New York boasts some of the top film schools in the country, with New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts downtown and Columbia University uptown.
Now, some of the city’s youngest students are getting ready for their close-ups and taking turns behind the camera. CineKids, a new education initiative from the Film Society of Lincoln Center that launched in January, brings film education to three public elementary schools on the Upper West Side.
Film Society champions emerging filmmakers and has worked to bring appreciation of the art form to high school age students, but this is the first integrated education program for the 45-year-old institution, and a unique one: according to Amy Poux, Film Society’s director of education, most video and film programs aren’t geared toward younger children, even though the explosion of digital technology means that elementary school pupils are increasingly media savvy.
“The whole concept of doing a residency in a classroom that’s focused on art house cinema is a completely new thing,” Poux said.
Film Society partnered with Brooklyn-based arts organization BRIC to develop a tiered curriculum for kindergarten through fifth-grade students. Through BRIC, professional filmmakers visit classrooms twice a week, teaching the youngest students about animation and stop motion, with second- and third-grade classes exploring silent film and fourth- and fifth-graders looking at experimental work. Throughout the eight to 10 week program, students at P.S. 191, P.S. 75 and P.S. 163 make their own films, which screen at a program-wide film festival in June. Film Society worked with Community School District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul to place teaching artists in schools in Lincoln Center’s home district.
By approaching film clips in a similar manner to written texts — students learn about narrative and character development as well as camera and editing techniques — the program helps grow visual literacy while reaching students as they’re developing foundational reading skills, Poux said.
Meanwhile, children accustomed to YouTube clips, superhero franchises and six-second Vine videos watch silent Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin films, experimental shorts from the 1950s and 1960s, and Eadweard Muybridge’s “Horse in Motion,” an 1878 stop motion film often credited as the world’s first motion picture.
Through the program, Ayelet Cutler’s fourth-graders explored magnetism and electricity by filming magnets floating in the air and iron filings moving in slow motion, and took turns as directors, assistant directors and camera operators.
“It gave them an opportunity to work in a more creative outlet,” said Cutler, teaches at P.S. 163 on W. 97th Street near Amsterdam Avenue. “Traditionally school is very academic, and a lot of them don’t always get a chance to show their strengths. I saw different students shine.”
The program is funded for a three-year run through a $200,000 grant from the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, though it could become a more permanent fixture if additional funding is secured. More money could also mean more schools and more students benefit from the program. Currently, one class per grade level at each school participates in the program, which serves about 480 students. Cutler’s students want to take the class in fifth grade, she said, but not all of them will have access to it once the class disperses.
“It’s hard to imagine a student of any kind going to any school in the city of New York who isn’t able to have access to institutions like Film Society,” said the Film Society’s executive director, Lesli Klainberg, who has children in the city’s public schools. “This is the most culturally rich city in the world. I think all of us in the arts are working really hard to make it accessible to young people.”
Cutler plans to incorporate some elements of the program into the rest of her curriculum by adding drawing, drama and other artistic components to academic exercises, allowing students to express ideas in visual ways.
“Some kids may not feel confident in writing because that’s not how they express themselves,” said Poux. “Giving kids a visual medium, one they’re already so familiar and adept with, we’re saying this is valid, too.”