Harvard Elementary technology teacher John Schaff recognizes that his students see the world differently than he does.
“They have their own words, their own ways of framing a narrative,” said Schaff, who has been with Houston ISD for 28 years and Harvard for 12. “I’m here to help them find their own voice.”
Schaff’s primary role is to teach media literacy to students in kindergarten through fifth grade, introducing them to internet safety, coding skills and digital storytelling such as animation. Older children learn how to use spreadsheets to graph their keyboarding progress as well as programs such as Word, PowerPoint, Photoshop Elements and Lightroom. The students also apply critical thinking by studying copyright laws, how to cite internet sources and discern reputable websites from those that are not.
It is that combination of skills and social responsibility that students have leveraged to make several videos that have recently been recognized by HISD and the University of Houston. Schaff said Harvard Elementary has long participated in HISD’s Digital Literacy Moment campaign in which students submit a 60- to 90-second video showing how online behavior matters.
This year, Harvard won first, second and third place in the elementary school category.
“We were really proud of our work because it was really hard to do,” Harvard third-grader Jenna Hensley said.
Schaff found out about UH’s Digital Storytelling Contests (DISTCO) from the parents of a student who teach at the university. DISTCO invites K-12 students and teachers from around the U.S. and abroad to submit stories showcasing their skills in technology, multimedia, research, presentation, writing and creativity. Schaff thought it would be an ideal outlet for his students.
“The HISD contest concerned itself with digital citizenship and student safety with respect to digital literacy,” Schaff said. “For DISTCO, students were able to submit movies that they had created earlier in the year that dealt with broader topics, like personal reflections. Since one of the (DISTCO) topics dealt with computers and technology, students who had completed a video for the HISD competition were encouraged to submit their video, if they wished, in the DISTCO competition.”
There were almost 500 entrants in the 2019 DISTCO competition and several of Harvard’s submissions received DISTCO recognition. Best Digital Story in the category of Computers/Technology was awarded to the team of Hensley, Ozde Hasanbasoglu, Camila Robinowitz and Avery Rodriguez for their entry, “Video Game Distractions.” Best Digital Story in the category of Personal Stories/Reflection was awarded to Maria Montesdeoca and Lilliana Robinowitz for their video, “Is It Really Bullying?” And honorable mentions went to Melania Koob, Sofia Lorino and Layla Rodriguez for “Plagiarism” and to Maggie Sullivan for “A New Cat Comes to Town.”
Harvard Elementary and Schaff also received honors for the number of recognized entries and for student instruction.
Hensley created “Video Game Distractions” with three friends.
“We started with a script,” Hensley said. “A lot of people play video games and don’t do homework and we wanted to tell what happens if you don’t do your homework.”
Hensley said it took the group about five hours to put the video together. The software they used is an HISD-licensed software called Media Works, which Schaff said is much more hands on than something like iMovie, which offers a template.
“You’re actually coding (with Media Works),” Schaff said.
Harvard also received the 2019 Arts Empowerment Award sponsored by Young Audiences of Houston for fostering student growth in innovation and creativity in school-wide fine arts performance assemblies and in after-school clubs such as robotics, choir, coding and multimedia.
“I really believe in our program and how it empowers the students,” Schaff said. “I have seen the students transformed by being able to create, direct and film their own stories.”