The long road to TV

Warning: today’s entry is for those who want a glimpse behind the scenes in a documentary filmmaker’s nuts and bolts world.  In 2009 I began blogging to chronicle my filmmaking learning curve as I helped Tom make a film out of his year in my classroom.  Over the years this has more and more been a voice for the message August To June attempts to convey—that meaningful education should be our goal, not test scores.  But today I am back as filmmaker, tracing the path we have taken to reach a broader audience via television.

We started trying to get August to June broadcast by public television when the film was just a rough cut.  The Independent Television Service (ITVS), closely associated with public television, helps independent filmmakers in a variety of ways, including via completion grants.  Like the 20 or so grants we tried for (and didn’t get) there was a very time consuming application to fill out.  Filling out grant applications forces you to clarify your ideas.  It is also enormously time consuming and draining.  But with the ITVS process we actually got a call from someone who had looked at our work and gave feedback, even if they rejected us.  So we got some useful feedback, but no cigar.

In September of 2010, 4 months before releasing the film, we tried again.  The cherry on the PBS cake is to get accepted by Point Of View (POV) or Independent Lens, the two national programs that air independent films.  The competition is fierce for the dozen or so shows that each airs in a year.  The year we applied I think there were 500 applicants.  I worked on the application for weeks.  No cigar.

When I looked at the films that were chosen, I guessed that we were not inflammatory or poignant or depressing or foreign or single-unusual-character-driven enough for them.  There were other routes we could pursue for TV, but we put them on hold as theatrical, conference and community screenings filled our two person operation’s time.

I picked up the ball again in the fall of 2011 when KQED, the biggest SF Bay public station had a competition for a series on local issues.   We seemed a shoo-in to me, but again there were hundreds of submissions.  We got a nice thank you rejection letter.

By this time we were up to our ears filming at Mission Hill and traveling with August to June.  So we stepped back from TV again, but somewhere in there Tom decided to edit a one hour version of the film, just in case that would be easier to get broadcast.  So difficult to cut a third out of the film, but it fit better into the time slots local stations program.  At the suggestion of filmmaker Bob Gliner, we went to a smaller Bay Area public station, KRCB.  Programmer Stan Marvin was interested not only in showing it on KRCB, but offered to help us get wider distribution.

It was a bit of a shock to find out that not only wouldn’t we be paid for our work, but in fact we would need to pay.  I know this sounds crazy, but that’s just what we did—several thousand by the time all the pieces fell together.  Under the wing of KRCB, we submitted to the National Educational Television Association.  They accepted us and will offer our film to stations several times over the next few years.  Each station’s programmer will decide whether and when to program the film.  So far we have been very lucky that we are being given prime time locations on over 70 stations (as well as repeats at 2 or 4am, which is less lucky, but might be good for  people who record programs for later viewing).

So the learning curve continues, but WE MADE IT TO TV!  Fingers crossed our dream of reaching past the choir comes true.


Is your public TV station on this list?

So far the one hour version of AUGUST TO JUNE has been programmed by stations in North Carolina, Rhode Island, Ohio, Nevada, Missouri, Alaska, Wisconsin, Indiana, Oregon, Florida and California. That still leaves 39 states to go.   I can see that lots of parts of Florida and California are not yet reached, and I can’t tell how well we cover the other states where we are programmed.  So we hope you will go to our Upcoming Screenings page, and check to see if your public tv station is listed. If not, and you have time, call them before August 24, and politely ask them to take the NETA feed of our show (NOLA Code of AUJU 00 K1) that happens at 4pm (1600) that day. Even if they don’t program it right away, if they take the feed, they can program it whenever they want.

We know that WNET, WGBH, and KQED are recording the show, but have not programmed a time to actually air it. The only spot in Florida so far is West Palm Beach…where we showed the film in 2011–maybe someone at the TV station saw it?

If you find that the show is playing near you or near folks you know, we hope you will alert them to program their DVD players etc to record it, even if the time is not good for them to watch it.  Stations seem to have ways to know how many people tune in, and the higher the number the more likely they are to play the show again.




What we did on our Summer Vacation part one

We all need time for renewal, time for thoughtful exchanges of ideas.  Joining Anthony Cody in Willits CA for his second Tomki Education Retreat was a glorious way to do just that.

