Documentary filmmaking in the classroom

Drawing on students' enthusiasm and engagement with the medium of film, David Chapman decided to introduce a documentary filmmaking unit in his Year 7 English lessons.

‘Generally speaking, when you go to film, you get much higher student engagement than many other text types. I think it's that combination of the visual and auditory, and also complex storytelling that will capture students,' he tells Teacher.

‘And they're also much higher consumers of film than they are of long form writing such as novels. A lot of students might only read one or two novels a year under duress, but they'll watch a multitude of films or TV, so they're used to that format, they're engaged by it.'

Chapman is the Assistant Principal of Teaching and Learning at Macquarie College in Newcastle, New South Wales. Three years ago, a program was developed for Year 7 students that combined Maths, Science and English lessons. As part of this project, students made a documentary on an environmental issue, while also learning how to collect and analyse data.

The program has since changed, and in 2020 students will still be making environmental documentaries as part of their English lessons, but it won't formally involve the other subject disciplines.

‘It's still essentially the same project in that it's an environmental documentary project that I use in conjunction with a novel study actually,' Chapman says. ‘So we're studying a novel about environmental issues and I have them do this documentary on the side.'

As part of the project, students are required to investigate a topic, conduct interviews, collect data, film visuals and put together a five-minute documentary film. In previous years, Chapman has tried to encourage students to focus on local issues that they can directly relate to.

‘We had students investigating water quality at our local beaches in Newcastle and ways a community can ensure that they're doing their best to keep water quality. We had students investigating the condition of our local dam and where the water run off goes into and we have students investigating the condition of that dam. We had students investigating the waste system at our school, how much we're recycling or should be recycling – that kind of thing,' Chapman shares.

When it comes to interviews, he says a lot of students draw on the expertise of people they know – friends or relatives – while others make contact with scientists at universities or local politicians. They are taught specific skills in how to approach somebody for an interview, how to draft a polite email, how to ask questions and how to follow up afterwards. Students work in groups of up to five to put together their documentaries.

Students film their documentaries on their phones and do most of the editing on their laptops. Chapman says it would be natural for teachers to worry about their own understanding of the technology required to put together a documentary, but students generally have a good grasp of the skills required.

‘The reality is that I've found, in my experience … the students know how to do it or they teach themselves,' Chapman says. ‘So there's actual minimal assistance needed, a little bit of prompting now and again, but usually within a group or within a class there was enough knowledge for them to use whatever devices they had.'

Much like the students from previous years, the cohort doing this unit this year will be guided through the process by a learning resource developed by the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) Media Lab. Chapman, who also sits on the AFTRS Schools Advisory Committee, says the resource can be used in its entirety, or pulled apart and used to focus on particular skills.

‘The Media Lab resources at the moment are a series of good quality information in some different PDF documents. And so what I was able to do was pull out relevant sheets that assisted the students – for example there would be some frameworks around how to lay out your scripts or how to organise your shooting list and things like that.

‘And so while I would present that material in class before we started, it was a really good resource to refer to and have the students have next to them as they worked. They didn't need to write down every word I said, they had this extra resource there to follow to help them. It filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge perhaps and certainly the students' knowledge.'

Chapman says the Media Lab resources are certainly something he'd recommend to other teachers, particularly those who are unfamiliar with the medium of film. ‘Certainly I hope AFTRS continues to create more of the resources because it's a fantastic resource that's provided free to teachers,' he says.

Have you tried documentary filmmaking with your students? What skills did they already have? What are some areas they required additional support with? How did you go about providing this support?

AFTRS Media Lab provides media arts resources to Australian primary and secondary teachers and students. AFTRS has also created similar resources for filmmaking, podcasting, screenwriting and stop motion. To download the Media Lab documentary resource, visit the AFTRS website.