The Future of Energy Four Rivers Senior Energy documentary

"When we were in the Garden Cinema on that first day, I was really excited - we all were - but I didn't know what to expect - none of us did - but we knew it was going to be a monumental task." Matt

It's such a good place to be when you're in a group of 37 people and everyone is excited about this one goal..." Micah

Introduction and overview

Several years ago, our Division 3 team (11th and 12th grade teachers) launched their first draft of a four-discipline expedition on energy. At the time, the Vermont Yankee power plant just to the north of us was up for recertification and communities in both southern Vermont and western Massachusetts were fiercely debating whether or not the plant should be re-certified or shut down. In many ways, the debate was really about nuclear power vs renewable sources. Students studied the physics of energy, and learned how the federal, state and local powers influenced or controlled the types and delivery of energy we use and they debated the re-certification issue. But there wasn't a meaningful product at the end of their learning. Two years and two energy expeditions later, the team arrived at the product idea they'd been seeking: a documentary film. Over the next three years, they worked with three consecutive senior classes to produce documentaries on energy-related topics and in the process learned - sometimes the hard way - about the necessity of a compelling topic paired with an equally compelling story, artful filming and crisp, skillful editing. On September 8th, 2017, the senior class gathered in the Garden Cinema in Greenfield to meet with documentary filmmaker, Steve Alves, as the kickoff for their energy expedition. The message they got that day: "We have gathered you here because in exactly 160 days, you'll be back in this theater screening your own documentary film."

What Inspired us!

Four Rivers was founded in 2003, with this essential question in its mission statement: What is the sustainable relationship between nature, technology in its many forms, and the human community? We believe it is the fundamental question of our time and speaks to the future we want to create. In every grade, students explore answers to this question: they follow the waste streams from our school to better understand the impact of human behavior on the environment; they study methods of food production, analyze water quality in our streams and identify sources of pollution, and learn about antibiotic resistance and its connection to our microbiomes; they work with a local scientist to develop methods for identifying arsenic in water and rice. Their final expedition at Four Rivers is focused on energy, which History teacher, Alex Wilson, believes offers the most profound answer. "If you solve the energy problem, if you solve that one problem, all of a sudden [other] problems on that list have a pathway towards a reasonable solution. So, teaching about the energy issue is really important." A documentary that aims to advance ideas about how to solve the problem of clean energy is the gift that keeps giving; it can be seen over and over, be shared widely, and serves as one part of a global effort by scientists, policy-makers, educators and citizens to educate and inform us all about why we all have a stake in the future of energy.

Mastery of Skills and Content

In order to create a successful documentary, students needed to learn the skills of documentary story-telling, plus the technical skills of video and sound equipment, and editing software. And, as in energy expeditions past, they needed to learn about energy! In Physics, students learned the scientific principles of energy generation and participated in an “energy draft,” wherein they compared different types of energy according to a variety of metrics. They also built substantial background knowledge about wind energy, reading articles and meeting with experts. In Math, students learned the mathematics necessary to effectively understand the data of the topic, including computing the levelized cost of Energy for a variety of energy sources. In Civics they developed systems thinking skills with which to analyze the relationship between the economic, political, social, and technical aspects of energy and created created energy systems maps.

An Energy systems map

In English, students analyzed documentary storytelling techniques and the art of film in order to learn to translate an idea into a narrative. For technical skills, Four Rivers partnered with Greenfield Community Television, where technicians taught our students how to use the cameras and sound equipment and the basics of Adobe Premiere. Experts in different aspects of film production came in to share their expertise.

Students working with cameras during a workshop and training at GCTV, the local community access TV station

Once students had built a foundation of the knowledge they would need to make the documentary, they then had to go ahead and make it! To do this, they were given a list of case study topics and asked to rank their interest in each. The results of this interest survey led to six research groups, each with its own case study. The Div 3 teachers provided them with a guide for how to develop a pitch for a documentary, and each team created a presentation to make a case for its issue as the subject of the film.


Throughout the process of making the film, students continually developed and honed their interpersonal skills. Groups had to work together, reaching common ground even if they had different visions, practicing negotiation and compromise. Each week, teams showed their progress to the entire class and solicited feedback, a daunting process for students but one which was necessary to reach quality. They learned to use available resources to solve problems: without one correct path forward or a teacher with the one right answer, they had to discuss and debate the merits of various decisions among themselves. For example, a team of six students did the major editing and shaping of the script that would dictate the structure of the film. They had to develop a system all could use, agree on a process they would follow and accept critical feedback from one another as they attempted to blend their styles into one coherent piece of writing. Beyond the technical skills and content knowledge, these “soft skills” were equally necessary for a successful project, and this was one of the areas where students consistently noted personal growth in their reflections.