Other than Anthony, the only member of the 9-person gathering that Tom and I had met before was Susan DuFresne, but we were all education activists with stories to tell, and current work to share.  Noel Hammatt came from Baton Rouge, with research that disputes the idea that schools are ‘failing’ at his fingertips (and a penchant for chopping up Anthony’s firewood!).  Mary Porter came from Boston, hopping mad over injustices she had watched unfold in her high school and in the world of (so-called) philanthropy.  Katie Lapham came from Brooklyn, where she works with English language learners at a public elementary school and was tasked to prepare materials for standardized testing.   Beyond teaching kindergarten in Seattle, Susan has been the moving force behind several education activist online sites.  She brought her husband Shawn, and 18 year old son Garrett.  Like Tom, they brought their perspectives from outside the profession.  Anthony had met each of us as a result of the blogs and websites he has developed, starting with Teachers Letters to Obama.  We collaborated with him in 2011 on short videos to advertise the SOS conference in DC.

What struck me most was the fire in the belly of all these people.  The source of that fire was almost always having seen children hurt by the direction education policy has taken—or not taken: students dropped from the roster and into the street without a diploma because their test scores could hurt the school’s reputation, a terrible home situation ignored because addressing the effects of poverty is not on the agenda, important values questions left out of the curriculum because they will not be on the tests, and weeks of class time lost to the mountains of paperwork most of us are unaware accompany the testing regimen.

Sadly, we all agreed that people purporting to make it better have thrown public education to the wolves.  The financial stake these “reformers” have in the directions they suggest is shrugged off as if it was inconsequential.  Yet what gives me reason to come away from Tomki revitalized and optimistic (besides swimming in the water hole)  is that each person there was taking actions that could change the picture.   And each of them was involved in groups I had not heard about before I came, nor did they know of some of the efforts I was aware of!  The river of change grows bigger each day, and the tributaries are so numerous, one person will never know about all of them.

Perhaps you’d like to join one of our efforts?  Susan and Katie would love a letter from you at  Teachers Letters To Bill Gates  where currently they are using our series  as the jumping off spot.  Susan and Noel would be glad for your help creating “sticky” memes and generating videos for the Badass Teacher Association. Anthony and Diane Ravitch invite you to join efforts to elect more responsive representatives at The Network for Public Education.   Read Mary’s two part guest blog on Bill Gates printed in Anthony’s Edweek blog, Living in Dialogue where he has many fascinating articles.  Last but not least, let us know what you are doing.  Don’t assume a small effort is not worth reporting.  Together we will move this mountain!



A one hour version of AUGUST TO JUNE may be playing on a public television station near you this fall, and you can be part of why it reaches a broader audience!  There are very few ways for small independent documentaries to get broadcast.  You can be sure we have been looking for a way to get our message to a larger audience for quite a while!  The opportunity came when KRCB, a local station in California, offered to help us find national distribution. We have been taken on by the National Education Television Association (NETA).  NETA has offered our program to local public television stations.  They will be able to download it on August 24, for broadcast over the course of the fall as many times as they please.  But of course they don’t have to take up that offer, or they may program us at 2AM.  That’s where you come in!  Here is where to find the phone number for your local public television station. We hope you will call them, and tell them to upload the NETA program with the NOLA Code of AUJU 00 K1 and why you think it should be broadcast at a time when parents are likely to see it.  We’ve already heard that KOPB Plus in Oregon, KVIE in Sacramento CA, and KRCB are programming it!   We will keep you posted on our website and Facebook pages as we hear of stations planning to play the show!


Got a first hand account of urban school “reform”?

Brett Murphy, 11th grade U.S. History Teacher, Brooklyn, NY wants your stories!!!

“In the past decade, alarms have been ringing about the need to improve public education in the United States and, in particular, “fix” city schools. With its roots in the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, the furor over transforming urban districts has taken on a life of its own. Accountability,choice, and control, the reform movement has argued, are the key ideas that can solve social inequity and ensure that every child can learn and succeed.

