, because the fruits of this approach to curriculum often are viewable online, taxpayers can experience the products of the classroom.  Schools don’t need to rely on test scores to tell their story.

On a more personal level I can see this theme in both the Gordon Parks High School curriculum I promote, and the Square Lake Film & Music Festival. Film should be and is an approachable medium. The jurors for the Square Lake Festival have frequently told me that they love reviewing the films because of the raw creativity. The jury even went so far as to say they admire the filmmakers/animators for taking creative risks that seasoned filmmakers/animators might stop trying because of perceived commercial constraints.


(All photos in this post are courtesy of Video Volunteers)

I like how filmmaker David Lynch said it: “Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure.They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.”

Might educators in the future support the broad integration of visual storytelling in all subject areas, similar to how we teach writing? And if so, what would the benefits be to students, schools and communities be? Those are the big fish I’m going for.