Outreach & Public Purpose

Teach-In 2015: Spence Film Festival

The Spence Film Festival brought together students, faculty, alumnae and film industry professionals for a truly one-of-a-kind Teach-In experience.
The fact that the Tribeca Film Festival began the day of the Spence Film Festival seemed to be a sign. The night before, I fended off my overwhelming anticipation by watching Netflix with friends and trying to remember shooting techniques gleaned from YouTube videos. I had signed up for the “Make Your Own Film” workshop (in my head it came to be called the “throw together some visuals in just three hours, call it a film and show it to the whole school” workshop). 

April 15 was the annual Spence Teach-In. Classes were suspended to welcome filmmakers and experts, go out into the City (a ready-made film set for us to take advantage of) or try our hand in producing monologues, scripts and bits of films on our own. By 8:15 in the morning, Upper School students piled in the Theater to begin the occasion with a short flick of freshmen Francesca S. and Ines B. interviewing director Martin Scorsese at his current set in Taiwan. The eloquence of his expert answers paired with his good-naturedness was a hit with the entire audience. 

Afterwards, students dispersed to screenings and discussions, to a live demonstration by female stunt doubles, to trips to film museums and, in my case, to get a camcorder. In the “Make Your Own Film” workshop, Middle and Upper Schoolers split into small groups to script, shoot and edit a three-minute video in three hours. At the end of the day, the Theater rang with the laughter and delighted shrieks of students watching our short films (including a couple of horror movies, a “Where’s Bigfoot?” inspired documentary and a game show). Nothing makes you feel more in tune with your community than a crescendo of girls’ laughter. 

Finally, filmmaker Emily Abt spoke to the school about the merits of “visual storytelling.” Abt has been a high-profile figure in the documentary sphere, named among Variety’s “10 Directors to Watch” and lauded in The New York Times. Her film Toe to Toe, dealing with issues of race and class during the turbulent teenage years, was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. I would like to think that the presence of a female filmmaker inspired and stirred something within the Spence crowd, especially given her sheer enthusiasm and candor about the film world. 

The Lower School had its own day of creative ventures: learning about sound in film, including sound effects; discovering animation through stop motion and flip books; figuring out how to adapt books into movies; observing makeup techniques for actors.

One workshop had teams making films about “A Day in the Life of Spence,” which were screened with popcorn at the end of the day. Groups of students across grades worked together for the first time, collaborating on storyboards and production. 

“I’ll take the lead on the STEAM program,” a third grader said to her production team. “Who wants to be in charge of lunch and Terrace time?”

Days like the Teach-In re-remind me, I say “re-” because I am often reminded, of the unbelievable opportunity Spence students have. In 2008, Head of School Bodie Brizendine established the Teach-In as day of immersion for students. Back then, the first workshops were about the presidential election and led by faculty (I remember coloring in elephants and donkeys). It’s a day for grades and assessments to be forgotten in service of a greater learning experience, and also just some fun. 

I was sharply aware of this “greater learning” while struggling to make that three-minute film. Just a few days earlier, I had marveled in the grandeur of Skyfall, the most recent James Bond installment. Camcorder in hand, I envisioned that our group would make an epic short, and I’m sure that others thought similarly. A tussle ensued between our grand expectations and the reality that we did not have the tools, skills or experience to match our imagination. It was an awakening to the effort, time and resources that are poured into an art form such as film, and it brought the world outside of Spence suddenly much closer to us. 

Danielle Passno, Director of Outreach and Public Service and a member of the Math Department, delivered a few poignant words on Wednesday: “We [those who organize the Teach-In] do this because—because we love you,” the very atmosphere in the Theater changed, such was the impact of that phrase on students. “Every single one of you. We do this because we care.”

In additional comments through email, Ms. Passno revealed that it takes an entire year to plan one Teach-In and continued, “We, as faculty and staff, have dedicated our professional lives to ensuring that each and every student finds purpose in learning and a true self so that she can live a life of consequence. I hope students take away new ideas and experiences, and a deeper understanding of what is real and meaningful.”

The Spence Teach-In allows us to be behind the (metaphorical) camera. This day, like a film, allows us to wipe our lenses, focus on the world around us and see where we might belong.

Make sure to view the following select films, all created on the day of the Teach-In!