Looking for ‘Aha’ Moments

Subjects: Digital Literacy, Technology
Grade Level: All

By William Weber

Each year in the spring, residents of the rural Illinois communities of Effingham and Teutopolis gather in a local theater for a film festival. It’s a special evening that showcases brand new films by first-time directors and writers, who happen to be area high school juniors and seniors. The short films cover a range of genres—from poignant documentaries and laugh-out-loud animations to mysteries and dramas—with juried prizes being awarded for direction, filmmaking craft, writing, and other categories. The evening is generally as inspiring as it is entertaining.

“It’s an amazing thing when people come to our film festival,” says educator Joe Fatheree, who for the past decade has partnered with filmmaker Craig Lindvahl to co-teach and run the high school media program that culminates in the festival. “We have one of the top-ranked football teams in Illinois. It’s not uncommon to come to a football game and see 4,000 to 5,000 fans waiting to get a seat. But how often do you see people getting in line and waiting for hours to see kids’ homework? You just don’t. But in Effingham, you will—1,500 of them will line up at the door starting at 4:30 in the afternoon for a 7:30 p.m. show, or they’ll call months ahead of time to get tickets.

“It’s a celebration of academic achievement for our kids. And at the end of the festival, you’ll see 1,500 people rise and give the kids a 10- or 15-minute ovation—for their homework,” he says. “And I think that’s the way every community should operate. Whether you have a film festival or not, there’s always an opportunity to celebrate the academic achievement of our kids.”

Two Paths to One Goal

The multimedia program that produces the festival is as inspiring as the two men who dared to dream up the idea and sell it to their two neighboring school districts in 1998. For their innovative work, they were honored as 2009 Cable’s Leaders in Learning Award winners for General Excellence.

Craig Lindvahl is a well-regarded documentary filmmaker; holder of a dozen Mid America Emmy Awards for writing, producing, directing, filming, and composing; recipient of a Studs Terkel Award for contributions to the humanities; a Milken National Educator Award winner; and two-time finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year. In between film projects as diverse as professional baseball, young Abraham Lincoln, and Midwestern barns, he has taught high school film and media as well as entrepreneurship in Teutopolis, a town of 1,500, for nearly two decades.

Joe Fatheree is the 2006-07 Illinois Teacher of the Year and recipient of a 2009 NEA Award for Teaching Excellence. Back in the early 1990s, he was a history teacher in neighboring Effingham (population 12,000), who seized on an opportunity to stretch his knowledge—and ultimately stretch the boundaries for his community’s students—when he met Lindvahl and ended up assisting on Lindvahl’s next film project, a documentary about five local Vietnam War soldiers.  

Fatheree’s growing interest in film and visual communication led him to take a gamble on something he’d never tried before.

“I had met a man who ran 17 school districts in Zimbabwe,” Fatheree recalls, “and he asked me if there was any way for us to put together an animated story book that would teach English to the children of Mozambique refugees who were flooding over the border. I said, ’I’m sure we can do that’, though I didn’t have a clue what to do. But we had computers integrated into our school in 1994 or ‘95 and we were seeing the benefits of computers in the classroom. It didn’t take me long to see how our kids mastered the technology. So I went to school one day and asked three students in an afterschool program ‘can we do this?’ and they said, ‘Absolutely, and we’ve got to use Flash.’ And I said, ‘What in the world is Flash?’ They explained it and went on the Web and showed me some things they’d done.

“I had a small grant, so we purchased two computers and I got two licenses for Flash and that was the beginning of our multimedia class. These kids would stay after school three days a week, working with me to develop this interactive storybook for kids. We got it done in less than a year. We sent it to Africa and they used it for quite some time. Our school district picked it up too, and the kindergarten teacher started using it as a primer for kindergarten kids here.”

Meanwhile, Lindvahl had started a media class at his school. It wasn’t long before these two kindred spirits decided to join forces to capitalize on each other’s strengths. They convinced their school boards to pilot a joint program that now has about 40 students who meet for a double class period every day at Effingham High. That means the kids and the teachers have to juggle sometimes conflicting school schedules, transportation and after-school issues, and more to make it work. But it does work.

