If You’re Not Making Television, It’s Making You

Instead of letting television define their reality, the kids in Grand Rapids are using community access equipment to tell their stories and put a new spin on their classroom studies

Over the past 25 years, hundreds of teens and adults have discovered that if you're not making television, it's making you. They've had this epiphany while volunteering at the Community Media Center's public-access station, GRTV, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As they learned to angle a camera for a different perspective, edit for a desired effect, or schedule a broadcast to reach a certain audience, they realized that, all their lives—for good and for ill—television has been shaping their thinking, molding their culture, and persuading their purchases. Now instead they are the puppeteers.

Several are continuing to learn through the Center's Mobile Media Lab for Information Education (MoLLIE). At teachers' requests, MoLLIE brings digital video cameras and laptops with editing software to grade and middle schools throughout the city. It's about replacing reports and dioramas with curriculum-based video presentations conceived, scripted, acted, costumed, staged, produced, filmed, and edited by teams of three to five students. It's about teaching kids to make TV and engaging their families with their schools when their MoLLIE video airs on GRTV's MoLLIE Matinee. It's mostly about fun, but it's also about helping kids experience the power of media to shape another's perspective.

They get the message on many levels. It starts when they see a first cut and wonder why on screen they don't look or sound like they thought they would. In later takes, they become conscious of their enunciation, volume, gestures, and facial expressions. In learning to communicate more effectively through media, they are learning to listen more critically to media. They shoot a story out of sequence or cheat a shot to make themselves look smaller or taller, and come to understand that the media they watch have been similarly manipulated to capture and shape their attention.

They have an outlet for their creativity and can make literal their acting out. This past fall, for instance, two eighth-grade boys were forced to endure a class trip to a local production at the Grand Rapids Ballet. Their teacher was mortified when the boys mockingly imitated the dancers both in the theatre and on the bus trip home. Two weeks later, MoLLIE came to help the kids make mini-documentaries on earth science. The two boys chose to chronicle a volcanic eruption—through dance. While they achieved their goal of making everyone, including their teacher, laugh at their antics, they simultaneously demonstrated their complete mastery of volcanism, and, ironically, interpretive dance.

In another recent instance, MoLLIE teamed with the Media Center's GRIID (Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy) to develop and deliver their own curriculum on media literacy and voting. GRIID targeted an elementary school in a neighborhood that had traditionally low voter registration and turn-out. MoLLIE worked with fourth and fifth graders to help them produce videos on voting, American history, and relevant political issues. They invited a staff person from the city clerk's office to an evening celebration in which parents came to view their children's videos. At their children's urging, more than 40 parents registered to vote for the first time.

MoLLIE has also teamed with another of the Community Media Center's affiliates, Grandnet, to deploy video excerpts to its Internet site. Staff use MoLLIE's wireless laptops to show the children their videos as they can be seen by others in the community and the world.

Put in the role of teacher, kids experience the power of media to transform and affect themselves and others. They can persuade their parents to exercise their rights, and they can teach their teachers the difference between active and passive learning. Throughout the Grand Rapids community, teachers are realizing new ways to use television as a teaching and evaluating tool. Rather than using their classroom television to convey information to passive, bored students, they are using MoLLIE production tools to enable students to master and demonstrate their understanding of required curriculum topics. In becoming active producers, students are learning science, English, social studies, and geography at the highest levels; partnering with classmates and experiencing teamwork in new ways; learning to communicate and to listen critically; and becoming absorbed in their subject matter in ways that make their lessons unforgettable.

MoLLIE is still too young to fully demonstrate the expected long-term outcomes of “her” classroom projects. However, at the Community Media Center we have already observed some rather remarkable changes. Teachers are eager to try the resource in their classrooms once they've seen it elsewhere. Parents are watching MoLLIE Matinee and becoming involved in their children's schools and school work. And students are becoming empowered, active learners.

More than any other generation, today's children are molded by television and other media. But in Grand Rapids, children are molding their own minds. They're making TV. Has it changed them? We won't know for several years, but one piece of evidence is rather telling: Twenty-six hundred children have handled costly MoLLIE cameras and laptops; they've walked the streets of their center-city neighborhoods with them or taken them out onto school grounds in the cold or rain. And not once in the past three years has a piece of equipment been damaged, stolen, or misused. The power of television, after all, is awesome, and, ultimately, worthy of their respect.

Dirk Koning was executive director of the Community Media Center (CMC).

Tribute from Community Media Review: Dirk Koning was an internationally recognized leader in the field of community media & public access television; he was a strong and hopeful voice for communications democracy, free speech, social justice and peace among nations; and he was admired, respected and loved by many people across the planet. Dirk Koning died unexpectedly on February 10, 2005.

All photos courtesy of CMC.

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