By Tamara Dyer, Orca Parent and Volunteer
I recently interviewed Orca K-8 Head Teacher Donte Felder, about Orca K-8’s middle school Film and Theater Academy. It was inspiring to be on the 3rd floor, to visit a classroom, and to hear more about the work our AWESOME Orca K-8 middle school students are engaged in. :) Here's a transcript of the 10-minute interview:
Tamara: I had the recent pleasure of visiting one of Orca K-8’s Film and Theater Academy classes with 7th and 8th grade students. The students were excited and engaged. You were working with students on character development and asking students to be very aware of environment and personal details within a piece of writing they were reading together. When I went away and continued to think about what I’d observed in class, I had the distinct impression I had seen students engage in the craft of writing and at the same time I felt like there was something foundational to the human experience being communicated, shared, and created in the class. How does the Film and Theater Academy connect to social justice, which is a theme that is central to the Orca K-8 school community?
Donte: The Film and Theater Academy focuses on storytelling, and storytelling is all about passing information along to help your next generation survive. When you’re telling stories through a screenplay, you are intentionally communicating a thesis statement, theme, or set of values, morals, and lessons to the reader so that the reader can learn through each character’s experience about how the character made mistakes, persevered through adversity, or successfully interacted with community. Everything in the classroom is super intentional. What we teach is not necessarily for school, it’s teaching for life. The goal of the Film and Theater Academy is for students to integrate a number of themes and to pass them forward through the craft of writing so that others can learn as well. It’s an opportunity for students to share and pass knowledge forward.
In the Film and Theater Academy, we give students tools to help them navigate through their world and to help shape their world. As students create and become allies, characters, and archetypes, they begin to make their own story. The students make their micro or individual story and together as a class we also make a macro or class community story.
Within the Film and Theater Academy, genre is not of primary importance. As teachers, what we are looking for is the lesson the students are communicating through their work. And, we start at the foundational level. We create from the bottom up. And, it’s not about reading and circling words. There’s a lot of dissection, analysis, and processing that we do as a class before students get to the place where they are creating their own pieces. Anybody can create, but did you go through the necessary steps in order for your work to be of quality?
Tamara: It sounds like you are teaching students how to create their own myths, in line with all ancient traditions and the work of Joseph Campbell.
Donte: Yes. Although Shakespeare’s work was written centuries ago, as a class we pull themes from Othello and Macbeth and we see how these themes apply to the real world experience, today.
When students create their own stories in the Film and Theater Academy, students are communicating to all of us and future generations, “this is what I’ve learned in my school and on my block and in my community, this is the trauma that I’m dealing with, and this is what you can learn to help you navigate through your own experience.”
Tamara: I feel like your class is an opportunity for students to record their life experience, to formally sort through it, and start thinking about their own power.
Donte: Yes. It’s interesting, because when students go from their screenplays to the completion of their American Dream essays, some of the students start to see that their character over here in their fictional world may not be able to access the American Dream they just wrote about over there. They see that there are parallel tracks that are going on in real life. In the Film and Theater Academy, we show students the allegories that are being shared through film making and let the students see directors talking about what they are trying to achieve through their work, through Star Wars, the Twilight Zone, and a number of other works. Students within Orca K-8’s Film and Theater Academy as well as famous screenwriters and directors ask the same questions: “what’s going on in our communities, what’s destroying our communities?” And then they offer solutions for “here’s how we can stop it.”
Tamara: So your students have these intimate screenplays where they have characters that they love, characters they’ve created that are reflective of parts of themselves, and some of your students start to see that some of their beloved characters aren’t going to make it, aren’t going to achieve the American Dream. What do you do to help them from there? Where do they go with that realization?
Donte: We give them tools and talents to say “if I don’t have access to ‘your’ American Dream, I’m going to build my own!” We give them tools to understand their own value and worth so that they will go out and build their own. If they don’t have access to quality medical care, they can study, become a doctor and bring their talent back to the community. If they don’t have access to the music industry, they can create their own music. There will be obstacles and roadblocks in the path, but if you have tools and strategies you can navigate through those, if you choose to do so.
Tamara: Elect yourself.
Donte: Exactly, elect yourself, build your community, be a good person.
When you look closely at your world, your community, you start to identify your values and your strengths. And, when you understand that that is the fertile ground you are planted in, you start to see that you are never separate from those things, you are of those things.
The essence of learning comes down to your senses. If those senses aren’t being deliberately taught and cultivated, we all lose. This relates to Howard Gardener’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. At Orca K8 there are myriad ways for us as educators to recognize diverse intelligence and say to students, “I recognize your talent here, and I recognize your talent there, I see your gifts.”