"It's difficult to do a big group project, but eventually everyone pulls their weight and gets invested. Seeing what other people are doing makes you think 'oh, man, these are some really cool animations. I need to bring something really cool to the table as well, and do my job.'" - Kiernan

In addition to the qualities of character they needed to get along and to work well, they also needed a great deal of persistence, patience and optimism to complete the film. The filming schedule involved two very long, cold, and grueling days, spending hours in the vans and hauling their gear through the city, into office buildings, onto beaches, in an out of library conference rooms and on and off boats. During production, individual students edited sections of the film and others managed the tracking of each section in highly detailed filing system ; students learned animating skills by creating multiple drafts of clips, investing quite a lot of time to ensure they were of high quality only to have some clips ultimately cut from the final version. A lot of the work was tedious and repetitive but they understood that taking their time and being meticulous would make all the difference in the final product.

"I never did animation before, so that was new and hard. I made two animations and it took me two days to do it, but then we didn't end up using them because the script team made some changes but forgot to tell us. That was frustrating, but stuff had to get cut. I was pretty proud of the work I did, even if not all of it was used." - Mac

The final way character played a part in this project was in the investment of every student in the issue itself. They cared about the content of their movie and how it might help to shape the future of energy in Massachusetts. They wanted people to know what they knew. They weren't just making a film; they were making a film they believed mattered!

"This project had a huge impact on me and on many students in the class...I've obviously learned a lot about offshore wind and a lot more about environmental issues, things everyone should know." - Dylan

"When we were preparing to do fieldwork, I was thinking 'oh. this topic is pretty boring', but when we met people who were experts in the things we needed to learn and they were so into it, I thought 'oh, this is actually really interesting!'" Micah


Complex topics require complex narratives, and complex narratives are difficult to convey. The first three senior classes to make an energy documentary made mistakes that helped this year's class reach for high quality in their work. For example, former groups had relied heavily on stock footage and a simple story that didn't convey much of what they had learned; they didn't grasp the importance of a compelling narrative and they didn't develop the script in a way that really drove the organization and story. If the students wanted to tell a compelling story that really addressed their essential question, they could not rely on an oversimplified script or a generic segment of stock footage. Like anything in EL Education - or in life, for that matter - the grapple is where the learning happens, and students struggled with their task. The team of teachers supported them in this struggle but treated it as a necessary part of their learning and the final film shows this growth. Although the focus on high-quality work has always been part of the expedition, increasing content depth and complexity was key to making that focus on high-quality work manifest. And, of course, the inevitable reality of lots of revision!

"Working with Steve Alves was interesting, because I had never worked with a professional filmmaker before, and it was also a little bit humbling to be told how my editing could be improved, especially by someone as skilled as he is, but it was an incredibly useful experience and helped me become a better editor." - Luka

Students working on editing a chapter of the film

Another source of motivation for our students to do high quality work was to study films done by previous Four Rivers seniors and those of students at other schools. They paid attention to the techniques and qualities they wanted to emulate in their own film and what was necessary to make a high quality film. Another aspect they really focused on in their critique was the importance of conducting, filming and editing quality interviews. To that end, the interview team worked with professional interviewer, Peggy Gillespie, of the Family Diversity Project, to learn and then practice interview skills; they drafted and did multiple revisions of interview questions; they practiced filming interviews with multiple cameras, and edited interview footage to eliminate the student interviewers who were on tape asking questions.

"Seeing the movies [made by other students] made me really want to do better...and I thought, ok, we're going to make our film be amazing." - Milou

"I learned a lot about interviewing skills, and how to ask follow-up questions to get the most information and the best story." - Keegan

Final Thoughts

Since finishing the film and screening it at the Garden Cinema, the Four Rivers seniors have been invited to show it at the University of Massachusetts as part of a seminar series in the IGERT program , and also by Greening Greenfield, in an initiative to spotlight youth activism. Our students have seen that they have the power to inform an essential debate about our future and they see themselves as change agents.

"It's a great feeling to think that the what we've done has the power to change peoples minds and they way they think about this issue." - Henry

"The things we thought were so impossible at the beginning were my favorite parts, just watching is all come together and thinking 'Oh, my gosh, we MADE this!'" Audrey

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