How Do We Keep the Lights On? 12th grade energy expedition and documentary film

Our claim is:


The Four Rivers Schoolwide learning targets on which this expedition focuses:

These are the standards and target for the expedition.

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 due to be recertified and communities in both southern Vermont and western Massachusetts were fiercely debating whether or not the plant should be recertified or shut down. In many ways, the debate was really about nuclear power vs renewable sources. The Div 3 team posed the question: What is the future of energy and how do we keep the lights on?

Students studied the various types of energy in their physics class and visited the Yankee nuclear plant to learn from the engineers there how a nuclear plant operates. They investigated the issue of recertification in their Civics class: is the decision to keep a plant going in the hands of the local community, the state or the federal government? How do the various stakeholders exert influence? They wrote position papers in Expository writing and did modeling in math. Students met with an energy expert from UMass and with pro-nuke and anti-nuke activists from both Massachusetts and Vermont. They learned a lot, for sure, but the expedition lacked a product with an audience or a real purpose.

Students in the vermont Yankee control room simulator

This was true the next year, as well, with the proposed Cape Wind offshore wind farm as the central case study, and this time, the team had students do a debate focused on climate change, as it related to energy production and consumption. Teams competed and the final debate between the two winning teams was a whole-high school event. Still, the debate didn't have influence or purpose beyond the walls of Four Rivers

Two teams engaged in crossfire during the debate in year two of the energy expedition

In year three of the energy expedition, the team, thinking hard about authenticity and the purpose of student learning, came up with a fabulous idea for a product: our seniors would create a documentary film about a local energy issue that connected to the larger concept of the future of energy.

To launch this new project, teachers designed a kick-off to get the kids on board. The whole grade met a documentary filmmaker at the local cinema, where they had a private screening of his films, focused on the central role of story-telling in the making of a film.

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. 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. Finally, 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.

A systems map. Plus signs indicate a positive relationships and minus signs indicate negative relationships.

But most important, they needed to figure out what story they wanted to tell! To learn about how they picked a topic and got the film made, watch this short, but very illuminating "The Making of Cape Wind" film.

Students interviewing the reporter who most extensively covered Cape Wind for the Cape Cod Times
Students getting B-roll footage as the tide and the coluds roll in!

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. Beyond the technical skills and content knowledge, these “soft skills” were equally necessary for a successful project, and one of the areas where students consistently noted personal growth during their reflections.

As a culminating event, we screened each year’s documentary at the Greenfield Garden Cinema, a local movie theater. In addition to the immediate Four Rivers community, the students drew an audience from the community, their interview subjects and the local green energy networks, as well as digitally to some environmental access groups via Youtube.

As with most products, the first documentary presented unforeseen challenges and opportunities for improvement. The students relied heavily on archival footage and the content of their narrative was not substantive in its treatment of the complexity fo the issue. It didn't help that as they were working on the film, the Cape Wind project was declared dead in the water!

But even so, the film lacked depth and, to some degree, authenticity. Here is a link to the final product.

Fast forward one year. Again the students met with the expert documentary filmmaker and again they enaged in the extensive building fo background knowledge. For the second film, the students brainstormed potential topics and chose to focus on the efforts of Burtlington, VT, to be powered by 100% renewable sources of energy. For this draft, the students used alomost all their own footage, but the editing was rough and they realized that the story of Burlington lacked a damatic arc. It was interesting, but there was no issue at stake, no protagonists. So, in some ways it was more authentic, but still lacking in the qualities thay learned about from the expert. The team got feedback from Ron Berger, who had seen films made at other schools and had helpful points to make. They then made some changes, most notably to really focus on the power of the story they were telling and help student recognize what made for the most compelling story. Instead of having students brainstorm a list of topics, the teachers had a list ready - issues they knew to have all the elements needed for the film to be compelling. Students discussed the topics on the list and again divided into teams based on interest to develop a an idea to pitch for the film. The winning pitch: The movement on college campuses to have universities and colleges divest from fossil fuels.

The movement toward story also resulted in students focusing the debate on the one chosen documentary topic, rather than a more general overview of energy, as they had in the past. With this change, all students - not just the winning proposal team - had to research and understand the topic of the documentary. This focus on story led to deeper content knowledge overall, which led to better interview questions, a more complex script, and a clearer drive for certain shot types during filming. Since all students equally understood the story they were trying to tell, they were able to give better feedback throughout the process, and ownership felt more evenly distributed.

It is worth noting how much more difficult the process became as a result. Complex topics require complex narratives, and complex narratives are difficult to convey. Students 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. They worked together, 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 high-quality work manifest.

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