Blog · New York City

The Apollo Video Oral History Project

I’ve taken great pride in creating an African American Studies course for my school that explored not simply African American History, but African Americans through the lens of history, the arts, and culture. Gearing up for my third year of teaching this class, I was notified that I was going to teach Latin American Studies as well. I welcomed this opportunity. Yet I was also directed that I needed to incorporate a teaching artist from The Apollo Education Program into both of these courses as well.

Our partnership with The Apollo began the previous year. Twelve of our best and brightest students were selected to work with The Apollo’s teaching artist twice a week for two periods creating an oral history documentary. Best efforts were given, but the students were pulled out of their different classes to work with the artist on the project. This proved to be a bit unwieldy. In order for things to work more efficiently, it was decided to incorporate the project into back-to-back 11th grade English and History elective classes. Yours truly was selected to participate as the history component.

I was reluctant about this whole scheme at first. While I hadn’t yet created a curriculum for Latin American Studies, I had spent considerable effort in creating lessons for African American Studies. I didn’t want to, in essence, lose 40% of my class time to the visiting artist and the project. I gave voice to my reluctance.

“Come on now, Mason,” was our principal’s response towards my lack of enthusiasm.

This was code for “get your ass on board”.

So, I reluctantly got on board with the program – all to my lasting delight. 

The overarching goal of The Apollo project was, of course, to produce an oral history documentary. But there was so much more to the project than this. While our students learned documentary skills in photography, editing, writing, narration, etc…, there were also intangible ambitions.

For example, city kids don’t have the same access to learning about teamwork that suburban kids do. Kids from the suburbs grow up with the ability to play youth soccer and Little League baseball – both girls and boys. Kids growing up in the city have limited opportunities to play on organized sports teams. As a result, our students miss out on youthful chances to learn teamwork on the same footing that suburban kids may learn about it. The Apollo project gave some of our students the chance to learn how to work together as a team. Beyond the intangibles of teamwork, our students also learned the importance of completing tasks and meeting deadlines.

Our teaching artist is a bona fide working actor as well as an educator. What I mean by this is that in addition to being an educator he is able to earn a living through his craft as a working actor. He is accomplished in the aforementioned facets of making a documentary – camera, editing, writing, etc…  He was as well a taskmaster dedicated to the kids.

Our first year together had its kinks, but by the following year we hit our stride. This was because Ms. Dean joined the project – reluctantly at first, just like I was the year before. Through her efforts, our combined English and History classes became a true humanities class. Some days, both periods were devoted to working on English lessons. Some days, we worked both periods on the history elective. On other days, one period was dedicated to English and one period of History. And, of course, there were days dedicated solely to the documentary project.

We took advantage of our close collaboration and the flexibility that was provided to us. In fact, I expanded the Latin American Studies course into Latin & Caribbean American Studies. This was partly a result of my close collaboration with Ms. Dean, who is from Haiti. It was also out of a desire to capture and explore the heritage of some of our students in the class who hailed from non-Spanish speaking nations in The Caribbean.

Typically, Ms. Dean and I selected the eleventh graders for the project each year. We would gather recommendations from teachers of the previous year’s tenth grade students. We would also receive endorsements from other teachers and staff. We wanted students who would work hard and who would benefit from the project. While class size was supposed to be capped at 34 students per class, the demand to be included in the project was so great at times that some years we went over the student limit in these classes – with no complaint from Ms. Dean or myself.

While working on the project, students were divided into filming teams. Each student had specific roles on their team: Director, Assistant Director, Camera Person, Sound Engineer, or Grip. We would film in and around the city as well as in our sound stage at school. Students were also tasked with writing the narration, providing the narration, assisting with the editing, and helping to provide b-roll and background music from the public domain.

Over the years we produced a number of remarkable documentaries dealing with race, community, identity and other key topics. The Apollo provided a number of incredible women and men to contribute as interviewees for the documentary. These participants spoke openly about their experiences, achievements, challenges, frustrations and even failures. We’ve had interviewees come to tears as they explored their life’s journey.

We would screen each year’s documentary in mid-May at The Apollo Theater on their sound stage with invited guests. The audience would be astounded by what they saw. We were proud of our students. Over the years, we would ask these young documentarians what the project meant to them. We had young artists tell us:

“These classes are why I came to school every day.”

“I didn’t have friends before this project. Now I do.”

“I learned the importance of working on a team.”

“It gave me a career path to consider down the line.”

There were other highlights working on this project with The Apollo. We were, of course, invited to performances at The Apollo. Into the bargain, a very special highpoint was the year our teaching artist was appearing on Broadway. He was an understudy in the Tony award nominated and Pulitzer Prize winning play Sweat. The Apollo arranged tickets for our class to attend a matinee performance. On top of this, our teaching artist arranged for a Q&A after the performance with the entire cast for our kids!

I wish I could say that as I retired, this project ended on a high note. Sadly, I can’t. The last couple of years’ students were placed into the project by our school’s administration and not selected by Ms. Dean and myself. Quite frankly, many of the students just didn’t what to be there. Things no longer worked as they should. Folks at The Apollo were understanding about this change, over which they had no input or control, but my frustrations boiled over at times. But today is a new day and new blood is working on the project. I wish everyone a world of success. I also look forward to being invited to a screening in May.

(To learn more about The Apollo Education Video Oral History Project and to view some of our students’ films click on the following link, or watch below.)

Apollo Video Oral History Project at Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing and Visual Arts from Apollo Theater on Vimeo.

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