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How one Chicago high school teacher is helping students think for themselves, despite all that screentime

Jake Myers works with student Leni Bryan on a digital media assignment.
Jake Myers works with student Leni Bryan on a digital media assignment.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

When Jake Myers began teaching at Jones College Prep in Chicago 10 years ago, his current job didn’t exist. “I was just an art teacher,” Myers said.

A decade — and the spread of personalized media technology — later, Myers’ title has changed to encompass a new world. Today, he’s the digital video teacher at Jones, as well as chair of the art department.

His goal is to teach his students to think for themselves in a world where they are inundated with screens and social media outrages.
“So much of the information that they get is digitally constructed, so [it’s important] for them to see the mechanism by which information is constructed, and also have the agency to produce it themselves,” he said. “It’s another tool of communication that every student should have to some degree.”

As schools work to adapt to the changing reality of technology and how to make students critical users in a world increasingly mediated by phone and computer screens, teachers like Myers are at the center of that discussion. As a teacher who also has a practice in filmmaking, Murphy is an educator whose lessons speak directly to these bigger questions.

Tell me about what you do each day.

I see students for 90 minutes on alternating days. We are able to do deep-dive discussions about media, culture, representation, etc., on our brainstorming days. On studio days, students have time to set up lights and green screens, do multiple takes, and play or experiment a bit without feeling rushed.

Other days are spent editing video, providing peer feedback, and screening days where we project finished projects and celebrate student work. Students here come with a sense of purpose and drive that I wish I had had at their age. After school, I coach the varsity boys volleyball team. I also direct mediocre feature-length films. They go into Walmart dollar bins or are available on Amazon Prime. It’s the only thing that I’ve found more difficult and also more joyful than teaching.

How did you fall in love with film?

One of my favorite memories growing up was going with my friend Joe Sepka to Starburst Video and renting the weirdest movies we could find. We would have sleepovers and cackle over so-bad-they’re-good movies like “Bobo the Clown” or dry awkward movies like “Waiting For Guffman.” We would also toy around with our camcorders and make dumb videos hoping to make each other laugh. Joe is now a super-talented musician and he’s made a bunch of music for my films. It’s nice having someone who you’ve been friends with since second grade and you can still hang out with and be creative together as adults.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I was a freshman in computer science and engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Going through lines of code and debugging felt repetitive and soul-draining. I had a few existential meltdowns where I considered the fact that I had one life to live and how can I make that one life meaningful. My parents were teachers and I saw the impact they had on people, I loved my film class in high school, so I decided that’s what I wanted to do instead of coding.

How do you get to know your students?

I use curriculum as an ice-breaker. Each year, at the start of the year, students do some project that has to do with identity. I get to see a snapshot of who they are right away. Students know themselves better than they know anyone else so focusing on their interests and identities allows them to feel accomplished and correct right away. It also sets the class up to encourage students to acknowledge each other as complicated humans with their own stories, and we value those stories.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

Karaoke video! Students recorded themselves singing and dancing… like a standard music video. They then added animated lyrics and an instrumental version of the song. During the screening day, students got up and sang along with the class. I prefaced the screening by saying, “There is no such thing as a bad karaoke performer and it’s more fun if we all make each other feel welcome.” Students bought in! They were singing, dancing, holding up their phones in flashlight mode while swaying and cheering for the nervous and barely audible kid. I looked out and saw students experience the same joy I feel at Dino’s, my fav Karaoke bar, and it made me tear up.

What makes your work unique to what other teachers in your building do?

The teachers at Jones are great. They are great at giving kids a voice, and I think my class thrives because that is the general attitude at the school. I guess the use of effects and green screen as the method of delivering their stories is what makes my class different.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Donald Trump getting elected is something that shook our students. We have a handful of conservative students and making sure students acknowledge each other’s humanity regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, and religion is something I now feel the need to address early and often. It’s also a delicate dance because I don’t want to abuse my power and authority as a teacher and demand students believe exactly what I believe.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Finding more wacky green screen examples that aren’t made by white dudes like Tim and Eric [the comedy YouTube performers]. T&E are wonderful but my students aren’t all white dudes and they need to see themselves in the examples I show in class.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I thought that I needed to feel needed the entire time during class. That I, as the teacher, should be the center of attention in the class. That’s dumb. Once I set up my class so students’ ideas were at the forefront of every discussion and every project, engagement was more meaningful and students were more invested in what they did in class. Encouraging students to feel a sense of agency over their life, starting with the class, is my new mission.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

One of my students, Henry, who is a great filmmaker and volleyball player, bought me “Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting” by Robert McKee. I’m going to read it out loud to Ronan, my daughter, over the summer.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

Greg Jones was an assistant principal who helped shape my classroom management style and gave some sage advice: When a student is acting up, don’t correct them from across the room. Just walk up close to them, stand there, and don’t say anything. Look at the space where they should be working on something in silence. I realized this made kids examine their own behavior instead of me verbally critiquing it in front of everyone. Instead of making it a battle to be won or lost, it simply acknowledged an expectation and left it up to the student to decide. The student felt like they were the ones choosing to follow instructions or choosing to act out, and oftentimes students act out because they feel powerless.

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