Learning First Alliance

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High School Filmmakers Earn Their Keep

Peter_Rosten's picture

Editor's Note: Yesterday, Hollywood producer turned Montana educator Peter Rosten sent us the following remarks about his school's innovative filmmaking program:

Greetings from Montana!

A friend of mine, Jan Lombardi, is the education policy advisor for Montana’s Governor, Brian Schweitzer. Recently Jan forwarded me a “Learning First” newsletter and pointed to an article titled “Learning in the Community: Teen Filmmakers Talk About Their Work and Its Impact on Their Lives”.

After reading this inspiring story, I reached out to Claus von Zastrow. Perhaps he’d be interested in a pretty cool media program here in the Bitterroot Valley in rural Western, Montana.

And here we are...

In 2004, we created MAPS: Media Arts in the Public Schools. (Be sure to visit our website and Youtube page.) The initial goal was to educate under-served, rural students in the media arts--and since ‘movies’ are cool, there was a healthy and eager response.

In 2005, The MAPS mission added the word “train” to “educate,” because the Ravalli County DUI (“Driving Under the Influence”) Task Force hired our students (for a modest fee) to produce a couple of TV spots. Several months later, the completed spots aired statewide on the CBS television affiliates--and a big thank you to DUI honcho, Glenda Wiles.

In 2006, the MAPS mission statement expanded again: “To Inspire, Educate, Train and Create Quality Jobs for Montana Youth”. The success of this client-driven, fee-based project led to more assignments and higher revenues; as a result, quality jobs were created for MAPS students. Last year, the MAPS 14 - 18 year old filmmakers crafted television commericals that aired in 38 states, and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) acquired the rights to their "Tobacco Prevention" documentary for distribution to schools nationwide. Revenues grew to six figures. Pretty cool for any kids, let alone kids that live in a state most folks just fly over.

One good thing about paying clients was (and is) the ability for me to pay our students for the projects. Having financial incentives works and this combined an educational experience with the workplace environment. The program creates a pathway for learning and achievement after high school.

Realistically speaking, only a small percentage of our graduates will earn a living in the media business. But since 99% of employers list a lack of ability to communicate as a problem in the work place, the program's ancillary benefits, i.e. a curriculum that fosters behavioral and educational skills, are relevant and transferable to many occupations because they boost communication abilities.

How We Got Here:
From 1969 – 2002, Peter Rosten (that would be me) worked in Hollywood. The majority of my career was a TV and Film writer/producer and sometimes director.

In 1985, my friend and colleague, Jim Kouf [1], bought a ranch in Montana and he invited me to cowboy up. Well, I fell in love with this ‘last best place’, bought a home in 1992 and was fortunate to retire here in 2002.

For the record…I’m not nor was I ever a ‘big shot’ in the business. I had been a truck driver for a film company and an editor--and in 1974 I produced my first half-hour documentary, “The Greatest Story Never Told”. Once I realized my forte was producing, that’s what I did: dramatic TV series, Feature Films, Commercials, Reality Shows, etc. For details: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0744578/

Cut to: 30 years later. I’m retired in Montana and in my early 50’s – way too young to give up working but unsure what to do.

After a few fits and starts--ranch hand, prospective sushi bar owner, and log home salesman (they didn’t hire me)--the ‘eureka’ moment was the realization that I could teach kids how to make films…producing is what I did and do best. And since I had been an entrepreneur most of my career, I decided to “just do it”.

With entrepreneurial fires burning, I contacted Montana’s Office of Public Instruction [OPI], and laid out the proposal for MAPS: Media Arts in the Public Schools. Two people had enormous courage to say ‘yes’--Superintendent, Linda McCulloch and Certification Head, Al McMilan. Note: in Montana we had an existing “School to Work” program and this was our “in”). But there were two conditions: OPI required that I have a background check – I passed. Two: a certified teacher/mentor and would have to ‘observe’ to insure my classroom behavior was appropriate and effective. I was, after all, from Hollywood.

The money part was easier. I had raised money to produce movies and making the ‘ask’ was part of my resume. So, after forming a non-profit foundation (named after my deceased mother, The Florence Prever Rosten Foundation) we started calling everyone and hitting them up for dough. Then I added about $10,000 of our own.

Ravalli County Superintendent Daniel Sybrant, bless his heart, was very surprised that OPI approved us [2]. And as I would learn later, he was understandably apprehensive about having a civilian instructing ‘his’ kids.

The irony was that--since I wasn’t a teacher--I wasn’t trained in the tradition of education but rather the etiquette of the workplace. So I interacted with students as co-workers, collaborators and equals. And this choice proved to be one reason for our program’s eventual success. Note: in 2006 I was certified by OPI as a ‘real’ teacher.

Our first year was “interesting” to say the least. We had a middle school and a high school section and it darn near killed me. Next to being a Mom, teaching is (in my opinion) the hardest job there is.

Some folks say that “making movies is like moving a small army through a war zone” - and in our case - the MAPS troops were 10 – 18 years old. So when I pointed at the hill we wanted to take, the hardest job was to wrangle them to all go in the same direction. Note: we dropped the middle school program after the first year…those dear kids were just not ready, and neither was I.

But we did get some things done: MAPS got off the ground, students produced their first short film, “French Love” and I received the “Corvallis Volunteer of the Year” award.

In 2005, a few more pieces fell into place. The MAPS mission to create jobs became a reality when the Ravalli County DUI Task Force hired the program to produce public service announcements that aired statewide on Montana’s CBS affiliate television stations. That led to a steady stream of commissions to create television commercials. Students also produced their second short film, “Soul Sight”, the music video, “Wonderboy”, and I was nominated for the Disney “Teacher of the Year Award” – who’d a thunk?

And the rest is history.

The Future:
In 2008, the Florence Prever Rosten Foundation approved a growth plan, commencing September 2009, to expand to all five high schools in Ravalli County and open in our own “brick and mortar” facility. Enrollment will commence with students, and for the first time, adult participants.

Renamed the MAPS MEDIA INSTITUTE (MMI), the program will continue its mission as a community-based initiative designed to bring hands-on media arts and workforce development experience to Ravalli County, Montana [3].

MMI’s centralized location will enable expansion to a more diverse pool of participants, including youth who are considered to be at-risk through their exposure to such risk factors as poverty, lack of education and lack of opportunity. Pro-social opportunities will be carefully tailored traditional and non- traditional modules with an additional emphasis on business skills. This project will foster skills transferable to a wide variety of professional endeavors and conducive to personal growth.

Was MAPS/MMI a thoughtful and brilliantly executed business plan? No way. Our success has been driven by an enormously talented group of students, serendipity, good friends and people in high places who believe in what we do. And because we “just did it,” our naïve enthusiasm became a transformational experience for us all.

Finally, there are many, many, people who should be acknowledged for their unflagging support and belief in our program. One that comes to mind is Trevor Laboski, Principal of Corvallis High School. Trevor gave us enormous freedom to push the educational envelope and perform way outside the box. Thankfully, his trust has paid dividends for the school district, and most importantly, our students.

Peter Rosten

P.S. A personal note: our experience in Montana proves that education could be well served by inviting professionals into the schools to shaire their experience with students. Of course, if they don't pass the background check...J


[1] Jim is a great screenwriter, "National Treasure" and "Rush Hour" to name a few.

[2] In light of budget cuts, I think our paying for the program was very helpful.

[3] MMI classes will be offered during and after-school. Like MAPS, MMI students can receive a state-approved arts credit for their participation during traditional school hours.