I Love Writing on Whiteboards…and Associate Producing Documentary Films!

When I was a kid, all I wanted in life was to be the one to write on the chalkboard, whiteboard, or “smart board” (that were so poorly calibrated back in the day, but the coolest gadgets ever since they were like these huge iPads). Though I come from a family full of teachers, I couldn’t tell you if I was interested in teaching because of the appeal of writing on a board, the inspiring generations of teachers on my mom’s side of the family before me, or if it was all the sparkly decorations in the classroom. But now, after every session in the “Making the Documentary: August Wilson & Pittsburgh,” class, the last thing I do before leaving the class is erase the multitude of notes I wrote on the whiteboards on every side of the room– some of which being notes on students’ research that I stood on chairs to write. Needless to say, I think the inspiration… mostly came from a desire of writing on the boards. 

Jokes aside, the notes I take consist of the students’ heavy research on the subject material, treatments (“themes” of the story) for their sections, quote stringouts, feedback on their rough cuts, and potential interviews/gaps in the story to ensure narrative flow, just to name a few. As you can probably tell, the “Making the Documentary: August Wilson & Pittsburgh” class isn’t production-heavy in nature. However, because we are working with a professional crew when filming interviews, students have been able to “shadow” positions like production, camera, sound, interviewing, and research on film shoots, experiencing how a set comes together. 

Students interviewing and working camera at the Community Engagement Center in the Hill District.

Being the associate producer for the production of the project while being a teaching assistant hasn’t been easy– however, it has taught me a lot about organizing and how students learn. There’s the “sink or swim” method, where you can throw people into a task on set and see how they are able to adapt, and then there’s the methodical and slow breakdown of processes. I’ve found that with the nature of this class, it’s important to employ both– students can’t gain hands-on experience without jumping in, but also can’t learn and retain material when things are moving at such a fast pace.

Learning this from the first shoot where we were under a tight schedule but trying to mentor students at the same time, I’ve been able to modify student involvement for the upcoming shoot we have on October 19th– by assigning specific roles for the shoot so students can spend a longer length of time shadowing professionals for the entire day, gaining confidence and comfortability as the day goes on. 

Interview with Ms. Marimba Milliones, President and CEO of the Hill Community Development Corporation

Beyond on-set experience, what has been more exciting from a teaching assistant perspective is seeing how students have been crafting the “story” of the documentary based on the 12+ interviews we have collected thus far. Last week, we had students present their midterm project rough outlines, where they were to put together a “paper cut” (basically a paper version of what their video edits will look like for the midterm). This was so we could provide feedback before midterms were due and evaluate whether the group was headed in a narrative direction that was purposeful to the overall documentary. The groups truly blew us away with the amount of effort they poured into doing further research, finding the best of the best quotes, and creating sequences that were almost fully polished. 

My favorite part of watching their storytelling process evolve includes seeing the way their individual experiences and perspectives translate into the way they told their portion of the story, and the types of stories they enjoy focusing on (some students are intrigued by the history of jazz in the Hill, Black justice movements over the course of history, or the significance of the architecture behind the August Wilson House). The hope is to have a culmination of points of view under one umbrella thesis guiding the rough cut of the documentary that we will produce at the end of the semester– having these many diverse perspectives is rare when working on a documentary with a subject matter as significant as this one. 

I’ve found that in the midst of a global pandemic where even I am struggling keeping up with academics, extracurriculars, and balancing my small remnants of social life, it’s important to maintain meaningful relationships with students, checking in on them regularly, and making sure they understand assignments and are able to keep up, especially when it comes to group work where communication can be difficult. At first, I didn’t know how I could contribute meaningfully to the class or how I could balance working on the documentary outside of the class while assisting with certain class elements. But like I mentioned, the students and their perspectives on both the production process and storytelling process has honestly taught me so much about how to be a better mentor, organizer, and storyteller– I learn as much from them as I hope they might learn from me!

Setting up sound for our first interview of the day!

This extra layer of student-teaching assistant interaction was the biggest difference between this work that I started in the summer through my Community Research Fellowship and now continue during the Chancellor’s Teaching Fellowship. While completing the CRF, I worked with my faculty mentor, Carl Kurlander, on a variety of virtual mini-documentaries. This foundational relationship ensured that I was someone that could be trusted handling a project at the scale of the August Wilson documentary, so the idea of us working together on the project had officially been established when I started the Community Research Fellowship. From there, it made sense to continue the work as a teaching assistant, as I knew the material well from the summer, and possessed the producing skills to help guide students through the process of documentary filmmaking and storytelling. 

However, this opportunity didn’t just fall into my lap. From my experience, when you have genuine curiosity and interest about a class subject and that curiosity is proven by the amount of work and the quality of work you pour into any class, project, or assignment, it’s very difficult for teachers not to want to work with you more. The best way to showcase this early on?


– my mother, a tenured professor

My mom who is an organic chemistry professor (how did I end up as a film major, I know), gave me this advice the week before I started college classes. Attend them not just when you’re confused about something, not right before an exam, but go at the start of the year! That way, the professor not only sees that you have a genuine passion in the subject matter, but they also have an early and positive experience that they’re more likely to remember and associate you with. 

In my screenwriting class, where I first met Carl, I had meetings with him almost weekly. I had been churning out screenplay pages based on a concept that I wanted to center my script around, but none of them were relating to each other nor flowing. Finally, mid-semester, we landed on a solid topic with substance– writing about my experiences at the Technology Student Association competitions (where my passion for filmmaking actually began), and that was turned into a coming-of-age comedy filled with experiences both true and exaggerated. Later on, I was given the chance to pitch that same screenplay to Hollywood professionals including Rusty Cundieff and Norm Aladjem. Again, you never know when an opportunity will strike, but that comes with putting yourself out there first, sharing your experiences with your professors, and really showing that you take your work and the class seriously!

I have been passionate about this project for almost half a year now, and that passion continues to grow with each new class day and new shoot where we make new discoveries about the subject matter and about each other. For anyone looking to learn more about teaching but aren’t sure where to start, I would say to place yourself in the students’ shoes. If you were in the class, what would you appreciate from your teacher or teaching assistants? Personally, I love having clarification that I’m staying on track with an assignment or project. Therefore, after classes that may be confusing because we are jumping from subject to subject due to the fact that there are several moving parts to this documentary that all relate but are still unique, I send out very detailed notes via email that I take in class so that students have a clear idea of what we went over in class, and what they’re focusing on next. This is so that instead of worrying about typing or writing out our feedback vigorously, they can absorb the purpose of the feedback in real time.

Put yourself in the students’ shoes 😎

I’d also say to make sure you’re ready to invest in students. This is something I’m still working on as I am balancing my own academic life, but recognizing students’ strengths and needs and playing to that patiently is so vital for their personal success. Lastly, though it may be the most basic advice, GET ORGANIZED! Organization can take you such a long way and make things easier for yourself, the teacher you’re assisting, and the students. Use your own method of organizing, whether that’s a calendar, shared Google Drive folder, after-class emails, or even handwritten notes– whatever you feel most comfortable with and one that is still universally understood.

Being a teaching assistant is certainly fulfilling, but the best part of the job (other than writing on the whiteboards) is certainly seeing the growth within myself and students as the class progresses. Although we are only halfway through the semester, I am positive that the class’s end product for the documentary will be a truly collaborative & creative piece, one that exemplifies what we’ve learned from the class and from each other!

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