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Maren Johnson | Education Policy, Film | September 30, 2012

Study Your Craft


by Maren Johnson

The auditorium was packed with several hundred teenagers from two school districts when the bell rang for lunch.  No one moved.  The occasion causing the students to sit in place and ignore the bell?  An arts assembly at our school.  In conjunction with a local film festival, our students had watched a movie in their social studies classes and now had the opportunity to hear from the director.  A student asked the guest speaker one last question, "Do you have any advice for aspiring film makers?"   Students wanted to hear the answer, and they weren't going anywhere until they did, lunch bell or not.  Our guest, the award winning film maker Alrick Brown, shared three ideas in response:

1) Study your craft.  If you shake your booty on YouTube, that doesn't mean you're a film maker. If you get a million hits on the internet, that doesn’t mean you’re a film maker. The success needs to be replicable and you get that by studying your craft. 

At first I thought this was some sort of statement against the democratization of art through social media.  Not at all.  Our guest mentioned that the reason he was able to be a successful film maker, making movies in often difficult circumstances in developing countries, was because he studied and worked hard at it: a Masters Degree in Education, followed by two years in the Peace Corps, then a Masters Degree in Film making.   The message of the importance of study and hard work in all careers really seemed to hit home with the students.  Clearly this applies to teachers as well—we need to study our craft!

Video Productions teacher with guest film maker

2) Learn to write.  Writing is what got our guest director into college after an economically challenging early life.  Writing is what allowed him to put a complex story together in two weeks when a film making situation demanded it.  Reading is important as well: familiarity with Shakespeare paid off when writing a screenplay in Central Africa.

3) Tell a personal story.   It's not numbers that moves people to care about an issue, even when that issue is something like genocide, the subject of the film.  What moves people to action? Personal stories.  I hear it in trainings.   I hear it when learning about blogging.  It was good to hear it again in an assembly about film making.

One more thing I learned?  Let’s hear it for the arts in school!  I am not a movie buff.  I never would have watched this film had we not had the assembly, yet watching it and hearing from the director made me think about a variety of issues for days after the assembly itself.  With ever increasing state graduation requirements in terms of credits and exams to be passed in math, reading, writing, and science, we run the risk of losing things like art classes and assemblies.  Through cooperation of our video productions teacher and our local film festival, many of the students had the opportunity to spend an extended amount of time with the director and with the film festival, and I am sure this had a huge impact on them.  We can’t lose this!

Many thanks to Director Alrick Brown who made KinyaRwanda,  a Sundance award winning movie about the Rwandan genocide, and Death of Two Sons, about two remarkable young men, one a Guinean immigrant in New York, the other an American Peace Corps volunteer and math teacher in Guinea. 


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#1 is so true.

I think in any expressive or artistic field, craft is important. There are techniques and conventions tried and true which we must have an awareness of to build upon the past and push boundaries, otherwise we may reproduce the mistakes others have made or produce junk.

It definitely applies to teaching, and it applies to teaching in the arts especially.

I just downloaded the Portable MFA in Creative Writing onto my Kindle, and in the introduction the author lambasts Masters programs and writing professors who believe good writing can't be taught, and who fail to give critical feedback based on craft. The book is based on the premise that there are elements of craft that can be directly taught and studied.

I'm not sure if many members of the general public have an appreciation for the craft of teaching-- how many things we do from experience and intuition that in fact we've learned because we are professionals. However, many parents do appreciate a lot of what we do. Your piece is a good reminder to study our craft! There is always more to learn.

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