Life in the Box: Grade School Documentaries


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Video-making and sharing is so easy now. Just hold up your phone, push a few buttons, and Granny can laugh at your puppy’s antics or her grandchild’s first steps. But, just like anything else, when you want to tell a video story about something a little more complex, one that’s of interest to more people than just Granny, you have to start thinking like a television producer.

There’s a contest for students in junior high and high school that gives them the experience of producing short documentaries of up to ten minutes. It’s the National History Day contest, an annual event with local and state levels, and students have been creating some pretty exciting entries.

Last year, I got to judge the videos at the state level, and it really opened my eyes to how sophisticated kids are getting. Not only did they find some remarkable stories—some of which I hadn’t heard before—but they also presented them well, using the medium to tell rich stories.

For instance, did you know that a team of women designed and physically assembled a huge computer during World War II that helped calculate important details for aiming and firing weapons under varying wind and weather conditions?

Thousands of these mathematical calculations had been done by teams of women manually, but that was too slow, so this computer, the ENIAC, improved the speed tremendously. Because they were women, the inventors of this computer were not credited with their work, at least not until a graduate student at Harvard “discovered” them, fifty years later.

The high school student who told this story for National History Day was able to borrow visuals and first-person interviews for her project from the internet, she then wrote and narrated her own piece, and she edited a fine story that captured our attention and kept us interested.

She knew how to use transitional elements like dissolves, and “Ken Burns moves” to keep still photos zooming in and out, and she made legible titles and lower third name keys.

These are the basics tools of television, and students are learning so much without ever stepping into a TV studio. I love this, and hope more schools will encourage kids to step beyond camera phone snapshots into the world of “storytelling through video.”

National History Day Information

ENIAC Information

author-picture2smallerNancy Heather Brown has had the unique experience of producing, writing, and editing nonfiction television as part of a broadcasting career that spans four decades. Today, she uses gems from this treasure trove of life stories to add sparkle to her reflections on the creative process. She’s harvested these jewels in the Midwest, namely Iowa and Illinois. A little slide show of her career, prepared for a reunion with Illinois State University television students, is available on YouTube, and some videos from her favorite series, “Living in Iowa,” are posted online at Iowa Public Television. 

Nancy Heather Brown at YouTube

Nancy Heather Brown at Iowa Public Television, “Living in Iowa”

Nancy Heather Brown at Iowa Public Television, including Dewey Readmore Books

Wikimedia Image  

National History Day Contest explained 

Video about ENIAC Women (not the student entry, which was not posted)