Freeport nonprofit helps students tell digital stories

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FREEPORT — Smart phones and social media have made it easier than ever for students to shoot, edit and share their own videos and short films.

The problem is that most of these videos aren’t very good.

But what if students took that creative energy and technological savvy and channeled it into something academic?

That’s the concept behind Meridian Stories, an educational nonprofit that develops digital storytelling competitions for middle school and high school classrooms.

“A lot of students, especially the younger ones, will create videos and post them on their Facebook pages just to get a reaction, to crack people up, to make themselves more popular,” said Brett Pierce, of Freeport, creator of Meridian Stories.

“But the videos are often offensive, or they’re dumb, or they have no meaning,” Pierce continued. “We’re trying to take that desire to create and redirect it in a path where there’s curriculum and thought involved. They’ve got the skills, but it takes educational structure to enable them to use those skills.”

Pierce has made his career developing curricular-driven media. He previously worked for Sesame Workshop, the New York-based nonprofit behind “Sesame Street.” There he worked in the international department, taking children’s shows like “Ghostwriter,” which teaches literacy skills, or “Square One Television,” a math program, and reformatting them for countries including China, Poland, Israel, Ecuador and Indonesia.

More recently, he worked with the U.S. Institute of Peace to create a reality game show for Iraqi teenagers called “Salam Shabab,” or “peace youth.” On the show, contestants participate in a series of challenges, one of which requires them to create a film.

“I learned from that experience that kids, when in a friendly, competitive environment, and when asked to tell a story, to form a narrative, can produce some pretty amazing material,” Pierce said.

Today, Meridian Stories is in its third year and has 35 participating schools, including Freeport High School, Yarmouth High School, North Yarmouth Academy and Durham Community School.

Pierce creates a new set of challenges for teachers and students to choose from each year. For example, students might read a passage by Edgar Allan Poe and film a scene in his style, taking into account genre, language and character. Then they would edit and score it and upload it to the Meridian Stories website.

“That’s an incredibly rich educational process, and it’s all related to common core goals,” Pierce said.

To date, students have made raps about immigration, radio dramas about the Civil War, and movie trailers about Supreme Court cases.

The videos are judged by a panel of professionals using a rubric that looks at content mastery, storytelling and media literacy.

So far, it’s been a hit with both teachers and students.

“It’s a great way to add some excitement and get students to express themselves in new ways, in ways that might be applicable for them in their careers,” said Christopher Nolan, a teacher at Freeport High School, whose sophomore English students created dystopian films inspired by “Fahrenheit 451.” “It’s helpful for us as teachers to see a source for lesson plans that’s interesting for the kids – hands on, gets them out of their seats – but also based in analysis and deep thinking.”

Maddy Whittemore, a student at Yarmouth High School, starred in a third-place film made in her AP environmental science class. The senior played a series of chemical elements – chlorine, radon and phosphorus – searching for compatibility in a takeoff of “The Dating Game.”

“I like these projects because you can really go your own way,” Whittemore said. “If you’re into movies, or making movies, it gives you the opportunity to show off, and it’s really fun to be creative with it.”

Lisa Blier, a teacher at Freeport High, has used Meridian Stories in her English and public speaking courses. Her freshman English class recently won a challenge in which students made photographic storyboards based on “The Odyssey.”

“I’ve seen a lot of student videos that have been quickly put together, not much thought, and sort of the easy way out compared to the essay,” Blier said. “But if we adhere to very explicit expectations, and keep the bar high, I think we will be seeing some pretty amazing products come out of this.”

Pierce charges schools based on the size of the student body; the smallest schools pay $250 to participate for one year, the largest pay $950, and most fall somewhere in between.

Although the number of participating schools has nearly tripled in the three years since Meridian Stories was created, the program will have to grow at a much faster rate if it has any hope of being self-sufficient, Pierce said.

“This won’t survive unless it is scaled up significantly,” he said.

To date, all but one of Meridian Stories’ schools have been in Maine. Pierce is currently seeking grant funds to market the business and expand it on a regional or national level. But regardless of how far Meridian Stories goes, Pierce knows the skills it teaches will only become more essential in the working world.

“Nobody’s just writing content anymore,” he said. “Training in text allows you to organize thought, but to effectively communicate those ideas, you need to be able to utilize video and multimedia. Even PowerPoint is looking a little faded and outdated these days.

“Digital storytelling is the new literacy.”

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter:@brendantwist.