Much of the information on the progress of these new policies has come from politicians, journalists, and even filmmakers on the left and right who have framed these specific changes as the start of an important movement towards a quantitatively better education system. Absent from the dialogue – and from the knowledge that everyday Americans have about what’s going on – are the qualitative experiences of what’s actually happening inside of city classrooms. This edited volume will be a collection of essays by teachers working in urban districts for the general public that provide firsthand accounts of how these reforms are being experienced and what it means for the children growing up in our nation’s cities.

The book is organized around the recurring buzz words that the education reform movement has used to define their policies: accountability, quality, evaluation, choice, and equity. Each of these will be a chapter that includes an introduction by the editor covering related policies implemented in urban districts, including the stated goals of policy makers for creating these reforms. This short introduction will be followed by the stories of teachers that demonstrate how these reforms play out on a daily basis. The editor will do a follow up interview with each contributor about their vision for what would work in public education to complete the epilogue.

The book’s topics would be organized into the following chapters:

1. Introduction to the book
2. Accountability: Standards and high stakes testing
3. Quality: Measuring a teacher’s worth, tenure, and turnover
4. Evaluation: School grades and closures
5. Choice: Charter schools, co-locations, and the small school movement
6. Equity: What it really means to educate every child well.
7. Epilogue – 21st century skills: Reframing the vision – how teachers
imagine education reform

Please send abstracts to by July 15, 2013, including which chapter you think your story best relates to. Deadline for pieces, which should range from 4-15 pages, will be September 15, 2013.”


write to Bill Gates

Bill’s money is shaping the education reform movement.  What would you like him to understand about the impact of his funding and lobbying?


New Yorkers: stop student data sharing!

This is the last week of the state legislative session. A bill, A. 7872, that would allow parents to opt-out of the risky student data-sharing scheme called inBloom Inc. was approved by the Assembly Education Committee last week.

Please call these three Senators today and urge them to pass the same bill in the NYS Senate:

Senator Dean Skelos: (518) 455-3171
Senator Jeff Klein: (718) 822-2049
Senator John Flanagan: (631) 361-2154

These three men could save your children from having their most private information shared with for-profit vendors and protected from data breaches that could permanently damage their futures.


The Freedom to Teach

Even after many viewings, Chapter 10 of A Year At Mission Hill gives me goosebumps. Tom’s images from the year combined with the staff chorus singing “On Children” captures the joy of teaching and learning with children so movingly. The fire in James McGovern’s voice, Ayla Gavins explaining what a “great school” means to her, and Deborah Meier, relating what we show to the broader picture of what is happening in America, also stir me deeply.

We drove up to Deb’s home in upstate New York on the day that the Boston Marathon manhunt was at its height. As we were trying to make sense of that terrible event, we were aware that it could easily lead to even more fear of those who are seen as “other.” How one deals with difference in a democracy was on our minds as we set up our equipment in her study.

Much of what Deb has endeavored to do as an educator is rooted in her thoughts on what it means to live in a democracy. It was all too appropriate a concern on this particular day. Editing down what she said to us about standardized testing for Chapter 10 was not easy. Here is more from what the short quote we used came from:

“I think what we are facing in American today and around the world is not a crisis in education, but a crisis in faith and respect for democracy, which rests on having respect for the judgment of ordinary people. And I think that this transfer of judgment from human beings to paper and pencil instrument is very disrespectful of what I mean by being well educated, and of how kids can begin to develop their love of learning and respect for learning, and respect for each other’s opinions. So everything is either right or wrong. And we’re trying very hard to help kids see that right and wrong are not always the only way to look at a situation, and that you have to hear the other side, to think about it…

“I think it distorts the meaning of being well educated, and above all, what it means to be well educated in a society that’s grappling with the problem of how to be a democracy. And I think we’re losing more and more of the institutions that are based upon ordinary people’s judgment.

“…I want to look in the eye of people who are making judgments about my children, and I want to be able to argue with them. I want to be able to explain, which is the process we now use for portfolios. I want to be able to defend my ideas and also be open to changing my mind. I think that’s what I’m looking for as a tool for assessment, and it’s what I think our approach does.”

“Starting in kindergarten, children learn to turn off the passions that they feel… They don’t expose the school to what they really think. They’re thinking over time, “What do they want me to say?”

