Classroom of the Week: Sixth grade film project takes flight at Hancock Elementary


HANCOCK — They're the little class that could.

When sixth-grade teacher Valerie "Val" Kohn proposed to her Hancock Elementary School class the idea of entering the inaugural "Whole Picture Film Contest," they took flight with the idea to film the plight and migration of monarch butterflies.

The hours, research, and attention to detail the students put into this project earned them not only the title "The Fabulous Five" — yes, they're a class of just five girls — their efforts also earned them the top prizes in both their grade level category and contest overall.

"The ladies worked very hard on this project and it was nice to see their hard work and perseverance rewarded with first prize," said interim Principal Jenevra Strock, who gave the class their nickname.

"You will find 'The Fab Five' a delightful group of girls and Val a dedicated teacher," she said.

The film contest is sponsored by the Haydenville-based educational nonprofit Horse Mountain Institute and the World in Balance Awards, and is open to students in grades 3 to 12 in the Western Massachusetts counties of Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire. It's aligned with the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks for English Language Arts and Literacy. The contest asks entrants to: pick an issue, challenge or problem that's important to them; research the issue thoroughly; develop a solution; make a call to action; and to create a video of a duration of 5 minutes or fewer.

The Hancock Elementary crew took about a month to create their film, which involved countless hours of research and script writing, the creation of nearly 30 hand puppets, several painted backdrops, and lots of rehearsals and editing. It was filmed entirely with an iPad, and can be viewed here via YouTube:

"I thought it was completely charming," said Jim Lemkin, director of Horse Mountain Institute Inc. and the Whole Picture Film Contest. He has also been a practicing naturopathic doctor for 37 years. He said his organization, through professional development and programs like the contest are "dedicated to trying to spread competency, holistic thinking and action" — values Kohn said are also aligned with her approaches in the classroom.

"They covered their bases with the contest in the way it was designed, they researched it from the butterfly to the construction person's perspectives, and they were able to seek out and present their cause and did it in a way that was kind while offering information from a variety of points of view," Lemkin said of the Hancock entry, "A Monarch's Journey."

The class members include Haley Williams, Riley Morse, Hannah Chase, Grace Lillie and Bryn Angelini. They said the film was inspired by the school's butterfly garden, established last year by Kohn, and their class conversations. They've worked with Amy Pulley of Cummington to learn about pollinator gardens and will use their prize money of $300 to purchase supplies for the garden this spring.

Monarch butterflies and other pollinators are integral members of preserving and sustaining local ecosystems, but their livelihood, food sources and habitat are often threatened by deforestation, pollution, pesticides and other developments that have a negative impact on the environment.

"I think all of you really care about the environment," said Kohn to her girls, "and I think you all learned how to persist at something."

Asked what they learned from the process of making a film, something they've never done, Chase said, "In one word: patience."

They learned how to each write a script and then had to decide the best parts of each person's writing to include in the actual film. They had to deal with camera malfunctions, and learn how to annunciate and how to make puppets move in a lively manner. They disagreed, but also talked it out.

"We've learned how to get along," said Angelini.

Williams admitted that she's not one who prefers to work with others, but said, "If you make a group effort and all put into it, you can do something to be proud of yourselves."

Morse said that being such a small group from a small school gave her some doubt on whether the class's film would make the cut.

"Either way, we all care about what we do and we all take pride in what we do, and we work together," she said. "And as long as you have fun, it will work out."

Kohn, who will retire at the end of this school year, said she could not be more pleased with the group, noting that her role was to "be a guide" and let the students lead the project. She watched them go from taking 45 minutes to film the first scene, to moving along at a swift and deadline-driven pace, doing work both in and outside of school hours.

The Fab Five say they look forward to passing their legacy and care of the butterfly garden to the next sixth-grade group, and say that they'll always be grateful for the bonds they've formed this year.

"We fight sometimes, but we value each person's opinion. We're a big happy family," Lillie said.


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