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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Education professor Sarah Michaels is pioneering ways to improve the teaching of science to "at risk" students. She is assisted by several students in her course "Transformative Schooling," who have helped her film interaction in the classroom.

Meet the researchers: Education through a camera lens

Interview with Professor Sarah Michaels, Matt LeBlanc, and Jasen Boyle
In a recent interview, education professor Sarah Michaels, Matt LeBlanc '04, and Jasen Boyle '99 discussed their work on educational reform.

Sarah, tell us about your research focus.

Sarah: My primary area of expertise and research has to do with the complexities of urban, inner city, public schooling. I'm particularly interested in classroom talk, and using video to help teachers promote rigorous, coherent, and equitable classroom conversations. I'm currently focusing a lot of my attention on two different, but related, spheres of activity, an undergraduate seminar called, "Transformative Schooling," and my research on an after-school science program called "The Investigators' Club."

Transformative Schooling is a freshman seminar that I co-teach with Screen Studies instructor Fred Simon. The course is cross-listed in Education, Communication and Culture, and Urban Development and Social Change. It introduces students to the basics of video production using inner city public schools as a research site. The first-year students do actual documentary video work in collaboration with teachers who themselves are interested in using video to document and improve their teaching practice. The course also uses advanced film students (like Jasen and Matt) as mentors--students who've already had basic training in video production and are interested in using video as a tool for social change. The videos that are created in this course have been used by teachers at national and local conferences, in Clark Education classes, and for presentations to parent groups.

Transformative schooling also ties in with my on-going research with the Investigators' Club, an after school physics program for inner city middle-school kids. A number of undergraduates have worked with us to videotape the I-Club sessions. As it turns out, several of these undergraduate filmmakers have also gotten very involved in the I-Club program by actually participating in its design.

Matt, how did you become involved in Transformative Schooling?

Matt: Actually, I took the class on a whim as a freshman. Then I was asked to help with filming the I-Club. I ended up working closely with Jasen, Sarah and her colleague Richard Sohmer. The next year, Sarah asked me to be a mentor for Transformative Schooling. I always joke that Transformative Schooling has taken over my life!

Sarah: Matt was a first-year student in Transformative Schooling when Jasen was a mentor. Matt stood out as somebody who was engaged in both the video production side of things, and also in the issues around education and social change. This is his second time being a mentor to the class. He also became a research assistant and camera person for the I-Club.

Jasen, too, became very involved in transformative schooling and video production in urban classrooms. He also got so involved with kids and science that after several years as a camera person, he opted to become a science teacher in the I-Club. He then became a full-fledged member of the research project, trying to help teachers rethink the way they teach science. Jasen learned what it means to apprentice to a master teacher and then take on the mantle of teaching himself. Since Jasen graduated from Clark, he's continued to work with the project fulltime. He's also developed a reputation around the country as an expert at doing classroom video. He's called upon by educators and researchers around the country to videotape classroom interaction and edit the film for presentations and publication on CD-ROMs.

Students tend to come to Transformative Schooling from one of two directions. Some people are really interested in education, and the seminar appeals to them because they're going to be working in schools. They think about wanting to change the school system and be a part of that. Other people are interested in the video production aspect and the notion of social change and working on real things for real people. I think Matt was more intrigued by the latter, and then got very interested in the educational issues. Jasen, too, was originally interested in the video production end of things, but as a senior he did his capstone project on the philosophy of the I-Club's designer, my colleague Richard Sohmer. Richard's philosophy emphasizes apprenticeship as a more powerful way of learning than the way things are traditionally done in schools. He talks a lot about what's wrong with our schools and why they fail so many kids. The ideas begin to grab you. It's not just about video.

Jasen: As the video person, you initially see the education process through the camera lens. But for me it was impossible just to stay behind the camera, especially with the I-Club. You start behind the camera, but then you begin to absorb some of the teaching practices and you get taken up with the physics ideas being discussed in the group.

Sarah: I can remember times when Matt was behind the camera and then he would stand aside and join the kids in their group discussion. He became really interested in the physics under debate. It's so engaging that you can't help yourself. So the video people became co-teachers, participants in the I-Club. They became mentors to the kids.

Can video also be used as an alternative to bringing education students into actual classrooms, which might be logistically difficult for various reasons?

Sarah: Yes, video's an alternative to the written word. Video is a new and very powerful way of communicating to others the complexities of schooling. It allows you to document successful practices rather than just tell people 'do this, this and this,' which never works as well. There's a huge amount of educational research in print that is difficult to translate into practice. Video is becoming a very important tool in teacher education and on-going professional development for practicing teachers.