“…to spend the day in school thinking about what’s on the teacher’s mind rather than what’s on your own mind is bad teaching! But that’s what we have asked American teachers to do…that testing regime reinforces the belief that you need to train your children to know what the test wants you to say, not what you want to say.”

We drove back to Boston once more wondering why it has been so difficult to turn the train of education reform onto a more meaningful track when there are people like Deborah Meier and Ayla Gavins to give examples. What could we do to express the urgency of a more respectful approach? A week later we started editing Chapter 10.


Seeing the Learning

We’re feeling very good about what we have been able to show in Chapter 9 of our series, “A Year At Mission Hill.”  But really seeing the learning, (the title of Chapter 9) takes time.  Anyone making a reasonable length film about learning of necessity must jump from introducing a subject to showing some sort of progress, eliminating most of the hundreds of steps in between.  Be it in my class in California when we filmed August to June, or the many classes we followed at Mission Hill School in Boston, no matter how hard we were trying, most learning is too subtle to capture with a camera, and the real-time process would be deadly boring to watch on screen in any case.  Here is one of those places where film cannot do justice to Life.  A teacher who is given the opportunity to interact deeply with his or her students catches and relishes the opportunity to observe and respond to many more of those steps.

With all the baggage attached to “assessment” I only retook usership of the word “assess” when Dan Schwartz (Baker Demonstration School Head of School) pointed out to me that it refers to “sitting next to.”  Sitting, standing, listening, reading…every day a thousand pieces of information guides a teacher’s understanding of what his/her students have learned and might need to learn next.  And what if the most important thing a particular student needs to learn next has nothing to do with the prescribed next step in a pacing guide?

It would also have been tedious to show more than a few seconds of me, or a Mission Hill teacher pouring over a student’s production over time.  I know, because we chopped out that footage in both films when we started yawning!  But that careful regard is what differentiates a multiple-choice test from a well-balanced assessment.

I never developed anything like the kind of portfolio process that Mission Hill has created.  If I were back in the classroom today there are many pieces they built that I would want to try.  But over the years I became more and more attached to having students give me their assessment of themselves as learners, often with their work spread out around us.  It gave me the chance to confirm strengths that we both saw, and to honestly discuss how to address weaknesses.

So we get to the goal of assessment.  I will gladly put that word back in my working vocabulary if its goal is to help an individual student grow.  It will be in my lexicon if it refers to making me a more well informed teacher.  It will not pass my lips if its goal is to punish, to compare apples and oranges, to increase real estate values, to sell textbooks, or to win the next election.


so glad to be of use


We are pleased to present as a guest blog the perspective the audience at the 14th Street Y heard when August To June was presented there recently!

My name is Julia Massey, I am the Assistant Director of the 14th Street Y Parenting, Family, and Early Childhood Center.  I went to a screening of August to June last year, when it was presented at my son’s elementary school and one of the teachers in our Preschool  here, also saw the film recently, and we were both inspired by the message that comes across in the film, so much so that we felt it would be appropriate to share it with the Y community.

August to June highlights the beautiful moments that are experienced in a child’s life at school, when the classroom is set up in a way where the child feels safe and supported and respected, and allowed the time and space to explore topics in depth, to ask questions, to share opinions, to investigate through trial and error, to express themselves through art and music, and to build the confidence in themselves in order to become life-long learners.

Some of us have children who are of elementary school age and have just gone through the stress of the past two weeks of State Testing, which just ended last Friday. Some of us have children in Preschool  who, earlier in the year took gifted and talented tests, and you are trying to figure out what it all means for their future.  Whatever your child’s age, it’s easy to get caught up in the competitive nature of standardized testing, quality reviews, etc.  This is a good time to see a film like this – to have the opportunity to take a step back – and have a reminder of what is most meaningful in education.  Amy Valens has presented a window into her classroom, with scenes that prompt us to ask ourselves what do we value most, in the qualities of our schools, our educators, and what lessons and values do we ultimately want our children to take away with them as they grow into adulthood.  This film might help you decide what type of school you want for your child in the future, it might give you ideas of how you can support your child at home, or how to get involved in the PTA or School Leadership Teams.  At the very least, it’s a great way to feel like a fly on the wall in Amy’s classroom, and just imagine our own children in there with her, and how they might blossom in that classroom setting.