Video production experiences widen middle schoolers’ views

KAHULUI – Crammed onto three couches and overflowing onto the floor, students with Maui Waena Intermediate School’s Technology Club pitched story ideas like a high-powered newsroom last week.

“(Student) elections are coming up, right?” one asked. “How about interviewing those running for all the positions?”

“What about a weather report?” another said.

“We should do more music videos,” a third student said. “Students like the music videos.”

The approximately 30 students in the 6th through 8th grades had just finished assigning jobs for their video production teams that report on school news and other current events. The club is run under the supervision of teacher Jennifer Suzuki.

“Guys, we have to start doing harder news – we can’t just keep doing fluff stuff,” Suzuki said to her students. “I don’t know how many (teachers) are going to watch a 20-minute music video.”

In her fourth year overseeing the club, Suzuki has helped her students win state and national awards, including their most recent haul at the 2013 HMSA Teen Video Awards in Honolulu. The Kahului intermediate school swept the Best Middle School category and took first place in the “Addiction Prevention” category this year.

“The kids are still way better at the cameras than me, and they get mad at me sometimes,” she said jokingly. “Every day I’m learning something new. All I have to do is be here and have the door open and try to help create the foundation of what they’re trying to do.

“But the technology – that’s more than I can handle, so they’ll have to teach each other that.”

Suzuki joined the school about 14 years ago as an English teacher, teaching reading comprehension and essay writing to 8th-graders. That changed, however, when Principal Jamie Yap asked her about being an electives teacher.

“I kind of got to pick what I wanted to teach . . . and asked him if I could do journalism and videos,” she said. “It was crazy, but it was fun. . . . I didn’t have any computers until the end of the first quarter, so I was teaching students how to use (them) with a pencil and paper.”

Since taking the position, Suzuki has enrolled in as many technology and video classes as she can, including a three-day workshop in April with the PBS Student Reporting Lab in Washington, D.C. At the workshop, about 26 teachers from around the country were taught how broadcast television is produced and were given a curriculum for their students.

“I’m an English teacher, not a journalism teacher. So I like reading a lot of Shakespeare,” Suzuki said. “I just went online and applied for this to find a curriculum because it’s so hard to teach. When they asked if I was willing to come, I said, ‘Of course.’ “

On the first day of the workshop, Suzuki, who was the only Hawaii educator accepted, toured the “PBS NewsHour” studio and control room. The following day, teachers separated into groups of four and were tasked to produce a two- to three-minute story from their topic.

“We had to make a story so we knew what the kids go through,” she said.

Suzuki’s group was given a location – Arlington National Cemetery, where they found an Army veteran visiting the grave of a friend who was recently killed in Afghanistan. Each group had about six hours to shoot and edit the story before submitting it that night. The videos were reviewed the next morning, and every teacher was given a binder with the other participants’ contact information.

“It really opened my eyes,” Suzuki said of the experience. “I now have another 25 teachers across the nation that I can call on, run ideas by and get advice from. It just gives me a sense of security that even when I have a hard time I have help.”

Along with her newfound experience, Suzuki’s class has been included in the PBS lab, where their videos will run on the website and possibly air on television.

“When I was going to school, I don’t know if I was exposed to any of these opportunities,” Suzuki said. “These kids are meeting with PBS on Google Hangouts, and if we can get a story at their level, they can get their story on the ‘PBS NewsHour.’

“It’s incredible that a small school on Maui can get that sort of exposure.”

Maui Waena is the first school in the state to be included in the nationwide program and will produce one story per semester on topics such as poverty, education and immigration. The story is in addition to work with PBS Hawaii’s half-hour student newscast, “Hiki No,” for which the students are required to produce two stories a semester, and a weekly show for the school on Mondays.

“I think it’s going to be really stressful,” said 8th-grader Jaelyn Onnagan, who has been in the program since the 6th grade and whose role is a designer. “It’s going to be a lot of work and a lot of yelling.

“But we’re going to try really hard to get our videos shown nationally, and hopefully people are going to like it.”

Fellow 8th-grader Kaycee Arase, a reporter who also has been in the program since the 6th grade, said that she was nervous about the prospects of airing on PBS.

“It’s a new challenge, but we’re excited to be getting national attention,” she said.

The club has already attracted newcomers. Eighth-grader Marione Agpaoa joined for the first time as designer.

“After watching what they do for Falcon Features, I thought it was cool and I really wanted to do that,” Marione said, noting the effects and designs of the short video segments about students and teachers.

Suzuki is looking to use the curriculum provided at the workshop to help herself and her students to be more organized and produce content on deadline.

“(PBS) has broken it down into steps with 15 badges,” she said. “The interview is one badge, finding sound bites are another – it really breaks it down for students and makes it easier for them to keep track of their progress.”

Suzuki also is adding eight computers to her classroom – enough for every student.

“I really want to get the kids to be thinking about what’s going on in the world around them and stories that appeal to them and their community,” Suzuki said. “I want them to be consumers of news and analyze it, so they can create stories that are unbiased and interesting.”

Watching the students “busting their tails” and throwing story ideas around, Suzuki said she is confident this year will be “more organized.”

“It looks kind of chaotic on the outside, but they’re learning a lot,” she said.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at