A Sense of Ownership

Subjects: Digital Literacy, Technology
Grade Level: N/A

By William Weber

It’s not that unusual for a city the size of Saco, Maine (pop. 18,000) to have its own TV station, complete with local news, weather, and sports. But it is a bit unique when that station is run by high school students.

Credit for this goes to Ray Lund, visual arts teacher at Thornton Academy, a privately run, publicly funded regional high school in southern Maine and winner of a 2009 Cable’s Leaders in Learning Award.

Ten years ago, Lund decided that video ought to join the broad-based arts curriculum he oversaw because it was the up-and-coming medium. Not that he had any experience with video himself. “It was learn the night before and teach the next day,” he remembers. And all the work was with camcorders and VHS cassettes—pretty old-school gear by today’s standards.
But nonetheless, Lund and his students started learning about video and began producing programs and video segments about their school and community.

A class field trip to the local Time Warner Cable offices sparked the next stage in Lund’s video adventure.

“They were really gracious,” he recalls. “They gave us a tour of the entire operation, top to bottom. Not just the technical side and their studio, but they talked about management and the head engineer explained a lot of concepts to the kids.
And when the kids got back, they said ‘we’re going to do our own station. We’re going to do this, just on a smaller scale.’ They got the whole concept of what’s involved in a television production. So that visit was the seed of an idea. It took off.”

In fact, that visit led Lund’s students to approach Saco’s city leaders for help in setting up a local channel, something the community did not already have. According to Lund, unlike many other communities across the country, Saco didn’t use its cable franchise fees to support a PEG channel (a mix of public-access, educational, and government programming), opting instead to keep the money in the city’s coffers for tax relief.

So when the students made a formal request for $10,000 to buy the equipment needed to go on the air, the city fathers were a bit cautious. “They said, ‘we’ll give you $5,000 if you can match it.’ Which they did,” Lund says proudly. “And as we went into the 21st century at midnight, we went on the air with our first show.”

Tapping a Desire

Today, Thornton Academy students cobble together a combination of city funds, grants, and donations to operate TATV, a 24/7/365 cable station—the first student-run station in the nation—that provides a full complement of news, weather, sports, and general programming. The students make all the decisions about what to air when and they do all of the filming, hosting, and production work required.

Part of the programming comes about as a result of classes Lund offers at Thornton – three in digital imaging and two in television production. The beginning-level classes are half-year courses that introduce kids to the basics of filming, editing, and producing programs. The advanced classes do ongoing shows, with the types of programs dependent on that year’s students’ interests and experience.

“If they’re sort of green, we’ll just do Academy Connections, which is our news show,” Lund explains. “This year, I have a great class and we’re doing Academy Connections and Eye in the Sky. We have a student who’s into weather, so this is his baby. And we also have a Community Bulletin Board, which showcases and announces community events.”

Eight other shows – for a total of 10 hours of original programming – round out the line-up, including Inside the Chinese Culture, a show on the interests of the Chinese students who are in Thornton’s boarding program; Maine Outdoors, run by a student who is a fan of hunting and fishing; and Teen Talk, which looks at dating, dating abuse, and positive activities for teens. 

“All of the shows have evolved from a student’s desire to do it,” Lund says. “And that’s what’s great about the station – the ownership is just phenomenal. The whole cooperative learning piece really comes alive – what I call ‘authentic learning.’ It becomes very real for them. And I think young adults and kids in high school need that kind of authentic learning, above and beyond the theory and the classroom and taking tests and that sort of thing.”

Aside from the three shows produced by Lund’s video-and-TV classes, all other programming – and all other station operations – are run by upper-class students who take part in an extracurricular, after-school program. “They become leaders of the station, right across the board, from the
station manager to the gaffer,” Lund says.  “I have 14 leaders now and then there’s a staff that supports them.”

These leaders, especially the station manager and program manger, put a lot of time into the station. “They’re in there every day,” Lund says. “They can take an independent study block and earn credit if they’re a station leader. But you never get it done in that block, so they’re doing it in the morning or after school.

“There also are the events we have to tape outside of the school day – evenings and weekends and things like that,” Lund notes. These include city council meetings (“The city saw we were airing all these great things, so all of a sudden they piggybacked on us!” Lund laughs) and live high school sports events.

The Local Lineup

The students at Thornton Academy currently produce 11 original shows, including:

  • Community Bulletin Board– news and events around Saco, Maine;
  • The Issue-- current political and social topics;
  • Local Rhythm– showcasing schoolwide and community musical talent;
  • The Final Score– Thornton teams sports coverage, plus commentary on statewide and national sports;
  • Teen Talk– teen topics, themes, and concerns ;
  • <Insert Title Here>-- wild and wacky hosts present creative and humorous student-produced segments;
  • Eye On The Sky– local weather and fun facts;
  • Action Sports– reports on skateboarding, skiing, and other recreational sports;
  • Inside the Chinese CultureChinese boardingstudents fromChinashare their language, customs, and life style.

