Meet Chad Frey! Chad is a US History, Geography, and Documentary Films teacher at Schoenbar Middle School in Ketchikan, Alaska. Chad and his middle school students run Schoenbar Labs, a film production studio, where local businesses and civic institutions reach out to them to create videos. They also create award-winning documentary films, including The Pathfinder Pole, which just won first place at the Alaska Society for Technology Education documentary film contest.
Over his 16 years of teaching, Chad has created an incredible environment for kids to challenge themselves and each other through true collaboration, where students and teacher aren’t afraid to push one other and give each other honest feedback to experiment, discover, and persevere through the creative process.
Tell us about some of the things your students do in your documentary films class
We go through all stages of film production: starting from an idea, to storyboarding it, shooting it, editing it, to going through the revision process, and finally bringing it public.
We also do a lot of productions for businesses around Ketchikan. For example, we made videos for the Ketchikan Volunteer Squad, we did one for the library on spots to check out in library, and we’ve done public service announcements, like “Don’t smoke in the state park.”
The Pathfinder Pole was a documentary that we created on the process of creating a new totem pole to raise in front of our school to replace the original totem pole that was taken down when the school was originally built.
The Schoenbar Pathfinder Pole film won first place in the Alaska Society for Technology Education documentary film contest. You can watch the film here.
How long have you been creating videos with your students?
I’ve been creating video for a long time, probably for the last 16 years. I’ve taught a lot of different courses, and always did some type of video production, but for the last 5 years, I’ve taught this documentary films class for kids.
I originally started with iMovie on Macbooks. It’s a good program but there were a lot of issues that were coming up in class, and when we transitioned from MacBooks to Chromebooks, I did some research and discovered WeVideo. I liked that it’s in the cloud, because that was something I was hoping to transition to, so students could access projects and collaborate with other students outside of school. Or if group members are absent, they can still access their projects and continue working.
What I’ve always tried to do as a teacher is create great relationships with students and somehow have a hook to engage them. Technology and video production has been a huge hook for students. I tell teachers this all the time: there’s nothing worse than having a student read a speech off a sheet of paper in front of other students who are just sitting there disinterested.
Instead, why not create a presentation and create a multimedia extravaganza where they’re not only hearing the speech, but they’re also seeing text that should be reinforced, and seeing images that are also reinforcing, and hearing music that creates a mood or a theme. Now you have something that is way, way better! So kids aren’t as nervous, I mean they’re still a little bit nervous, but not as nervous as just coming up and reading something.
What kind of impact have you seen video creation have on your students?
Producing a video together is challenging. It’s something that students have to work at just like anything else. We argued and we disagreed when we made The Pathfinder Pole film–what should be in it, what shouldn’t be in it–but those are great discussions to have with students. They wrote and figured out what shot should go where, and what we wanted to say. And to go through the revision process to get the rough and final cut takes time. But the product you create is WAY better than anything you would normally have if you didn’t use video.
These are also middle school kids who are creating these films, and it’s the first time they’ve started to understand layers, and how putting music, video, sound, text, and narration together can create all those different layers. So as the year goes on, they become better and better, and then they become the experts to go to other classes and help other students. We have a science department that is starting to use WeVideo for their science labs and presentations, so students in my classes are the experts for other students on how to use the program and tool. This is just another tool for them to share knowledge and mastery of what they’re trying to learn.
How have you been able to develop that kind of relationship with your students where they feel confident to argue and have the hard conversations for the creative process?
You have to develop the classroom environment. The whole idea is that it’s okay to argue, it’s okay to have disagreements, and it’s okay that people are giving you criticism about your work. You have to understand that the goal is to get better. With video production, there are going to be other eyes that will be looking, and these opinions will make your production better, so don’t be offended when people say, “Well I don’t really like how you did this. Maybe you should try this.” So the idea of the revision process is to have critical positive peer review.
It took a quarter to make The Pathfinder Pole film. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it when you get a product you can be proud of.
Check out more of Schoenbar Labs film productions here.