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Doc Curricula: High School Students Learn Nonfiction Storytelling through DOCS ROCK Program

By Mark Johnstone

Left: Raman Sarabdaolla and Jeffery Jackson, students at Grover Cleveland High School in Los Angeles, as part of IDA's DOCS ROCK program. Photo: Cathee Cohen. Right: San Pedro (LA) High School students Giancarlo Scotti, Tina Nottingham and friend shooting a doc.

DOCS ROCK, a bold new program developed for high school students by the IDA, is anchored on the premise that documentary films are a cultural art form that stimulates the development of basic principles of critical analysis. This program cultivates the ability to make judgments about media from a perspective of what is fiction and what is nonfiction, and expands this skill as it may be applied to all aspects of development, learning and human experience.

The DOCS ROCK outreach program has steadily thrived and continues to grow. In December 2003, the curriculum received full accreditation for admission requirements into the University of California system. This solidifies DOCS ROCK as part of the permanent curriculum of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), and allows it to be available to all school districts throughout California, with the assurance that the curriculum will meet the secondary school requirements in the preparation of students for higher education.

In fall 2001, the pilot program of DOCS ROCK was launched at San Pedro High School (SPHS; enrollment: 3,318) in the classroom of English teacher Tony Saavedra, co-creator of the LAUSD-approved curriculum with Dr. John Ramirez, a film professor at California State University in Los Angeles, and former IDA Board Member Thelma Vickroy. SPHS serves a working-class, seaport community with an economically mixed student population of Latino, Baltic, African-American and Asian cultures.

The 40-week program (two semesters) is divided in two components. During the first semester, students are introduced to critically viewing and analyzing documentaries. In the second semester, they utilize what they have learned about nonfiction storytelling in making their own documentaries.

Saavedra utilizes professional filmmakers through an artist-in-residence program to provide students with the mentoring expertise for the production, editing and completion of high-quality films. Visiting speakers included filmmakers Sheila Laffey, Nancy de la Santos, Cari Lutz and producer Chris Carter for a screening of his film The Mayor of Sunset Strip (George Hickenlooper, dir.). Rubi Fregoso was the visiting artist during the first semester (2003), and Pamela Cohen was the artist-in-residence during the second semester (2004; she was also artist-in-residence for the entire 2002-03 school year).

Students in this program work with state-of-the-art digital video cameras and computer-based editing systems. However, maintaining enough working equipment is always a challenge for a class of 35 students, even with a team approach. Twelve pieces were screened during the third SPHS DOCS ROCK Film Festival, ranging from Learning with Uncle Larry, a portrait of Larry Fukuhara, activities director at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium (4 minutes); to Raison d'être, which explores the philosophical ideas of seven people (17 minutes).

Grover Cleveland High School in Reseda (enrollment, 3,600) primarily serves the surrounding neighborhoods, but also houses the Humanities Magnet, a nationally recognized magnet program that combines the arts and humanities to give students challenging, college-level classes. The ethnic background of students includes American Indian, Asian, Filipino, Pacific Islander, African-American, Hispanic and white, and 77 percent are enrolled in the federal school lunch program for low- or poverty-level income families.

In 1998, Cleveland High School received a grant from Workforce LA to develop the Media Academy, which is a school-within-a-school, and provides students with the skills and knowledge to become gainfully employed in the entertainment industry while continuing their post-secondary education. A cadre of trained, enthusiastic teachers develops materials that bring to life the fundamentals of communication, history, science and language arts through interactive participation, and deepens student understanding of academic subjects while building their capacity as reflective learners. Students follow a sequence of classes in the ninth or tenth grades, continuing until graduation, and explore and use multiple forms of media­­—film, video, interactive media and animation—to express their ideas and demonstrate academic and artistic understanding; projects are often cross-disciplinary. While course sequences and media emphases differ among grade levels, all target a diverse selection of the student population, and strive for academic achievement and real-world performance.

Workforce LA led the partnership development for Cleveland High (and seven other academies within LAUSD) programs—an effort that resulted in millions of dollars and donated expertise from companies in media, entertainment, architectural design and education innovation. Workforce LA secured private-sector contributions for LAUSD to make special facilities renovations at most of the Academies.

Working with leading studio designers, the schools completely transformed unused or outmoded shop spaces to become creative and collaborative environments for knowledge work. In addition to LAUSD, the City of Los Angeles, the California Department of Education and the United States Department of Education, more than 150 entertainment and new media employers have contributed resources, expertise and/or funding to the academies including the Academy Foundation, Ahmanson Foundation, American Film Institute, Bank of America, DreamWorks SKG, Gateway, IBM, Intel, Paramount Studios, Sony Pictures Entertainment and the Times Mirror Foundation. 

Cleveland High teachers received training for DOCS ROCK during the 2002-03 school year, and devised integration of the course into the curriculum, experimented with some curriculum pieces and guided interested students in making documentaries. Filmmaker Cohen provided production training for the Teen International Media Exchange (TIME) documentary crew. This crew shot footage of its six-month cultural education classes and pre-production sessions, then continued filming for three weeks in Korea, where another narrative crew from Cleveland High worked collaboratively with Korean students to film their script. The high school is presently working to expand the TIME program and develop an international summit for student documentary filmmakers.

Students from both the residential and magnet schools are in the DOCS ROCK program, (grades 9 to 12), which is taught by Media Academy coordinator Cathee Cohen, film teachers James Gleason and Evelyn Seubert and English teacher Vitaly (he goes by one name). Seubert and Vitaly teach as a team, Vitaly incorporating film analysis and critical-thinking aspects of the curriculum into his English classes, and Seubert teaching production and post-production.

The DOCS ROCK program has also expanded to other schools, whole and in part, including South Pasadena, Hollywood High New Media Academy, Palisades Charter High School and Roosevelt High School. Additionally, filmmaker and IDA board member Jeff Swimmer taught a documentary course at New Roads School in Santa Monica during 2003-04, and filmmaker and University of Southern California Assistant Professor Eric Trules began a "personal voice" film/video program at George Washington Preparatory High School this past summer.

DOCS ROCK students inevitably display strong skills in visual storytelling, technical proficiency and a broadened and more critical worldview. The rigorous standards applied throughout the program produce remarkable observations and investigations into the human stories that exist in their worlds. They prepare the students for a lifetime of critical analysis, taking little for granted and encouraging them to move beyond tacit acceptance of "things as they are." The success of the program is also indicated by films from both San Pedro and Cleveland High Schools having been accepted and screened at several festivals in the Los Angeles area.

In spring 2004, the IDA received a generous donation from John Langley of Langley Productions for the DOCS ROCK Mentor Program. This summer, the IDA made an open call to members interested in participating in this program. Further, the IDA is continually working to coordinate the different school programs, assisting with fundraising and development, in addition to expanding it to new schools.


Mark Johnstone is an IDA board member and a  facilitator for DOCS ROCK, and is responsible for helping to arrange the funding that originally launched the  program.