The plan for what is to be shot and aired each week is set at a meeting on Monday afternoons. “The students learn how to run a meeting and use an agenda. It’s amazing,” Lund says. “Our meetings are usually 20 minutes, and the week is set.”

Because TATV is a fulltime operation, in addition to looping some shows for repeat airings, the student managers also review and select programs available for download from other PEG centers in Maine and across the country. The current line-up includes a Cajun cooking series from Maine, two series on Maine’s lighthouses and historic places, and a traffic show called Perils for Pedestrians.

Community Support

“It just amazes me that the community has embraced its young adults this way,” Lund says. “We’re Saco’s only station… and the kids have total control of the content. [The city has] entrusted them with the community’s channel, and the kids decide what goes on when.

“Sure, they’ve had some stumbling blocks; that’s part of the educational experience,” he adds. “Once in a while you get somebody who says, ‘well, I didn’t like that.’ But I have to explain that this is a laboratory, and they’re learning, and they’re going to stumble once in a while. We had an issue where the headmaster was going to pull a show after the first episode. He thought the students were talking off the top of their heads on topics and things like that. And I said, ‘give it time.’

 “I worked with the host of the show, and his growth over four years was phenomenal. He ended up being the student- television student of the year for all of the work he did covering politics in Maine. He got interviews with the governor and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The local independent station asked him to create his own youth-in-politics show for them. He became very knowledgeable and he developed this great on-air personality. And that’s what our program is about – giving young adults the opportunity to take advantage of the resources available to them.

“It’s like a high school athlete who gets to take advantage of the athletic program to excel. Here, it’s a broadcast journalism program that’s part of the visual arts program,” Lund says. “I think for the 21st-century worker, creativity, problem solving, and cooperative learning are integral parts of what we need to develop in young adults, and the television programming and digital imaging that we do is just made for that kind of learning experience in an authentic way.”

And it’s not just the high-achievers and super-kids at this 1,200-student school who flourish in Lund’s program. “I have a student who was in the special-needs program. He was eager and loved learning, and now he’s working with Teleview Racing Patrol; he installs audio and video equipment around the country for harness racing. The kid is having a phenomenal experience. There’s another kid who’s working for Carnival Cruises out of Florida; another who installs the on-board entertainment on cruise ships. A girl who was great in management during high school – she’s scouting locations for movies for an international outfit. There’s another in Los Angeles who has a production company, and another is with Jim Hensen Studios. There are all of these different levels in this industry.”

Lund’s classes and after-school program give his students enough of a leg up that several Maine college-level programs allow Thornton students to skip past their intro courses. “They absolutely love the students we send them, because they’re so well prepared for the college curriculum,” Lund says.

Read Your Resources

It takes a certain type of teacher and school to launch a program such as Thornton’s TATV, Lund observes. “All of this technology costs money, so if you aren’t willing to go beyond the 7–3 o’clock scenario when it comes to finding the resources you need, then it’s not going to work for you. You have to go out and beat the bushes a little bit to find some funding sources. You have to read the resources in your own community.

“You also have to be willing to rework your pedagological practices,” he warns, adding with a laugh, “it upsets administrators when you do that. Some like the straight-and-narrow kind of thing. But if you’re going to have a program that is dynamic and organic by nature, you’ve got to work a little out of the box and come up with innovative ways to engage young adults in the learning process.

“In a way, you’re inventing something,” Lund says. “You’ve taken these resources that you’ve tapped into and you’ve created this little monster, and hopefully it will take off. And if you nurture it, and watch over it, and constantly reevaluate what you’re doing, you can give kids ownership.

“I think some of this also is about tapping what we know as educators,” he adds. “We know that authentic learning works. Research shows that. We also know that we need to have students connect what they already know with this new knowledge that they have to attain. And you have to set a high standard to attain. You have to set the bar high. You have to say, ‘If you come into this, you know that you’ve got to break a sweat.’

“And it’s not just the content that students have to learn. They also have to learn how to work with people, how to communicate with people. And that’s one of the things I absolutely love about teaching. I have freshmen to seniors and they’re engaged in this very dynamic and organic process, and some of them stumble and fall flat on their face, and we help them meet with success. That’s what you celebrate as an educator – you get them to feel that, ‘Hey, I own this, and I’m doing a pretty good job,’ and ‘hey, that was a nice package that we created.’ Sure, sometimes there’s a rotten apple in the barrel, but that’s the nature of the beast.”

Related Resources

TATV at Thornton Academy


TATV on SchoolTube.com


Cable in the Classroom 2009 Cable Partnership for Learning video


Read about other Leaders in Learning winners at www.ciconline.org/profiles

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