I am reminded why I teach…

Pic of a girl in Newtok that wanted me to take her photo
Pic of a girl in Newtok that wanted me to take her photo

During the final day with the backpack journalism students, I told them about a time when I used to teach drawing classes. I loved teaching drawing. I really did.

Many beginning drawing students, though, would start off the semester lamenting that they “can’t draw a straight line” and some were even apparently intimidated by my art. I’d always respond, “I can’t draw a straight line, either. I use a ruler.”

Drawing doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Regardless, like any other ability, I am convinced that with the proper training and encouragement, anyone can learn to draw. I would make sure they understood that pushing a pencil across a piece of paper was the easy part. It was learning to see and interpret what you see that was the challenge, and I promised I would teach them each how to do that.

After weeks of instruction and progressively more difficult assignments we would eventually arrive at the Final Critique Day. They would hang their final projects and pat each other on the back. The students, those same students that began the semester rendering skewed perspectives of clumsy coffee cups, would bestow giddy praise upon their fellow classmates as they admired each other’s drawings while I watched silently from the back of the room.

Once the class settled into their seats in front of their remarkable artwork hanging on the wall, we’d share a moment of admiration for the work they had produced.

Then, I would usually say, “I thought you told me at the beginning of the semester that you couldn’t draw?”

The smiles on their faces and the pride in their work was always a joy to witness.

These backpack journalism trips are very similar. We would start each summer with a week-long Video Boot Camp where they would experience quick and intense instruction on the operation of audio and video equipment and learn basic video framing and lighting techniques. We’d discuss the differences between apertures, shutter speeds, ISO settings and white balance. It is challenging for everyone, and to be honest, most students get a bit wigged out.

Seriously, go back and read the first posts they wrote before we left for Alaska. The overall greatest concerns were about using intimidating equipment and worrying they wouldn’t be able to contribute good work to the film.

However, video, just like drawing, is less about the tools than it is about learning to see and figuring out how to best capture what they see through the lens. It’s basically about finding a visual way to tell a story through a series of clips.

Some of the students were rockstars because they had already been in at least one of my video courses and had solid previous experience. The less experienced students paid close attention and shadowed the more experienced ones until they felt comfortable taking key roles in each shoot.

While in Alaska, I would give impromptu critiques and advice and remind them of the things we discussed during Video Boot Camp. I can always tell whether we were capturing enough to assemble a film once we return. If we weren’t, I’d tell them to get more B-roll, and they would happily comply.

When we got back to Creighton, we initially had the arduous task of organizing and naming all our footage. We’d split up into a writing group and a video editing group. Then, we’d hammer away for a week until we had something resembling a story.

We don’t end the class with a finished film. We’ve never been able to do that. We do, however, usually end with a rough cut that generally resembles the final film. Watching the film on the final day is something like looking at the drawing students’ final projects hanging on the wall. You can hear them shuffling in their seats, happy that a great shot they captured made it into the film. You can hear the subtle gasps when they see, for the first time, the sequences that their fellow classmates constructed,.

After watching the film, I like to say, “You created a film in just a few weeks. That’s amazing.”

I encourage them to pat each other on the back, once again.

It’s a joy, and at that moment on the final day of class, whether seeing the proud expressions on the faces of the drawing students or the faces of the video students, I am pleasantly content.

I am reminded why I teach.

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