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Using video production to teach higher level skills

Couch potatoes need not apply to York's broadcast video program

Broadcast  video production students at York Community High School"Academic rigor" and "television" are terms not always used together, but at York Community High School in Elmhurst, they fit well.

"Some of our students sign up because they think it's an easy way out of our speech requirement", says Dave Venetucci, who teaches broadcast journalism at York. "They don't realize how tough it is."

Venetucci, a journalism and speech instructor with a background in television news, is now in his third year teaching basic and advanced broadcast courses. The goal of the program, he says, is as much to develop students' writing, planning and thinking abilities as their technical media skills. The chance to produce television programming is the bait that lures these teens to challenge themselves. They often find they have much more ability than they thought.

A step by step program

York offers two semester-long production classes. In the first, mostly sophomore and junior-year students learn the basics of broadcast journalism. Using a step by step approach, Venetucci takes them through the fundamentals of news gathering, script writing, equipment usage and media production. There's a healthy dose of background material, too, including First Amendment issues. Then he puts them to work on hands-on video projects, culminating in a two to three minute "TV news package," which is the edited, videotaped portion of a television news broadcast. To create their segments, students shoot with portable cameras, edit, and add studio introductions using chroma key effect, titles and voiceovers.

"It seems to work," says Venetucci, "because we're able to find out, early on, which of our students are serious. The kids who don't complete the paperwork part of the course don't get the ability to work in the hands-on groups. They can't touch the equipment until they've demonstrated academic responsibility and dedication."

Venetucci designed a second, advanced class for juniors and seniors interested in careers in media, whether that's television, print or radio. Here they spend the semester producing a half-hour TV news magazine. Last school year, says Venetucci, two of these programs were aired on Media One's local access channel in Elmhurst.

The Creativity Center

York Community High School video production control roomThe broadcast classes use York's Creativity Center (a computer multimedia lab) and Broadcast Communication Center (which consists of two video studios and an editing room). According to Mike Torney, who is in charge of both facilities, the centers are also available to students throughout the school for a wide range of projects. Students in American History create family histories and past/present connections using still picture videos (similar to what Ken Burns did with The Civil War). They also interview older relatives for their impressions of this century. Sociology students do "Who Am I" still picture videos, business education classes produce TV commercials, and English, science and art students work on a variety of videos and gifics. Students can use the systems to create computer presentations with imported video and audio, bring video images into printed newspapers and reports, and dump computer text, graphics and animations to videotape.

Multimedia lab at York Community High SchoolYork has been using video with students for more than 25 years, but Torney had to start almost from scratch when took over five years ago. Studio equipment had become outdated or nonfunctional. The multimedia lab was being used mainly to create posters and transparencies by hand. Torney wanted to take advantage of the emerging video capabilities of computers. "Much of the polish that may be seen on student productions," he says, "is made possible by computers with the ability to ‘frame grab' and ‘dump' to videotape. Students produce on video, but bring portions to the computer to make adjustments, titles, and credits. Then they dump back to video for mass showings."

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One problem Torney faces is funding equipment purchases. The District 205 Foundation for Educational Excellence, a non-profit organization which provides monies to Elmhurst public schools, has been been very generous to the centers. Torney says Kevin Cavanaugh of United Visual has also made a contribution. "Kevin's been great at finding us just the right equipment, as well as training us and taking care of pieces that malfunction."

In a typical day about 200 students work on projects at the centers–and virtually every student at York uses its systems. "In most of the schools I've visited," says Torney, "the TV studio is for the TV kids only. But the Panasonic equipment that Kevin found us lets almost anyone come in and get their feet wet. There's not much they can do to it."

Start small and build

The larger of York's two studios features a three- camera setup, plus a control room with a new Panasonic audio/video mixer and an ElectroVoice sound board. There's also a smaller studio with two cameras and a postproduction suite with three editing systems. The multimedia lab features seven camcorder copy stands, six computer workstations, two tape to tape dubbing stations, and four audio dubbing booths. Torney has outfitted the computers with HyperStudio, Astound, Claris Slide Show, and MacroMedia Action, plus a few other programs. One computer system has a color scanner, and he has interfaced two more workstations to laserdisc players and the camcorder copy stands.

Torney cuts corners where he can but buys quality where it counts. He converted the smaller studio from a classroom and uses the room's standard florescent lighting. He mounted new portable cameras on older studio pedestals donated by Sears and painted a wall blue to take advantage of the mixer's chroma-key capability. He was able to put an old teleprompter to good use, mounting it on a camera pedestal with homemade hardware.

On the other hand, he was careful to choose S-VHS recorders for the studios and editing suite, buys the fastest computer equipment he can afford, and was able to take advantage of a first-rate lighting grid installed years ago in the larger studio.

Torney has some useful advice for other educators who might want to start up similar programs. "Start small and build," he said. "There's a tendency with a lot of people to go with the latest technology rather than what would work. For example, I've visited other schools using those new digital still cameras, and a lot of them are very limited." Torney uses VHS camcorders for frame grabbing, liking their macro zoom lenses, ability to shoot motion video, and low cost. "In multimedia," he says, "you're going to end up on a monitor with only 72 dpi, so you don't need anything heavy duty."

"Our operation's not as sophisticated as some," Venetucci says. "We have all sorts of gremlins that creep in, for instance, when we're doing audio work–but it gives the kids an excellent hands-on experience. They're using the basic technology that they would encounter in an industrial, educational, or broadcast operation." Sometimes the limitations are frustrating, especially if equipment goes down. "But I keep telling the kids," Venetucci says, "‘that it's the same thing the pros go through. They've got better equipment, but they still have deadlines and technology issues. They can't always get the biggest and the best bells, buzzers and whistles. You've got to make do with what you have and do the best job you can, in the available time that you have.'"

Bringing out the best

Because the broadcast courses are part of York's journalism program, there's a strong emphasis on writing. Students go through numerous drafts on scripts, with Venetucci serving as teacher and consultant. "To keep them honest, I say, ‘you can't produce these pieces until the scripting is acceptable.' And that forces them to work hard. They see that there's a reason they have to take good notes when we start talking about effective lead writing, for example. They're going to be doing that. It's not enough to regurgitate factual knowledge. They have to internalize the concepts and understand what's going on."

Despite the rigor, the broadcast journalism courses are quite popular at York. Last year about 70 students completed the basic class and 30 finished the advanced. The skills these students learn are impressive. "They're learning how to report, how to direct, how to edit videotapes," comments Venetucci. " They're learning how to budget and manage their time, and to work with other people cooperatively." Most importantly, they're learning to put out their best efforts, and they have the chance to see how much those efforts can accomplish. "Too often kids can get away with low level stuff," says Venetucci. " When they're required to demonstrate higher level thinking, to synthesize information and apply the terms and concepts they've learned, they sometimes struggle. But these courses require these kinds of skills. Once our students realize our expectations, they rise to the challenge. And they do a great job. They never cease to amaze me with what they can do both creatively and technically."