There's a lot about this country's schools that needs to be transformed. The way things are now really isn't working, particularly for kids who don't come from privileged backgrounds. The challenge is to pretty radically change people's ideas and understanding. We're using new literacies and new digital technologies to do that.

I assume that in the process of creating the video, you have to think a lot about content.

Jasen: Exactly. There's a huge difference in a video where the camera person has been there just to film and has nothing invested in understanding what's going on. You come away with better footage when you have an understanding of what's being looked for, when you can identify when valuable talk or interesting practice is going on in the classroom. You have to get involved on an intellectual level.

That must be a requirement for any documentary video.

Sarah: Yes. The documentary video for social change approach builds in a serious intellectual focus on the research knowledge behind the story. In fact, Fred Simon, who co-teaches this course and is a video instructor at Clark and an award-winning documentary video maker, has come to see that we're really teaching people about documentary filmmaking in a way that no place else in the country does. Other places typically say 'here's the camera, go out and film.' In contrast we emphasize that it's about being an ethnographer, doing research, first and foremost, and then doing the film. So people are learning documentary video in quite a different way here, and I think the Transformative Schooling class is the very first step. Students then go on to take more advanced video production work. Matt, as a junior, is currently the teaching assistant for Fred Simon's digital editing class.

Do you see a difference in classrooms that are being filmed versus those that aren't?

Matt: It's a classic problem that every documentary filmmaker has to struggle with. It's the main issue. You're trying to document what's going on, but having the camera there obviously changes the dynamics of that environment. It's in the back of the teacher's mind; the students know the camera is there. People know they're being observed.

Sarah: You see a difference in classrooms where the teachers themselves are interested in reflecting on and documenting what they do, and really improving their practice. Often when you bring a video camera into a classroom, you're exposing problems as well as strengths. It's a dilemma that we've often felt as the video makers. But over time, we've come to really respect the courage of these teachers, and their willingness to make themselves vulnerable to criticism, so that they can improve. You can feel a real difference in classrooms where teachers are doing that kind of work.

Teacher-research, a method Clark has promoted as a way for teachers to examine, reflect on, and improve their practice, has really gotten national recognition. Teacher-research in Worcester is on the map. Increasingly, the teacher education program at Clark has used video as a resource for new teachers to reflect on what they do and to capture the complexity of what is going on.

Is students' behavior affected by the presence of the camera?

Sarah: You can see clearly when you first enter a classroom with a camera that kids are aware of it. But if you stay long enough, you begin to see that they're no longer attending to the camera--they're not making faces or waving, they're focused on what they're doing. Despite the camera, kids will often misbehave. There are plenty of times when things do not go well and the camera doesn't protect from that. With the I-Club, we make the camera such a presence that it just becomes part of the furniture and it's less of an intrusion.

Jasen: The camera also becomes a symbol of the importance of the work being done.

Sarah: Kids love being listened to and taken seriously. They're often very proud that their teacher is interested enough in what they have to say to actually record it. Students have told us that it means a lot to them that their teacher is listening hard. It creates a climate in the classroom where the kids start to listen harder to what their classmates are saying. All our teachers video- or audiotape when we're not there; it's part of their professional practice as well. And kids, of course, are very jazzed about being taped and photographed.

Matt and Jasen, did the Transformative Schooling class affect how you looked at your own education?

Matt: Yes. A lot of the class focuses on the present day U.S. educational system and how it's failing students. I look back and think, yeah, that's exactly how my classes were.

Sarah: I do think the Transformative Schooling students get more critical about what works and why in terms of their own education. I've noticed that many of them go on to exhibit a kind of independence, openness, and interest in interdisciplinary work. They develop interesting projects that cross borders or push the boundaries of academic disciplines. They're often interested in work that has some real impact on society.

Matt and Jasen, it sounds like, here at Clark you've gone beyond the traditional 'sitting in the classroom, listening to a lecture.' By taking Transformative Schooling you were getting involved in less traditional ways of learning.

Jasen: I didn't get involved in the I-Club or Transformative Schooling until I was already a junior. So when that happened, a whole new world opened up. I wasn't just sitting back learning about something, I was actively involved and participating. I was finding out about what was going on in the schools, in the educational system, and learning about how it was failing some of these kids who are in the I-Club. And I started to see how I had been failed in certain ways. It was really an eye-opening thing. I wanted to learn more about who's changing the situation, who's not helping it, and things like that. And that's really what took up the last two years of my undergraduate time at Clark. I'm still here, 4 years after graduating, and this is my sixth iteration of Transformative Schooling. That really says it all.

 

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Sarah Michaels, Jasen Boyle, and Matt LeBlanc
Top: Sarah Michaels; bottom left: Jasen Boyle; bottom right: Matt LeBlanc

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