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Curriculum Update

School students interpret classic literature with modern tech

New Rochelle High School's writing/filmmaking program works with the English high school curriculum
ACTION—Students at New Rochelle High School in Westchester County, New York, write and shoot their interpretations of classic literature as part of English curriculum.
ACTION—Students at New Rochelle High School in Westchester County, New York, write and shoot their interpretations of classic literature as part of English curriculum.

“Lights, device, action!”

This is what’s going on at New Rochelle High School, about 20 miles north of New York City, where students use smartphones and tablets to create short movies based on classic works of literature.

The school’s writing and filmmaking program, which heavily employs mobile devices, works in conjunction with the English high school curriculum.

In one class, students “pitch” their own versions of movies based on short stories, such as “Total Recall” or “The Ransom of Red Chief,” and then craft a screenplay, learning elements of writing during the process.

In another class, students create three- to five-minute movies derived from poems; this year students interpreted sonnets such as Shakespeare’s “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun (Sonnet 130)” and “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” by Mary Elizabeth Frye.

In the “Page to Screen” class, students look at different aspects of filmmaking, including the dynamics of a story, and then have to create and shoot an original documentary.

Students also learn how to organize their time, work in teams, and project-manage by coordinating one-day filming sessions where they record all the footage to be used. Every member of each class participates in the process, either behind or in front of the camera.

“The kids think it’s a film class, but at its heart it’s an English class, because we’re taking this traditional subject, where there’s supposed to be reading and writing, and we’re doing it all by using technology,” says Anthony Stirpe, the English/PAVE (performing and visual arts experience) teacher who developed the curriculum.

Mobile devices provide student-friendly technology for recording and editing, and at low cost. For example, five iPad Pros cost as much as one film camera. “It may not work for Martin Scorsese, but it works for a ninth-grade English classroom,” says Stirpe.

Free or inexpensive apps—such as iMovie, a video-making program, or Celtx, a screenwriting platform—also defray expenses. In addition, Stirpe reaches out to app developers, such as Filmic Pro, which provided free access to software.

The program has benefitted from the donation of old smartphones and tablets as well; donors receive documentation from the school so they can claim it when filing tax returns.

Creative risks

Other schools can develop a similar program. Aside from having the mobile devices, apps and software, districts need to also have a supportive administration and teachers who are willing to take a creative risk and understand that students will still pass standardized tests, says Stirpe.

Adapting literature for a film treatment, or a written outline, helps students analyze key material just as well as writing a traditional essay.

Teachers also need to trust that students will treat the experience as seriously as normal classroom work. “Kids want to tell their stories,” Stirpe says. “What’s exciting is when they come running back in after summer and say, ‘You have to see the movie I made!’”