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Smith Middle School Students Win C-SPAN Contest Recognition

“What’s Your Vision in 2020?” is a broad and maybe daunting question to ask anyone during this presidential election year. But a group of Smith Middle School (SMS) students addressed it over a period of months last school year, and their resulting video projects won prizes or honorable mentions in the national C-SPAN StudentCam 2020 contest.

Erin Kellas teaches 7th and 8th grade social studies, and she provided guidance and encouragement to the students who chose to create videos. “The C-SPAN documentary project is such a wonderful opportunity for students to engage in a meaningful experience to create a product for a very real and authentic audience,” Kellas said. “My students have entered this contest twice (2018 and 2020) and we look forward to doing so again!”

Teresa Fang and Jett Mu, 7th grade students, worked together to produce "America: This Equality"which won one of eight national third prizes for middle school contestants. Eighth grade students Emmaline Phillips, Uma Kirk and Yasmine Kwong created "Catching Fire: Wildfire in the U.S." and Kate Rampel and Vivian Wu directed "The American Achievement," both of which earned national honorable mentions.

The students began the multi-stage process last fall and submitted their videos in January. Besides the ongoing support from Kellas, the teams worked with Connie Wolf, SMS Instructional Technology Facilitator and Gabriel Grana, SMS Media Specialist.

"When Ms. Kellas first approached us two years ago with the idea of students entering the C-SPAN contest, Mr. Graña and I saw a great opportunity to reinforce her social studies content and give students a creative way to present issues they were passionate about," said Wolf. "We framed our initial lesson about documentaries in terms of two questions: What do you want your audience to learn, and what do you want your audience to feel?  We had students analyze previous contest winners' documentaries, identifying how different visuals and audio worked together to build the audience's knowledge and feelings. Mr. Graña was instrumental in this process, as he has a background in TV/video production and was able to point out the effects of framing, lighting, and transitions on each documentary's narrative."

“This project took a lot of time,” Phillips said. “We started brainstorming in October, and it took a lot of planning throughout that month. In November we wrote the script and emailed people who we could interview. In December, we filmed and interviewed. If I remember correctly, it took a big chunk out of my winter break. January we focused on editing, and we turned it in late January.”

Fang agreed. “From brainstorming to collecting interviews to editing, Jett and I spent around four months to complete this project. In the beginning, we spent a long time thinking, researching, listening to speeches on YouTube and C-SPAN, and reading news articles online. We met up at the public library, school library, and classroom to work on preparing and planning for the rest of the project. Our understanding of equality was increasing as we researched, but we also had to focus and pinpoint the main, important points to include in our video.”

“This project invites the practice of both hard and soft skills,” Kellas said. “Students learn and practice hard skills such as research, writing, interviewing, filming and editing.  Additionally, the soft skills of arranging interviews, writing thank you notes and interacting on an academic level with adults outside of their parents and teachers are an added benefit.”  

Wolf and Graña, along with Kellas, all emphasized the need to learn about and interview people with different viewpoints, even if those viewpoints differed from the students. "The students rose to the challenge!" Wolf said. "Not only did they get some diverse, high-profile interviews, they were polite and professional in their interactions."

The potential range of topics forced the students to share their passions and most pressing concerns about the issues Americans face as they decide how to cast their votes this November.

Smith CSPAN winners  “When the prompt first came out, ‘What is your vision for 2020?’ and ‘What would you most like the presidential candidates to address?’ my teammates and I knew we wanted to do something about climate change,” Phillips said. “It's something we are all passionate about, and we believe it's the most important issue that needs to be addressed right now. We went through a variety of climate-change related topics before we settled on wildfires. All of us strongly support environmental education and awareness-building, but I can't say there's much that we have been able to do in the past. This documentary was a great opportunity for us to spread awareness.”

“At school, we were already learning about racial equality and civil rights,” said Fang. “This is a big problem- America is a multi-cultural, immigrant country, yet people are still dealing with an equality problem. This has been with us all throughout history. This equality problem directly affects our own lives as well. Jett and I decided to learn more about this, and share the message to more people.”

Starting with a news anchor declaring, “California is on fire,” “Catching Fire” shows the kinds of terrifying news footage that’s become all too familiar in this country. With interview clips of a UNC environmental engineer and the UNC Chair of Environmental Science and Engineering, the video offers brief but illuminating background on the causes and possible solutions to the wildfire crisis. Phillips said, “Presidential candidates should be talking in detail about forest management and upgrading infrastructure as climate change worsens.”

“We had a hope that our documentary, even if it didn't win anything, would spread awareness about the topic of wildfires,” Phillips said. “We wanted our documentary to serve as a reminder, and show people some of the facts about wildfires.

“Equality is a very broad topic to cover,” Fang said. “Jett and I tried to include some of the most important points and some current events to open viewers' eyes more to reality. Even as we were interviewing people, we were still learning about the different equality problems society has had over the present and past. There's so much about equality, but we could only include so much in our video.”

“America: This Equality” includes interview clips with Chapel Hill Town Council member, Hongbin Gu and WRAL news anchor, Ken Smith. But Fang also managed to land an interview with presidential candidate, Andrew Yang. “During that time, Andrew Yang had come to SC to rally for his presidential campaign,” Fang said. “It was a last minute decision to let me talk to him. But this was the only opportunity I had to meet him, so I took the chance by going to the rally. I was in contact with the rally manager the entire time as I arrived there, and fortunately, Andrew Yang accepted my request for a one-on-one interview.”

“We want people to know this is our reality, that this is our America, and we need to protect it and remember the foundations our country was built on while taking in mind our own ideas,” Fang said. “Hopefully people can try to be more understanding of each other and think in each others' shoes instead of creating conflicts. I believe we, as the people, can do much better than this.”

Smith C-Span winners The third documentary, by Rampel and Wu, explores a subject of both national and local scrutiny, the educational achievement gap. With interview clips from CHCCS School Board members Rani Dasi and Joal Broun, as well as Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger and SMS AIG teacher, Kim Lane, the video reflects a range of perspectives and considerations for this ongoing and tremendously complex problem. Their essential questions included “Why does this gap still exist?” and “What next?”

“A lot of people helped us get to where we are right now- our parents helped us when we had to go to the history museum and school library for footage, our teacher Ms. Kellas for suggestions on our video, Mr. Grana for letting us borrow equipment and resources, and support from our interviewees,” Fang said. “After winning the prize, Senator Thom Tillis, Rep. David Price, WRAL Reporter Ken Smith, and Chapel Hill Council Member Hongbin Gu all made congratulatory videos on C-SPAN for us. I'm very thankful to everyone who helped and supported us in this project. From this, I think the state government supports the growth of young people, which will encourage us to achieve more for our community.”

“I am so very proud of their achievement,” said Kellas.

Please take time to view all three of these engaging video messages-- and prepare to learn and be inspired!