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Students become stars in class movies

Fourth- and fifth-graders have fun and work as teams during a video project that complements their class work.

By LORRI HELFAND

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001


Fans whooped, hollered and pressed against the guide ropes as celebrities strutted down the red carpet for the debut of two new movies. As the stars passed by wearing glittering gowns and slick suits, they waved, signed autographs and struck poses for the paparazzi.

Of course, if you looked closely, you'd notice that the carpet was a 90-foot roll of construction paper, that most of the stars were fourth- and fifth-graders and that their clamoring fans were proud parents and siblings.

"Whether we have to stand or sit, we're always here," said Sharon Gibbons, whose son Chris, 12, was assistant director on the fifth-grade project.

Under the guidance of acting coach Missy Ward Schlesman, the students at Skycrest Elementary School produced two 10-minute movies. Schlesman made sure every student had a role, from production assistant to lead actor. The only jobs the 300 students didn't fill were writer and editor. Schlesman wrote the two scripts six months ago while on tour with a production of Sleeping Beauty. And she enlisted the the help of a friend, professional editor Joel Robertson, who edited the project for free.

Each grade produced one video project. Fourth-graders shot Back to the Past, a story about a boy who daydreams that he lived in the St. Petersburg-Clearwater area more than a century ago. And fifth-graders shot Nobody's Perfect, a modern-day story about three outcasts who support each other and discover their own strengths.

It was standing room only as family members crammed into the cafeteria to get a glimpse of their children's masterpieces.

They weren't disappointed. The videos had sharp titles, catchy background music and performers who knew their lines and hit their marks.

Assistant principal Mark Jones noted the families' enthusiasm and said he thinks the enhanced art program will make Skycrest more attractive to parents as the district approaches school choice.

Schlesman, 33, who works for the Pinellas County Arts Council, has appeared in numerous projects, including local theater, commercials, independent films and voice-overs.

She came to Skycrest a year ago thanks to art teacher Shannon Livingston, who applied for a $9,000 grant from the Pinellas County Arts Council to boost the school's art program. The grant also brought other artists and musicians to Skycrest.

The arrangement worked out so well that Livingston applied for another grant. But she received $4,500, half the original amount, which would cover only one resident artist.

Livingston said Skycrest's visual arts and music departments were strong, but that she wanted to develop the school's performing arts program. So she brought Schlesman back.

The grant paid Schlesman's salary, but it didn't cover all of the production expenses, so Schlesman and Livingston had to be industrious.

"It was begging and borrowing. Anything we could do to get supplies," Livingston said.

The camera equipment was supplied by the school, and Schlesman borrowed a microphone from a friend and costumes from the Sarasota Players.

She chose outdoor lighting for most scenes, but for the indoor shots, she used $5 clamp lights from the hardware store. And to create soft lighting, she covered poster board with foil for makeshift reflectors.

Livingston and Schlesman said they came up with the idea for the video projects last year while brainstorming about creative projects for the kids.

But Schlesman said her goal definitely wasn't fun and games.

"I wanted to give them a taste of what responsibility is in the real world. I was pretty strict," she said. If the kids goofed off, they were "fired" and had to sit on the sidelines, Schlesman said.

Prop master Craig Miller, 10, agreed that making movies wasn't as easy as it looks.

"I learned that you really have to work hard and be strong because you have to lift up stuff," he said.

Livingston said that the projects were meant to complement the students' lesson plans. The fourth-graders study Florida history, so their project was set in the 1880s and shot at Heritage Village. The fifth-graders read The Secret Garden and Bridge to Terabithia, so Schlesman blended themes in both books and wrote a story about children who find friendship in a secret hide-out.

"We're kind of tricking them into learning things they need to know. They have no clue they're learning," Livingston said. "Let them think they're just having a ball."

Besides having fun, several students said that they learned the value of working as a team.

"If the crew wasn't there, I couldn't do the movie," said Milena Dhana, 10, lead actor in Nobody's Perfect.

For some, such as John Furey, 9, a fourth-grade actor, the experience sparked future ambitions in the movie business.

"I might want to do that," he said. "The problem is, I know in the real movies you gotta memorize a lot of lines."

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