Divide and Conquer

In leading the class, Lindvahl and Fatheree divide their duties, with Fatheree overseeing the writing and storytelling aspects of filmmaking while Lindvahl focuses on the technical details of filming, lighting, sound, and editing.

“At the beginning of the quarter, the students pitch for work,” Lindvahl explains.  “They stand up in front of the class and make their pitch. It could be a documentary. It could be an animation. It could be a narrative. They get about two minutes to pitch what they want to do, and then the other students in the class ask questions: ‘I don’t get this part.’ ‘I don’t really understand what you’re trying to do.’ ‘Are you sure you can get a submarine to appear in the parking lot.’”

From there, Fatheree and Lindvahl teach the basics of their disciplines for a few weeks while the students refine the ideas for their film pieces. And then it’s all hands-on work—writing, casting, scouting locations, filming, directing, editing, and more. The class turns into a workshop, guided by the two teachers but also led by the students themselves through their collaborations and self-critiques.

“Each student has a different pathway to where they want to go,” Lindvahl notes. “Some of those are constants—‘how do I make the shot look like this?’ ‘How do I tell the story in a way that people will understand?’ How do I make the audio work?’ ‘How do I do the music?’ You give them basic skills and then they discover and learn what they need to know.”

A big part of the class’ success is based on what the students themselves bring to the class on day one. First, there’s a certain level of experience—not necessarily as filmmakers, but definitely as seasoned consumers of media. “They all understand more than they think,” says Lindvahl, “because, having consumed thousands of hours of movies and television, they have an innate understanding of how this works.”

The other quality the kids bring is a drive to tap into the energy and set of learning and success standards the program has established over the past decade.

“For many of them,” says Fatheree, “it’s the first time they’re allowed to get out of their seats and stretch their legs and collaborate with others and defend their points and listen to constructive feedback. That’s a big deal for kids.”

“What you find,” Lindvahl adds, “is that students are not measuring their work by ‘how much do I have to do,’ but by ‘I want it to look like that.’ They don’t measure things in terms of ‘how much work is between me and where I want to be’; they have their eyes on the vision and that goal of having a great looking and well-received film.”

Eyes on the Prize

That end goal, the big motivator for Fatheree and Lindvahl’s students, is a slot in the annual Aha Student Film Festival.

“From the first day, the kids are thinking about it a lot,” Lindvahl says. “Second-year students feel more pressure to have a film in it than first-year kids. But they are all thinking about it: ‘I want that. I want to have that experience in my life.’

“For many Hollywood directors, they have never sat in an audience that size and listened to what it’s like to have laughter coming from all around you, or what the sniffles sound like all around you. They’ve not walked out on a stage and the applause just washes over you. That experience, those moments, are what a lot of kids want to have. They want to know what that feels like when they’ve created something and then everybody around you is laughing. That’s a delicious moment and very few people understand what that’s like—and the kids, they want that desperately.”

Mediacom Gets the Message

Mediacom, the Illinois cable operator, has been very helpful as Fatheree and Lindvahl has grown their program by providing technical expertise as well as audiences.

“They’re opening up a content space for us on their video-on-demand system and we’ll have access to televisions in Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Indiana,” Fat says. “We’re going to be able to upload our content and start getting a lot of eyeballs on that.

“That was a wonderful blessing that came out of the Cable’s Leaders in Learning Award.  A lot of people talk about being interested in education. Mediacom has shown they’re really interested in education. They’re honoring our kids by opening television sets up and believing that the content is good enough.”

Started 10 years ago as a deal between Lindvahl and a local movie theater operator to give his students a chance to see their work on a big screen, the festival has blossomed into a serious event that takes the students a full school year to organize and promote, that draws on resources and partnerships from throughout their communities, and that attracts attention from New York to Hollywood and beyond.

