Michelle Comstock

Writing Instructor

What is a writing teacher doing in a high school digital video workshop?
A Reflection on the Digital Autodrama Project

On a winter afternoon, February 18, 2004, I sat at the back of a crowded classroom in an urban high school listening to drama teacher, Jose Mercado explain the next assignment, the “autodrama” (dramatic monologues that allow students to act and “speak from the heart). Jose then introduces “something that has never been done before” at Denver North: students will write, direct, act, and videotape their performances. The autodramas will become digital projects, created by the students for a community digital arts festival. Three of my advanced composition students (Sarah, Gillian, and Trish) will record and reflect on the process for their semester-long documentary project. ( ENGL 3084 Spring 2004 Syllabus.)

As they enter the classroom, Jose reintroduces the Digital Landscapes videographers and community filmmakers, Scott Slack and Scott Randolph, who are there to help the students digitize their autodramas Wearing t-shirts, caps, and cargo pants, the “Scotts” (as they’re nicknamed) teach us the key steps in the project—in four weeks (4-8 class periods) students will be able to “write a script, block it out, and shoot it,” “tell a story,” “play with color and lights.” Jose tells me later that he is convinced these video shorts will help students professionally beyond the classroom, as a kind of digital acting portfolio.

The Scotts then introduce me: “Class, this is Michelle Comstock. She’s an English professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, who is here with her composition students to document our project.” One of my students, Trish, is there that first day, and I introduce her to the class. As the students look back at us, I feel like I should add more to the introduction, explain more concretely our reasons for being there. But I’m not even sure I know why I’m there. In fact, I feel a little out of my element. A writing teacher watching high school students produce videos? While I’m off running this long line of existential inquiry, Scott Slack begins writing on the dry erase board: “Write one line, one sentence from your ‘stream of consciousness’ draft. The sentence will serve as a filter for your entire 10-minute autodrama.” After some writing, students begin sharing their “one-liners”: “That’s not what I’m about,” says one student, who then elaborates: “People here at school think I’m a certain way, and that’s not what I’m about.” I suddenly feel at home again; writing is happening; a making sense through words, the forming of images and movement through language. I latch onto to the possibilities of teaching writing via new media and its grammar. What if in my own writing courses I no longer taught the “thesis statement” but used a more visual metaphor, like filter, something more accessible to my visually literate students?

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