For the children in Gulf Coast communities that were ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, telling their stories and sharing their emotions is a valuable step in the healing process. This past summer, many of these students had the chance to do just that by scripting, shooting, and editing their own digital films, thanks to a series of technology summer camps in the affected areas.

Organized by the Pearson Foundation, the philanthropic branch of educational publisher Pearson Inc., along with cellular provider Nokia Inc., these “Digital Arts Summer Camps” have given approximately 500 middle-school students from New Orleans, Plaquemines Parish, La., and Bay St. Louis, Miss., the chance to learn valuable technology skills while also channeling their creativity.

Working together in small teams over the course of intensive, week-long workshops, camp participants used the latest in cell-phone and computer technologies to script, shoot, and edit digital films that combined their personal stories and reflections about Katrina with their hopes for the future of their communities. The results are an astonishing group of personal films that chronicle the students’ experiences.

On the eve of the one-year anniversary of Katrina, about 300 camp participants and their families gathered in New Orleans to show off their creations. During the Mobile Learning Institute Gulf Coast Film Festival, held at the W New Orleans Hotel on Aug. 28, the students also learned their films would have a wide distribution–and they’ll become part of the permanent historical record for future generations.

Officials from Nokia and the Pearson Foundation presented discs with all 150-plus student-created films to libraries based on the Gulf Coast, including the American Red Cross, Tulane University Library, Historic New Orleans Collection, Hancock County Historical Society, New Orleans Public Library, and Plaquemines Parish Public Library.

In addition, the National Geographic Channel and the Smithsonian Network announced plans to share these films with a national audience. The films will be broadcast on National Geographic on Demand beginning in September, and they’ll air on the Smithsonian Network later this year.

A report on the project appears in the September print issue of eSchool News, and you may view a video clip about the students’ work here: http://www.eschoolnews.com/marc/player3.cfm?v=80&f=94&cashbuster=1157019809843

“These are amazing films,” said Lisa Ling, a correspondent for the National Geographic Channel and host of the Aug. 28 event. “And these are absolutely amazing young people. They’ve helped report the impact Hurricane Katrina continues to have on their communities and in their own lives. In the process, they’ve demonstrated how important it is for people all over the United States to continue to care about the residents of the Gulf Coast.”

The first camp was held in Plaquemines Parish, an area 10 miles south of New Orleans that was devastated by Katrina. Terry Smithson, educational strategist for Intel Corp. and founding manager of the Hurricane Educational Leadership Program (HELP), a coalition of more than 30 ed-tech companies and organizations dedicated to restoring education to Gulf Coast communities, described the genesis of the summer-camp program:

“We went to Plaquemines Parish, and here’s what became painfully obvious: There are no playgrounds; there are no shopping malls; there are no movie theaters; there are no sports complexes; there are no golf courses–I mean, everything is gone. And when you think about all these children, thousands of children across the Gulf Coast who are sitting in 10- by 20-foot [FEMA-issued temporary housing] trailers–they have no outlet for anything to do through the summertime. So Mark Nieker, the president of the Pearson Foundation, came up with the idea of doing the summer digital-arts camps.”

The camps were split into four class periods. The first of these was an English-language period, in which students were asked to write about their Katrina experiences; the second was a digital-arts period, in which students learned to use college-level movie-making software to take the Katrina story written in the first period and make it into a movie.

The last two periods of the summer camps were a physical-education period and an elective period that featured cooking and drama.

How meaningful was the experience for students?

“The students would come up and say [something like], ‘This [movie-making course] was so important to me, because this is my first outlet to be able to share what I think. I can’t talk about this at home. My parents are always fighting; they don’t have any money, because they are waiting for insurance payments; they haven’t gotten anything. We don’t want to bring [our feelings] up, because it’s a burden.’ Those were the kinds of comments we have received,” Smithson said.

At the Aug. 28 film festival, about 40 computer workstations were set up, each containing a complete collection of the students’ films. Students could show their own movies to their families and also view the works of others.

“This was a great way for everyone involved to get a sense of the breadth of the program,” said Nieker of the Pearson Foundation. Giving a complete archive of the students’ work to local historical societies is also a way for the project to have “some lasting impact,” he said.

In addition, Nokia and the Pearson Foundation announced that the digital-arts program would be extended this fall to schools in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Plaquemines Parish, and Algiers Parish, La., and to schools in Bay St. Louis/Waveland, Miss.–so this kind of work can be done with students throughout the school year.

“This event is really something special for our children,” said Sandra Reed, a principal in Mississippi’s Bay/Waveland School District. “They’re presenting their work to their families and to other students. They’re seeing that people all over the country are eager to help them share their stories. Most important, they’re seeing that all over the Gulf Coast, we’re still all rebuilding and recovering from Katrina together.” Samples of the videos that students have produced can be viewed at the program’s web site.

Links:

Pearson Foundation/Nokia Mobile Learning Institute
http://pearsonfoundation.org/MLI

HELP Arrives microsite
http://www.eschoolnews.com/helparrives