Laughing as he puts the entire process into perspective, Father lists off, “In a year’s time, the kids learn how to write, how to tell a story, how to shoot a film, how to light a set, how to acquire the audio, how to do background sound, how to create music, and how to edit. They learn to create all of the distribution pieces—whether it’s a poster or a press release or work on a website—and how to be able to export that out in a DVD format so it can be distributed. And then beside all that, the kids develop the film festival—which has grown into one of the largest student festivals in the country—and they run the entire business model themselves.”

21st-Century Model

Despite, or rather than, the allure of the big screen and the spotlight, the real goal for the two leaders of the Aha media program is to give students from diverse backgrounds and interests the benefits of a true 21st century education.

“The world is growing progressively smaller,” says Fatheree, “and we are at a point in time where having the ability to communicate effectively is more important than ever before, and there are so many different mediums that kids will have to be able to do that in—the written format, on a cell phone, on the Internet, with all the video capabilities. These kids have to be prepared to communicate effectively in the 21st century to be successful and to navigate through technology, and they have to be able to troubleshoot and to work collaboratively, and they have to be able to manage budgets and manage projects and to manage themselves.

“So for me, one of the first things I want the kids to be able to understand is what their place in the world is, and where it is they want to go. They have to decide that for themselves,” Fatheree says. “Our job as educators is to help them start building the scaffold to get there. And one of the things that is essential in that process is to understand how to use technology and how to write and how to communicate effectively.

“That’s my first goal in the class—to get those pieces up and stabilized in the classroom. So maybe kids come in and struggle with confidence in writing. Or maybe they are fine when they communicate with each other, but when they have to communicate with an adult and stand firm in their ideas and have confidence in what they’re saying, they struggle with having to look an adult in the eye. So we want to empower them with the ability to communicate effectively and to be able to believe that they can get from point A to whatever point they want to get to, and to get there well.”

Community Spirit

To foster that ability to see beyond themselves, Lindvahl and Fatheree get the students involved in film-related projects that can teach them the potential power of multimedia communication. Some of these are locally based efforts, and some have global reach.

On the local level, for example, several years ago the students worked with their county’s sheriff department and the Illinois Department of Transportation to create a safety film called “It’s Not an Accident” to show the dangers of rural railroad crossings.

“We were asked if we wanted to be involved in filming a mock train crash,” Fatheree explains. “I mean, how often does someone loan you a train, a car, a chopper, and all the police!” The students spent months preparing for the project, working with safety officials on the script and in staging the wreck, setting up all the safety precautions for the shoot, scouting multiple camera angles, rehearsing with student actors who would play the crash victims, staging a mock funeral, and more.

“Our kids they took all the video footage and they interviewed people from EMS, and put together a really sound video that was then duplicated and sent to schools throughout the state,” Fatheree says. “It was a great opportunity for our kids not only to learn about safety, but to learning about responsibilities and developing that confidence in teamwork.”

Advancing Illinois, and Beyond

As an extension of his classroom work, Joe Fatheree also is devoting considerable effort to Advance Illinois, an organization of education leaders, policy makers, businessmen, and classroom teachers who are dedicated to creating a vision for the 21st-century classroom in America.

“We want to work with policy makers all over the country to help them develop a clear vision of what that looks like and how we prepare teachers for the challenges of tomorrow. We want to help communities create a culture that is conducive to learning,” he says.

“We’re at a tipping point in education. There’s no reason for us to have anything but the best education-delivery system on the planet—and in every school in America,” Fatheree says. “But we have to have some hardcore discussions about what’s it going to take, and who’s been left behind. We have children being left behind, we have educators being left behind, and we have communities being left behind, and the economy is showing that. We have to work hard to regain that level of education excellence in this country.”

On a more global level, three years ago the Aha students were invited to collaborate with students from the Celerity School in South Central Los Angeles to create a set of videos focused on seven United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Under the sponsorship of the Dream Project, an empowerment program for middle school and high school students that focuses on solving local and global problems, they created the video “Will You Listen?,” which was shown at the 2008 United Nations Human Rights Conference in Paris.

