Who needs an Electoral College when you have an Electoral High School?
Tuesday, November 6, 2012 was a big, big night.
Oh sure, there was all that commotion about who would be governor, whether gay people could marry, marijuana be legal, or charter schools be authorized. There were the matters of control of Congress, new taxes and those hotly contested county commissioner seats. And then there was all that Obama/Romney stuff. But, frankly, those distractions were all overshadowed by our goal for the evening — pulling off a 2 1/2-hour live cable TV/Internet show where a couple dozen high school students in two states presented their youthful perspective on politics, voters, voting, issues, returns, candidates, controversy and the country at large.
The hour of the big broadcast was closing in and there was really no time to reflect about “what on earth were we thinking?” It was going to be a true test of students’ ability to talk with confidence and authority, to present facts and figures without bias, and to make us all look like we knew what we were doing.
It also was a test of technology. We’d run a lot of extra wires between the control room, classroom and studio. We’d hooked up computer networks so we could bring in live interviews using Skype. There were cameras pointed all directions, tapped into laptops using iVGA and the Tricaster Studio. We had level-tested a myriad of desk mics, lavs, headsets and wireless handhelds. One member of the on-air team drew a surprisingly good, yet somewhat mangled map of the 50 states. Another crewmember created a star-spangled backdrop for looping on the on-set monitor screen.
During previous weeks, I had assembled a small team of students who volunteered for the long night. In the director’s seat was Amber Cathey, a senior, who felt right at home with the Tricaster. Amber became our full-time director for Wildcat TV at the end of her junior year. That meant she now directed and switched nearly every after-school show we produced during the year — about 40 to 50 in all. Our school district made the position of director an actual paying job four years ago. Amber was following in the footsteps of two girls who previously held the position. Most of her experience, however, was with sports and concerts. This show would be different.
Another senior, Rebecca Delgado, took on the assistant director job. Most school days Rebecca oversees and directs the production of our video Daily Bulletin. The Bulletin is filmed during sixth period and broadcasts to all classrooms the next morning during third period. On election night Rebecca oversaw on-screen graphics using NewTek LiveText on a laptop.
Carmen, Kyle, Chris, Joseph, Padrick and Brandon rounded out the crew working audio, extra graphics and four cameras. It was a good crew.
Meanwhile OHHS U.S Government teacher Jim Crouch pulled together his top students to host the show. Six students would appear on-camera discussing issues, announcing results and answering e-mail and telephone questions from viewers. One would act as floor director and four others worked in the classroom setting up online interviews, tabulating vote counts and answering phones.
“Democracy equals participation. I live to get kids involved in their government, “ said Crouch. “Government class is easy to check out on. You read the book, you answer the questions and that’s it for some students. But these kids got to see themselves in the equation.”
Crouch said he didn’t select his crew based on their acting talent or television experience.
“I had to go with A’s and B’s and I picked people who were on the right and left (politically),” he said. But he also wanted students who could voice their opinion publicly and be comfortable with a camera pointed at them. “I never want to make a kid look bad on camera.”
On the other side of the country video teacher Bill Phelps from Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Georgia had decided to dive into the project bringing his students and an East Coast perspective to the broadcast.
“Our kids jumped at the opportunity and loved every minute of it,” said Phelps. “This is why I love my job.”
The six Harrison High students came from Phelps’ regular broadcast class. They produce a weekly show called HoyaVision and need to apply for positions on the cast and crew. Phelps had responded to an e-mail I sent out to the RTNDF teacher listserv asking if other schools would help us expand our reporting resources on election night. For some time I’ve wanted to do more than just share daily information with all the great teachers on RTNDF and STN.
Speaking personally, I’d love to do more networking the way the big boys do. As a group we have a wealth of talent, resources and ideas larger than any news-gathering organization on earth. It seems a shame that it’s usually the teachers who do the bulk of the sharing and not the students. This time, we all wanted students to take the lead.
“Merrick actually spurred us on,” said Phelps referring to one of his students Merrick Laughridge. “I had just read (the) initial e-mail asking for possible contributors when Merrick barged into class proclaiming how well she did in her debates. She stated that some day she would want to be a reporter covering politics and I replied, ‘Well, have I got an opportunity for you!’ And we were in.”
Phelps said several other students were quick to step up to the challenge. The assignment also turned into an endurance test for the Georgia crew because the show didn’t start until 7:30 p.m. Pacific Time. Phelps estimates he and his students wrapped up for the night sometime close to midnight Eastern Time. Nonetheless, he said the final result was worth the long day and the students learned a lot more about how life can be for a professional reporter.
“I'm always looking for ways to stretch my student's abilities and to provide them with as many real world experiences as possible. They probably learn more and enjoy the experience more with these real opportunities. Sure beats practice and it's even better since I didn't grade them,” Phelps said.
Just like in the real world, problems can crop up. Early on we figured the best way for students in Washington State to interact live with students in the Georgia was to use a voice-over-Internet service such as Skype. But Harrison High was blocked from using Skype by their district’s IT Department. A backup plan to use US Education TV was tried but the East and West Coast servers were located in Georgia and California respectively so at best there was a six to 10-second delay each way. The team at US Ed tried to improve the situation to no avail. So Phelps decided to gather reinforcements. He picked up support from his principal and CT Department and ultimately convinced IT to drop the Skype connection block for one night. Great news, but we had to wait until nearly show time to test it out.
