By Tara Cavanaugh
The Mitchell Elementary School cafeteria was abuzz with excitement Wednesday night as students in dresses and suits eagerly pulled their families, some even accompanied by grandparents and cousins, to sit and watch their work debut against the long red curtains on the stage.
It was the much-anticipated premiere of the writers and producers of Room 7, Erica Hatt’s fourth grade class. They created short movies, full of humor, heart and enthusiasm, that were intended to show off Mitchell Elementary. The movies did that and more –– they also showed off the success of the school’s partnership with the University of Michigan.
The unique partnership, which also includes Scarlett Middle School, has flourished since its official start in 2011. Undergraduate and master’s level education students benefit from intensive, hands-on training in Mitchell and Scarlett’s classrooms and earn increasing teaching responsibility through the school year. Mitchell and Scarlett students benefit from more teaching staff and innovative curriculum crafted by their teachers and U-M education researchers.
The mutual benefits were clear on Wednesday night, as video after video showed students backing up their claims with supporting evidence to create the persuasive argument that Mitchell is the coolest school on the planet. The videos were the result of a class writing project focused on persuasive writing.
The pilot project was based on curriculum co-created by U-M Clinical Associate Professor of Education Cathy Reischl and Mitchell teacher Erica Hatt. “A key feature of the new Common Core standards is representing ideas, along with reading and writing them,” Reischl said. “With this pilot project, students used writing, images, video and technology to represent their ideas and produce a strong, persuasive argument with purpose.”
Purpose was an important aspect of the project, Reischl added, so the fourth graders were made aware their work would have a real-world effect: Mitchell Principal Kevin Karr asked Hatt’s class to help him advertise the school to prospective students and parents.
“The big emphasis was making a product that actually means something and has a real audience afterwards,” said U-M intern Liz Kirk. “It was an assignment that would benefit more than their teacher. We can really use these videos, put them on the Mitchell website, and encourage more families and students to come here.”
The students took the project in unexpected directions. One group of students decided to make each claim in English and Spanish, voicing the claims in unison to convey a feeling of belonging. Another group of students began their video with a “Welcome to Mitchell” greeting in four different languages.
The fourth graders benefited from one-on-one attention from the U-M interns. Each student partnered with a mentor, who helped the student plan, draft, edit and revise their argument, pitch, storyboard and iMovie product.
The students were then placed into groups of three to merge their ideas together. “We spent some time talking about how to share your ideas in a group, how to disagree with each other, how to build on each other’s ideas,” Kirk said. “I really think they gained a lot from that. It started out as a challenge, and later became a big opportunity.”
“We (mentors) were doing a lot of modeling,” said U-M student Lauren Blanco. “We were really cognizant that the way we interacted with each other was being seen and repeated, so we showed them how to work in a team.”
The U-M interns also modeled persuasive videos for the fourth graders by showing their own videos they made that advertised the U-M Elementary Master of Arts with Certification program.
Teacher Erica Hatt felt the project was more than successful.
“Persuasive essay writing is a difficult task,” Hatt said after the premier. “I really think this is going to help all of us be able to take on that task and be successful with it, because we’ll have a reference point.
“It’s actually very dear to their hearts. This is a project that they really latched onto, and they just gave it their all. It was full of purpose, and I think that made it very motivating and engaging for the students.”
Hatt played an important role with the U-M interns, spending each morning before school started with the intern class and discussing the project’s progress.
“Our interns are preparing for lead teaching right now. They work on trying to create instruction that’s meaningful over time, not just one lesson,” said Reischl. “So for them to get to participate with a teacher doing that kind of long-term instruction is a huge benefit.”
“There’s a lot of reflection involved in our practice,” U-M student Kirk said. “We never teach anything without asking: How did that go? What did I really like? What could have gone differently? So I really like the partnership in that way; everything is really intentional.”
Overall, the project results wowed the entire audience.
“I am loving this on so many different levels,” said AAPS Board of Education Trustee Irene Patalan. “To think your school is the best school in the universe, you can’t beat that! Because it should be.”
AAPS Superintendent Dr. Patricia Green said she was “incredibly impressed” that students mastered the movie-making technology.
“The enthusiasm is wonderful,” Dr. Green added. “I’m very proud of this partnership with U-M. To have this extra support is amazing. And it truly is a partnership: the university coming together with their interns and our teachers here, and really teaching the young people in a phenomenally successful way that couldn’t happen without those extra hands.”
Many parents said they were impressed by how adept their children became at the technology. “I’m really proud of my daughter,” said Gerard Campain. “It’s the new media: her generation will be expected to know it, so to get exposed to it in fourth grade is a great start.”
“I was impressed with the voice-overs, the music, the editing, the special effects, it was quite impressive,” said Christine Payne. “I didn’t expect such a high level.”
The students seemed to work well together in creating their movies, Payne added. “You could see the care that was shown between them. They really looked like they were enjoying themselves, learning together, and having fun doing it.”
The project forged new relationships in the school, said Hatt. Many of her students ate lunch with Principal Karr in order to update him on their progress in the promotional project.
“Mitchell school is such a special place,” said Principal Karr. “But sometimes you can’t just tell everybody about all the ways that it’s special. So these videos will help me, on the school website, to share with the community and prospective families coming to Mitchell about how special this place really is.”
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