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Docurriculum: IDA in the Schools

By Deborah Claesgens

Left to right: Los Angeles-area high school students arriving for IDA's Docs Rock program; Students attending Docs Rock.

Teacher Tony Saavedra scoffed when he heard that IDA was bringing 40 weeks of documentary study and production to his high school English class in San Pedro, California. “I didn’t believe an organization of film- and video-makers would have the courage to take on a ponderous school system, or accept classroom teachers as partners,” he maintains. “I had tough questions about how the IDA saw the role of documentaries in education and the IDA had the right answers.”

Not only does IDA’s outreach program, entitled Docs Rock, treat documentaries as a form of literature worthy of critical study, but the course is also a pilot for establishing media arts study standards throughout Los Angeles and beyond. California, and potentially eight other states, could place the curriculum in their schools over the next three years, opening up opportunities for documentary distribution directly into secondary education.

Docs Rock was founded on the belief that documentaries encourage the essential human qualities of analysis and creativity that remain largely ignored by the popular media surrounding high school students today. Individuals who think critically about media from the perspective of what is artful nonfiction and fiction storytelling will value and support the documentary form.

In response to that belief, Saavedra has become a leading advocate and teacher of the Docs Rock outreach program, which began last month. Saavedra is taking 60 students from San Pedro—a seaport community with a mix of students from African American, Asian, Eastern European and Latin cultures—through the study of documentaries compiled from IDA’s membership. The students were recruited last May through a screening event with filmmakers Paul Espinosa and Arthur Dong.

Working with documentary makers, Saavedra will guide students through nine categories of academic standards, from understanding documentaries in relation to history and culture to the mastery of over 30 reading, writing and comprehension skills. Students will observe, critique, challenge, defend, advocate, think independently and review each documentary, examining how fiction and nonfiction storytelling result in different forms of art and media. Finally, students will be challenged to shape what they have learned about media storytelling into their own fully produced documentaries by working in collaboration with documentary makers.

The Docs Rock team includes Saavedra; filmmakers and IDA members Lyn Goldfarb and Thelma Vickroy; John Ramirez, a film professor at California State University Los Angeles; Rich Burrows, Visual and Performing Arts Director at the Los Angles Unified School District; and Jacquie Augustus, a media arts education consultant.

Among the texts to be included are Erik Barnouw’s Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film; Richard Barsam’s Non-Fiction Film: A Critical History; and Media Truth or Fiction: What Can You Believe? The films in the curriculum include Natives: Immigrant Bashing on the Boarders; The Negro Soldier (Frank Capra); The Lemon Grove Incident (Paul Espinosa); and selected segments from VH1’s Behind the Music, A&E’s Biography, PBS newsmagazines, and programs on Discovery Channel and the History Channel.

Since documentaries often focus on controversial points of view and are not rated, an important element of the class is a parent/student/teacher agreement. The agreement allows teachers to choose from a wide variety of subject matter, while giving parents and students the option to screen teacher-chosen alternative pieces.

Key to the adoption of the course into the school day calendar is the use of affordable digital hardware and software. Apple G4 and Final Cut Pro are the configurations of choice, since mastery of the technology is an important element of the program.

Bringing Docs Rock to a level equal to the study of literature, theatre and music began over eight years ago with IDA’s first outreach programs. Since then, over 200 elementary and secondary schools have benefited from field trips, screenings and classroom visitations by documentary makers. From visits and field trips, IDA developed more comprehensive, month-long classroom preparations and filmmaker residencies through collaborations with such entities as the Light Bringer Project, the HeArt Project and the Wonder of Reading Program. The explosion in news magazines, biographies and “reality television” sparked a profound discussion of the documentary form within the organization and convinced the IDA Board that a serious educational initiative aimed at 12-to-20-year-olds was needed. Docs Rock is the next logical step in IDA’s ongoing outreach efforts.

The IDA Board and the senior staff at the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department joined forces to launch Docs Rock, which has been made possible, in part, by the City of Los Angeles Development Fee fund.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has also stepped up to play a major role in the curriculum’s distribution. IDA is currently seeking underwriting for a sizable video library of documentaries. The strength of Docs Rock was tested at the National Media Education Conference this past June in Austin, Texas. Out of 30 participants in the test workshop, ten high schools from seven states submitted written requests for further discussion as distribution sites. Such response indicates what is hoped to be steady growth and a bright future for Docs Rock.


Deborah Claesgens is and executive producer for organizations and corporations that support creativity. She currently serves as program director of Docs Rock.