Encourage Students to Tell Their Stories On Film

3654330A good film has the power to change us. Films reflect our fast changing world- socially, culturally, and globally. They inspire, provoke, inform, educate, and create an emotional connection to the subject matter. “Movies strike us in intensely personal ways,” wrote film critic Roger Ebert, “good ones get inside our skins.”

Students today are growing up in a digitally and visually rich landscape, with constant access to media. Most teenagers today, including my daughter, jump at the chance to create and share media online. It’s a natural fit to engage students with film, to challenge and encourage them to become thoughtful and dynamic producers of media content.

I recently attended a student film event at the California Film Institute with middle and high school students. During the Q&A, one student described film as a powerful tool because “my generation learns so fast visually. Seeing my film on the big screen makes me want to create more films to inform others.”

922063_origHall Davidson, an educator, innovator, and Emmy-award winner,
has a passion for technology integration programs. Davidson directed the 
California Student Media Festival (CSMF) for 20+ years, and is currently part of the Discovery Education Professional Development Team. I spoke with him about the evolution of the CSMF. He described what he has witnessed throughout the years and the ways in which the creation of film and multimedia can have huge impacts on students’ and teachers’ lives.

The festival, Davidson said, is an authentic assessment of student learning, providing a real world context to apply literacy, collaborative, and analytical skills.

A Little History

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the CSMF, the nation’s oldest media festival for students. Produced in partnership by CUE, PBS SoCal, and Joint Sponsor WeVideo, the film festival celebrates California K-12 students and the integration of media and education.

Media and film have changed dramatically over the course of 50 years and the procedures for submissions have altered. “Before the digital age, they would literally receive truckloads of videos from across the state,” Davidson said. The switch to online submissions has made it easier for students to create and submit their projects. Mike Lawrence, CUE CEO and the festival’s director for the last 7 years, moved the festival online. Lawrence set up a system for students to upload their projects to SchoolTube, YouTube, Vimeo, or district sites. Judges, including teachers and film professionals, watch and score films online.

As submissions have become easier, students have become empowered to use the festival as a means for engaging with emerging social, cultural, and educational issues and topics. Submission categories span all subjects, from foreign language and performing arts, to mathematics, special education, history, and teacher-created projects. I recently watched last year’s Best Overall High School winner- a 90 second film titled Last Moments. The message of the film, created over 3 weeks, is to persuade teenage drivers to put aside their phones and drive safely. A powerful message that conveys real consequences.  

Why Enter The Festival?

When I asked Davidson why students should enter the festival, he replied, “When you let kids talk about their experiences, it’s a great opportunity, a chance for validation.” Davidson described some powerful festival moments throughout the years that showcased students’ diverse backgrounds and interests, including stories about an at-risk high school student, an elementary special needs class, and a transgender student.

When shown on a big screen with a supportive audience, students’ knowledge and worldview come together. “The audience will laugh, cry, and applaud,” said Davidson, and this, “creates a significant, memorable experience.”

The techniques students are exposed to through multimedia and film making are tools for teaching and learning. Developing story lines, writing dialogue, team collaboration, editing, and time management- they all carry over to other fields of study. The prizes are extra awards. Teachers of all winners are given plaques, free software and a one-year CUE membership. Teachers of overall winners also receive cash prizes, complimentary registration to next year’s CUE National Conference,  and to have the opportunity for their films to be screened on PBS SoCal and PBS stations across the nation.

The CSMF is a great opportunity for students to take control of their own stories and have fun! I love this advice from well-known filmmaker Martin Scorsese from a commencement speech he gave at NYU: “Every scene is a lesson. Every shot is a school. Let the learning continue.”

My Story


Credit: Seana Quinn Caption: Filmmaker Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee on location in Niligris, India in 2007.

I’ve attended countless film festivals with my husband Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, a documentary filmmaker. We attended the Seattle International Film Festival last year, where Emmanuel’s film, Marie’s Dictionary, screened. The film tells the story of Marie Wilcox, the last fluent speaker of Wukchumni, a Native American language, and the dictionary she created in an effort to keep her language alive.

Each time we bring this film to a festival, a classroom screening, or conference, I experience how the audience connects to Marie’s story. Her identity and cultural legacy have been documented, her contribution has been acknowledged, and her story is being told. People become genuinely concerned that her language could disappear and applaud her for rising to the challenge. The process of seeing and valuing her story encourages viewers to reflect on their own lives- to ask themselves, “What is my story?” The California Student Media Festival encourages students to tell their story.


The festival will be held on June 11, 2016 at Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, CA. The festival is free to attend. 50th Annual Festival Winners have just been announced – don’t miss your chance to celebrate student creativity!

Cleary Vaughan-Lee Bio picCleary Vaughan-Lee is the Education Director at the Global Oneness Project, an online multimedia platform which offers free multicultural stories and accompanying curricula. Since creating the project’s education program, she has conducted numerous K20 trainings across the country and has presented at various regional and national conferences including ISTE, NCCE, and NMC. Cleary is a regular contributor to TED-Ed and Education Week. The Project’s films and lessons have been featured on The New York Times, National Geographic, PBS Learning Media, and the Smithsonian, among others.


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Cleary Vaughan-Lee

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