Middle School Students Are Now at Center Stage

To strengthen its middle schools  --  which are seen as the weak link of the K-12 system  --  the county is adding courses, including a literacy course that connects moviemaking and text. At Wood Middle School, eighth-grader Osvaldo Maldonado readies a clap board for shooting.
To strengthen its middle schools -- which are seen as the weak link of the K-12 system -- the county is adding courses, including a literacy course that connects moviemaking and text. At Wood Middle School, eighth-grader Osvaldo Maldonado readies a clap board for shooting. (Photos By Pouya Dianat -- The Washington Post)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 19, 2007

The set was, shall we say, minimalistic: a school hallway, a stairwell and double doors leading outside Earle B. Wood Middle School into the summer heat of Rockville. An intrusive sign, warning of wet wax, had been removed.

Eighth-grade student Jose Sotelo, 12, trained a video camera on the double doors, which were visibly shaking. Patricia Chahalis, 13, walked slowly toward them. The suspense was palpable -- "like it might be a sniper or something," Patricia said later.

Summer school students at Wood Middle School last week became some of the first in the county to sample a course called "Lights, Camera, Literacy!" In the process, they ushered in a wave of middle school reform in Montgomery County schools.

The new course is at the leading edge of a three-year, $10 million package of curriculum, training and staffing enhancements to the county's 38 middle schools.

In Montgomery and across the Washington area, middle schools are generally regarded as the weak link in the K-12 system. Standardized test scores are uniformly lower in middle schools than in elementary schools, and parent participation is lower. Middle schools can't match the advanced course offerings of high schools, and their teachers are less specialized. An audit of Montgomery middle schools, released in 2005, showed lagging achievement among minorities, students learning English and those living in poverty.

The schools budget for the fiscal year that began this month includes $2.5 million toward middle school reform, the first installment of the three-year effort. Five schools, including Wood, benefit from the first phase of the plan, which focuses on training teachers, an accelerated curriculum -- particularly in math and reading -- and improving the leadership structure of the schools. The four other schools are Benjamin Banneker in Burtonsville, Roberto W. Clemente in Germantown, Montgomery Village and Sligo in Silver Spring.

As with much of the reform plan, "Lights, Camera, Literacy!" was designed to meet the specific needs of middle-grade students, who like to move around, collaborate and learn in novel ways. It also will be offered at the same five schools during the regular academic year.

The course connects filmmaking and text. It's built around three youth-oriented movies: the drama "Akeelah and the Bee" and the documentary "Spellbound," both about spelling bees, and "Searching for Bobby Fischer," an homage to humanity and chess. Students work from film to script, transferring their skills as film-watchers to the printed page. They also develop their own short movies, studying such concepts as the character arc and the storyboard.

Much of the four-week summer class will be about "ways that we can take visual literacy and translate it into written literacy," said Arla Bowers, an instructional specialist in the Montgomery school system who focuses on communication literacy.

The first day of class, July 9, was spent learning the basics of a camcorder and the notion of literary conflict. Day two dealt with the stages of production. Day three was a field trip to see the "Akeelah and the Bee." The next day, two classes at Wood Middle had their own spelling bees. Students worked daily on their short films.

On a recent morning, teacher Kelly Vollmer split her class into three groups of three or four students each and dispatched them to work on their scenes. The day's work involved filming a character as he or she reacted to frightening sounds.

"If you need quiet, you need to say, 'Quiet on the set,' " said Vollmer, who also works at the school as areading specialist during the regular academic year.


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