Last spring, Michael Degnon’s fourth-grade class (now fifth-graders), spent three months writing, directing, and producing “Triumph and Tragedy: A Civil War Anthology,” an 18-minute documentary drama that covers America’s bloodiest conflict through the eyes and minds of those involved.
The film combines green screen technology, stop action photography, narration over still photography, and the students portraying fictional characters from the time period. The combination of all these elements gave the students what Degnon calls an “immersive, sensory learning experience,” one that focused not on the names of those who fought the war, or the ghastly statistics attached to it, but the human experience of the time period. The film will be shown opening night of ITV Fest, Thursday, September 26, at the Dover Forge at 8:30.
Degnon came up with the idea for a film project when his class began reading a historical fiction book series called “America’s Story,” while studying the Civil War. The “America’s Story” series is based on actual events, but written in a fictional context, using fictional characters to show the experience of the time period. Inspired by the series’ depiction of the war, Degnon’s class broke up into groups, each responsible for writing a scene, and the creative wheels started to turn.
“It was tough but really fun to write a script,” said fifth-grader Miles Anton, who plays a slave auctioneer in the film. “It was almost like you were becoming the character you were writing about because you’re getting so deep into it.”
As the project began to expand, Degnon’s class began to add more elements to the film, prepping each one for weeks, memorizing lines, and most important, learning along the way. Perhaps the most dynamic part of the project was the use of the green screen. Degnon’s students found images online for the backgrounds, and acted out scenes in front of it, taking them from a southern cotton field, to a spy meeting, and a Confederate battle camp. Greg Montgomery, the school’s technological advisor, helped the students with the green screen, as well as video, audio, and production elements of the film.
Degnon’s students created their own sound effects as well, simulating the sound of gunshots and cannon fire by saving 80 half-pint milk cartons and firing off their caps by stepping on them in the school gym. They even created their own background music for the film, collaborating with Andy Davis, Dover School’s music teacher, to perform “Battle Cry of Freedom.”
“This takes student production to a whole other level,” said Degnan. “In the past, when teachers would put on a production like this you had scenery with cardboard cutouts and spray-painted sheets as props, but we didn’t have to do that. We used technology.”
This use of technology also meant the students had time to get it right, spending daily classroom time on the film and weeks rehearsing.
“It was tough to do the acting without laughing because we’re all friends,” said Kylie Cleanthes. “We had one scene that we practiced 20 times. We could redo the scene again if someone said it in the wrong order but on a stage we wouldn’t be able to and we’d have had to keep on going.”
Two members of Degnon’s class deferred being in the film and instead, took on the project of a stop-action photo scene depicting Sherman’s March to the Sea. The students used Play-Doh and hundreds of still photos to craft together explosions in Sherman’s wake. As Sherman marches, narrator Jillian Mahon as Mary Chestnut, reads excerpts from the diary she kept during the war years.
“I like how we had to cooperate when we were writing,” said Mahon, “ because we were in a group and some people didn’t like the ideas other people had.”
Cearra O’Hern, who played a Union soldier in the film, said that writing the scenes was challenging but fun because all the students thought the topic was really interesting. O’Hern also said that acting out the scenes would become the most fun part of the process.
The film became a part of ITV after the festival’s executive director, Phillip Gilpin Jr., called local schools to see if any projects were being worked on, that could be used to showcase the work of local education.
“Usually you find a group of high schoolers who have done something,” said Degnon. “But to have fourth-graders involved in something this technologically advanced and skilled, he was impressed with that and he called the right school at the right time.”
Along with ITV Fest, Degnon will be showing the film in Rutland at a Vermont Council on Reading conference, and in Killington at Tech Fest, a Vermont symposium on technological integration.
“We have remarkable educators who don’t just teach but create learning experiences,” said Bill Anton. “This was made by 9-year-olds who are still excited about it and have been talking about it since April.”
Though the entire experience had its fair share of fun and camaraderie among its young creators, the tragic and historic elements of the bigger picture were not lost on Degnon’s fourth-graders.
“It’s about trying to split the country and civil rights, so it’s a big part of history,” said Cleanthes.
“It was kinfolk killing kinfolk,” added Mahon.