“At 17 or 18 years of age, to be able to unveil part of your film in front of world leaders… it was an incredible opportunity,” Fatheree recalls. “Those kids just blew people out of the water with their knowledge of the UN development goals, their reasoning of where we are as a society, and our role in protecting the rights of everyone. It was at a very high level and was just a wonderful experience. While Craig and I had a chance to speak, my job really was to stand back and let our kids take center stage and let them take a leadership role, so when they walk out of our school, they are prepared for the challenges of life.”

Entrepreneurial Spirit

The coming school year will present a new set of challenges for Fatheree and Lindvahl, as their teaching partnership comes to an end. Lindvahl has accepted a position as executive director of a new entrepreneurship institute that is a logical outgrowth of the Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities (CEO) class he has led in partnership with six area school districts. That class, which is funded entirely by local business leaders, meets weekly at various local companies, where students get to learn directly from company owners and managers about the challenges and opportunities of running a business. In moving to the institute, Lindvahl said his goal is to “take this entrepreneurial mindset and explore how we can use that to make people’s lives better—students’, teachers’, and community members’. How can we really improve things with that mindset?”

Fatheree, meanwhile, will forge ahead with the multimedia class.

“We’ve done some tremendous planning since we found out Craig was leaving, and we’re going to do something special next year,” he says. “We’re going to try to build our first full-length feature film. The kids are writing it right now, and we’ve got partners who are interested in hopping on board with us. So this year we’re going to teach all the fundamental skills through the feature film.

“In addition, we have a great animation teacher, and we have five kids coming back and they have a really stout animation project. The kids have already asked for a summer’s load of homework.

“They said, ‘Give us timelines, give us the story, and tell us what you want done. We’re going to build a private space on Facebook to post all of our assignments, and we’re going to come in and we want critiques once a week. We want it to be in a collaborative way, so that when we come back in the fall we’ll have all the models built, we’ve learned how to do the log cycles, and how to do the lip synching, and rigged all the skeletons. We want to do all that, so that when we walk in the door we’ve got all those pieces done and we’ll spend all the fall animating.’

“And then the last piece,” Fatheree adds, “is our kids want to see if they’re good enough to play with the big guys. We’re going to develop more media for the festival circuit. We’re probably going to have a lot of strike outs on our resume, but hopefully we’ll hit a lot of homeruns. That’s going to really be a testimony not just to our kids but to what can happen if you transform your classroom into a real 21st century environment where kids are allowed to touch technology and they’re allowed to use their own creativity, and all of that is wrapped around the learning standards. You can have very high standards and very high accountability, but it doesn’t mean the kids can’t have fun learning. And it doesn’t mean the kids shouldn’t be allowed to tell their story.

“For most educators,” he notes, “I hear all the time that kids don’t want to do homework and they have all this trouble with attitude and responsibility. I’m not saying our kids don’t fall down, but they come to class to work and they spend countless hours outside our classroom honing their skills and developing their talents, and they’re hungry to really take this technology and showcase their voice. They’ve learned how to accept constructive criticism, to build a strong product. So I see digital storytelling as an inroad for a lot of kids who struggle at fitting into a conventional classroom. This is an opportunity to take one of the things that they love—the technology—and apply it to our fundamental learning standards to teach a new generation of kids.”

Related Resources

Joe Fatheree’s Classroom 2.0 page


Callan Films (Craig Lindvahl’s documentaries website)


AHA Films (note: currently undergoing redesign)


EffinghamHigh School


The Dream Project


Advance Illinois


Related Tools & Resources


Engaging game from the FTC that teaches about how advertising works.

Chris Sperry

Project Look Sharp teaches media literacy in Ithica, NY.

A Sense of Ownership

Ray Lund’s high schoolers in Maine are getting ready for primetime while operating the nation’s first full-time, student-run TV channel.

Comcast Digital Connectors

Connecting and educating thousands of youth across the country.

e-Parenting Tutorial: Keeping up with your kids' online activities

Online tutorial helps parents learn about their kids’ digital lives.