With a few minutes before airtime Skype was connected and running smoothly. But shortly after we started broadcasting Skype froze up and we were stuck with a stationary image of a TV monitor from the Georgia studio. Unfortunately this information was not immediately passed along to our in-studio anchors so when they called for the feed from Harrison, our show director had no place to go. It led to a few minutes of random video and accidental open mics instead of the dynamic, cross-continent show opening we had hoped for.
After some computer rebooting on both ends the Skype connection returned and Harrison High’s great production piece came through clearly. Using NewTek’s iVGA we were able to bring two networked iMacs up on the Tricaster as switcher inputs so the outgoing Skype picture quality was better than if we had simply pointed a camera at the iMac screen. Later in the show, Skype was used again to interview local candidates live from their homes and campaign headquarters while ballots were still being counted.
Our studio set looked pretty good considering it was assembled quickly after school. The red, white and blue motif was a bit cliché but effective and clean. A couple splashes of red and blue-gelled lights on the white backdrop was a nice touch. Though we considered adding a chromakey election map behind some of the anchors, our homemade whiteboard map just felt more appropriate and reduced potential technology problems by one.
During the weeks leading up to the broadcast Crouch had invited several of the local candidates to his classroom to talk with his students. We took the opportunity to film each of them doing a short promo for our broadcast. Having the candidates endorse our efforts was a bonus and reinforced community involvement with our school and students.
“The students got to see they were real people,” Crouch said. “After hearing from them many of the kids were very frustrated with the fact that they weren’t old enough to vote.”
After the election some students who could vote were still frustrated. One pointed out that he and his peers didn’t get very involved because there really wasn’t much to get excited about— particularly in the presidential race.
“It wasn’t very interesting,” he said. “We were stuck between two average choices.”
Nevertheless, the majority of voting-age students in Crouch’s class did cast a ballot. However several expressed concern that the election seemed more like a popularity contest than an honest vote on issues that mattered. They also felt that when the candidates came to talk to them, most arrived with a prepared text and didn’t really interact unless there were questions.
“They gave a speech,” said one.
Some government students conducted video surveys around school prior to broadcast. Though several people freely volunteered their opinions the production teams discovered a couple problems. One was people’s general lack of knowledge about issues and candidates and the other was a reluctance of some to speak their mind — in particular when it came to the issue of gay marriage because most everyone knows gay people on campus.
“A few people felt awkward,” one student said. “I think people were afraid to show they were against something.”
Technologically speaking we pushed our boundaries and survived. The few hiccups we encountered were never enough to scuttle the show. As frustrating as they can be, glitches are virtually guaranteed in any production, but each can be a teachable moment. I think one of the best things we can teach young people is not to give up when technology goes down. I see far too many students quickly resort to tears, tantrums, complete surrender or physical pounding of a high-tech device that fails to deliver as expected. Very few make an attempt to troubleshoot, mend, replace or adapt. For many if something can’t be repaired with a piece of Scotch tape then they choose to wait for technology to somehow fix itself or leave it for the teacher to fix.
Though our kids are very plugged in to technology most don’t have a clue how any of it works. When tech hangups happen it’s best to show students how to work through a problem or cover for it with alternatives. That’s why such problems can actually be beneficial in the long run, especially when you keep trying and “magically” get something working with barely a few seconds left on the clock — Whew! The lesson is simple and live television is the perfect way to teach it: Don’t give up.
John Stewart on The Daily Show pointed out with some irony that following nearly three years of campaigning, more than $3 billion in expenses and a seemingly endless barrage of debates, scandals and impolite rhetoric from all sides, Obama stayed president, the Senate remained with Democrats and the House held their Republican majority. It might appear that nothing really changed. But for a group of students and teachers on two coasts election night 2012 will always be something special. And for us the final results are still being tabulated.
“I had fun. I had a really dedicated crew and I’m really proud of them,” said director Amber Cathey. “And I’m proud of them for staying until 10:30 at night to clean up and everything.”
Todd Woodruff, chief information officer for US Education TV said our election night coverage is the kind of thing he’d like to encourage.
“Innovative and unique ideas like that make us proud to have schools like you,” said Woodruff.
US Ed’s service worked flawlessly during the entire 2 1/2-hour broadcast and even allowed a viewer in Mexico to tune in. Because Oak Harbor, WA is home to a Navy air base, the ability to now share our students’ work around the world online is a major plus for our program.
Teachers Crouch and Phelps walked away from the event with new ideas, a new appreciation for their students and renewed inspiration for future projects.
“It met or exceeded my expectations,” said Crouch. “I wanted them as a class to be engaged with the democratic process. They were. I wanted them to get involved in their community and for the community to be more involved with them. They did.”
“They loved it and in fact (it has) inspired them to cover the inauguration. They're working on their segments as we speak,” said Phelps. He added that he’d like to do more collaborative broadcasts with other “network” schools in the future.
That idea certainly has my vote.
A replay of our live show is posted at http://www.useducationtv.com/Default.aspx?sid=11626
Oak Harbor High School’s Video Production Website is http://ohhs.ohsd.net/~video
Wildcat TV hosts a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/OHHS-Wildcat-TV/223506664357488 and a Vimeo page at https://vimeo.com/user12228314/videos.
Positive feedback and/or beneficial criticism is always welcome.
Chris Douthitt, video production and broadcasting teacher at Oak Harbor High School, a school of about 1,600 students at the north end of Whidbey Island in Washington State.