Education

Orchard Park Elementary students produce daily newscast with the aid of some "green" technology

Above, sports reporter Joseph Cutrone delivers his sportscast in front of a green screen at Orchard Park Elementary School in Fort Mill last week. Students watching TV in their classrooms will see a football in the background. Below, Orchard Park assistant principal Michael Pratt directs the news anchors while producer Clare DuVal, 11, works the control board during the recording.
Above, sports reporter Joseph Cutrone delivers his sportscast in front of a green screen at Orchard Park Elementary School in Fort Mill last week. Students watching TV in their classrooms will see a football in the background. Below, Orchard Park assistant principal Michael Pratt directs the news anchors while producer Clare DuVal, 11, works the control board during the recording.

Dana Vaughns was bored with working on his morning TV news show. He and co-anchor Madelon Thompson would sit, heads down, in front of outdated clunky cameras reading the day's news from sheets of paper.

"It wasn't upbeat," said Dana, an Orchard Park Elementary fifth-grader. "It was the same thing every day."

That all changed in October, when assistant principal Michael Pratt painted the studio wall green. Nearly identical to "green screens" used by television and film crews, it lets students superimpose any backdrop they choose -- from snowflakes to psychedelic swirls.

Pratt also added a digital camera and editing software.

Now the children show up eager to work.

"It's very fun," Dana said.

Many schools have student-run newscasts, but Pratt uses technology to take Orchard Park's program a step further.

The group gathers at about 7:30 a.m. daily in their studio -- a room in the library -- to write and film the next day's five-minute show. Students in every classroom watch the broadcast on a digital white board, an interactive touch-screen about the size of a chalkboard. Parents can watch the show on the school's Web site.

Pratt is an enthusiastic director who coaches the kids with waving arms and thumbs up.

One morning, Joseph Cutrone, still easing into his new role as "sports guy," leaned toward the camera and rattled off a list of upcoming football games. On a TV screen, a giant football spun behind him.

"You started off with high energy, then fizzled out," Pratt told him. "Keep that energy."

Before the new equipment and green paint, "it was so hard to get them to be natural," Pratt said later. Now the kids go online to research sports scores and weather reports. They face the camera, read lines off a teleprompter and ad-lib. And because the show's no longer live, they have several takes to nail it.

"I think it helps him be more extroverted," said Joseph's mom, Geisel. "In a group setting, Joseph doesn't come out of his shell. This is changing that."

Media specialist Sharon Krebs launched the news program soon after the school opened in 2001. Each semester, she chooses a group of fifth-graders to run it based on interviews and teacher recommendations.

"I don't even look at their grades," she said. "I mean, it's good for their self-esteem."

Krebs and Pratt said they're impressed with the students' speed in learning the new equipment.

Clare Duval, 11, is producer, a role she called a perfect fit because she loves telling the others what to do.

"I'm very leaderish," she said.

Soon after Pratt painted the wall and added Adobe's Visual Communicator software, Clare began arriving early to write and edit the newscast.

Anchors Dana and Madelon, both 10, read announcements, tell viewers what's on the lunch menu and announce birthdays.

Azaria Goodwin, the 10-year-old "weather woman," announces her report in front of a blue sky full of puffy, white clouds.

When the camera rolls, the children are all business. Between takes, they're fifth-graders.

"I'm the next James Brown," Dana exclaimed one morning.

"You're the next something," Pratt said.

Dana shot back: "I'm the new generation."

Pratt, who got the idea to add a green screen at an education leadership conference, sees the news program as a starting point. He hopes to get more students involved by having teachers schedule time to use the studio for class projects.

When president-elect Barack Obama is inaugurated on Jan. 20, Pratt plans to have the Orchard Park news team broadcast in front of an image of the White House -- "an on-the-scene report, kind of."

"We're going to have 100 kids (using the studio) pretty soon," Pratt said. "What got me going on this is people saying 'I don't think elementary kids can do this.'"

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