Educational Media

While at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I thought a lot about the relative strengths and weaknesses of television, print, and multimedia. One medium wasn’t enough, I realized. The trick was to combine them. The ideal was a perfect interplay, specific to each lesson, that would maximize the total impact.

Ice Stories is an initiative I worked on for the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco that draws on the different strengths of contemporary media. The project involves teaching media production to scientists conducting polar research. The idea was to empower them to speak directly to the public through a variety of media—including blogs, video, and photography. By doing so, Ice Stories “humanizes” scientists and their research. It brings them into the era of Facebook and YouTube and reveals the texture of daily work on the ice.

I wrote the scripts and did most of the research for DanceSense, a 10-program instructional series about dance for middle-school students.

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With its immediacy and ability to show action, television is perfect for the series content. It captures the physicality of dance and the athletic skill of dancers while enabling students to see many kinds of dances.

The power of television to convey dance is also evident in Helen Starr, Dancer, a short documentary I produced about a retired ballerina looking back on her performing career.

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Street Skills is a four-program driver-education series for high-school sophomores.  I originated the concept, did a good deal of the research, and wrote the scripts. TV is the best way to deliver this content to adolescents. Problem is, the adolescent audience is hard to reach. Teenagers see a lot of media, and they’re extremely judgmental. For a project about safe driving, you also have to get past the overlay of adolescent bravado.

Based on what we learned, it was clear the traditional approach would not work. You couldn’t bludgeon kids with films of highway carnage, one gross-out wreck after another. They were in too much denial. So you had to lure them in and try to introduce fear in subtle ways. You had to start by acknowledging that driving means freedom. The series had to be teen-friendly, with playful imagery and the right music, but it shouldn’t try too hard. Beneath that cool, each program should be dense with the information and tips that teens secretly hunger for.

We got great footage and interviews, but it was obvious they wouldn’t be enough. Some important points couldn’t be made well in the flow of imagery and sound. So we developed a classroom guide, which I wrote, that tied up those loose ends with the detail that print could best provide.

A lot of people poured their talent into Street Skills, especially producer Janet Whitaker. Actor Josh Hopkins (Cougar Town) was an engaging host, like a hip older brother. Liz Hobson served as executive producer. The series was a finalist (12 out of 800 applicants) for the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Community Services Award. It’s used in thousands of high schools across the U.S.

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American Shorts views theater as a social art that resonates with the needs and concerns of the community. Society, in effect, “acts out” onstage. In the program format for American Shorts, the drama is followed by a documentary segment that takes viewers backstage to explore the play’s social and creative context. For example, Poof!, by Lynn Nottage, confronts the issue of domestic violence by offering a startling, comic perspective on the subject.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Poof!, which starred Rosie Perez and Viola Davis.

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Poof! is accompanied by a short documentary on African-American women playwrights called A Voice to be Reckoned With, produced by Guy Mendes. Nancy Carpenter was exeutive producer of the series.

Poof! churns up many questions and areas for discussion. The Web format lets you ramble through those questions and subject areas, exploring them on your own —which is the great strength of multimedia. The site content includes teaching resources for Poof!, a section on domestic abuse, a section on regional theaters, and interviews with the writer and cast.

I wrote a good deal for the Poof! site, including two pieces worth noting. Serious Comedy looks at how playwrights have used the power of laughter to heighten drama and convey meaning. Black Women Playwrights: A Short History in Three Acts examines the work of those who paved the way for Lynn Nottage and her contemporaries.