Students tackle big topics through documentary filmmaking

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Gigi Darnell (left), Jaxton Schroeder and Dacia Schoulte are among the eighth graders in Scott Boylen’s language arts classes who are creating their own documentaries. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

Kaylee Bachman (left), Riley Moreland and Carlie Jones are working on a documentary about Walz Energy.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Only a few months removed from writing their own novels, MFL MarMac eighth graders are now adding documentary filmmaking to their list of accomplishments.

The process began earlier this semester, when students in Scott Boylen’s language arts classes watched several documentaries, identifying the unique features of documentary filmmaking. They also learned about proper interviewing and filming techniques.

Now, after researching a topic of interest, the students—split into small groups—have begun interviewing multiple sources in order to further investigate their topics.

They’ll eventually utilize iMovie to turn these interviews, along with visual imagery and other narration, into a short documentary. The documentaries will be shot using a mixture of smartphones and iPads.

Boylen said he first had students create documentaries last year, as a more interesting alternative to the standard research paper.

“They still have to do research and write a paper, but this is another avenue to do some of that,” he said. “When there’s a film instead of just a paper, it makes them think in a multi-plain way, with the visual component, audio and text.”

The documentary topics have covered a broad range, from sports and video games to whether money makes people happy. Some groups are even tackling some hotly-contested local and national issues.

Kaylee Bachman, Carlie Jones and Riley Moreland, for example, are focusing their documentary on the Walz Energy facility under construction near Monona.

“It’s been all over. It’s a really big thing,” Jones said of why the group gravitated toward the topic.

“We got into an argument about it,” Moreland added, “so we said ‘We might as well do it.’”

As of last week, the girls had spoken with Jon Haman, Walz Energy’s chief operating officer.

“It was interesting,” Bachman shared. “He really explained everything in detail.”

They also have plans to speak with neighbors of the Walz Energy site, a representative from the Clayton County Conservation Awareness Network and an official from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

“There’s a lot to this,” Jones noted.

Meanwhile, their fellow classmates, Jaxton Schroeder, Gigi Darnell and Dacia Schoulte, have been tackling a sensitive topic of their own: gun control.

Choosing the topic was a bit scary, since it’s so controversial, said Schroeder.

“The two sides are really passionate. There’s not a lot of in-between space,” he remarked. “But we’re not saying one is right or wrong.”

The group plans to conduct interviews with veterans, gun owners, teachers, the school guidance counselor and those who feel the easy access to guns may be causing school shootings.

Boylen said he allows students to select their own topics. He won’t offer his own personal opinions, but will help them figure out sources to contact.

“I like being involved and helping them. It’s fun,” he said. “I’m always impressed with what they do if you give them room to be creative.”

That independence is key, Darnell said. 

“If you choose a topic you’re interested in, it’s easier and a lot more fun,” she shared.

For many of the students, shooting videos in this manner presents a new and engaging challenge.

“I didn’t know what a documentary was,” Bachman stated. “Now, I know what it can be.”

The documentary project also takes them outside their comfort zones.

“This is teaching us not just information, but also how to talk to people we’ve never met,” Jones said.

Schoulte said reaching sources is sometimes difficult.

“We have a lot of contacts who aren’t around here,” she said, noting that she’s been forced to write better, professional emails because of that.

“That whole interview process is great for them,” Boylen commented. “They have to communicate on a whole bunch of different levels—with each other and outside school in a professional manner. The real-world application and communication skills are important.”

Boylen said the students’ documentaries can be viewed on Thursday, April 19, at the McGregor Center’s annual “Celebration of Education.” He also hopes to schedule a viewing event in the high school auditorium this spring, allowing students, parents and community members to watch the documentaries on a big screen.

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