Rockaway Students Create Post-Sandy Documentary

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It's been a challenging and disorienting year for students at the Scholars' Academy. The selective secondary school in Rockaway Park was flooded by the storm waters of Sandy, and then forced to relocate for four months to another school, P.S. 13 Roberto Clemente, in Brooklyn. Through it all, a team of sixth graders kept their cameras rolling and has just finished a documentary about the year that was.

"Dear World, A Letter from the Rockaways," was screened at the school on Thursday. You can see the whole 17-minute production below.

DEAR WORLD: A Letter from the Rockaways from Magic Box Productions on Vimeo.

The documentary was created with the help of Magic Box Productions, a media arts organization that has been partnering with the school for several years.

"When we knew Hurricane Sandy had impacted them so much, we reached out to them right away," said Executive Director Nelle Stokes.

Stokes said about 60 sixth graders took part in the project, which began soon after the storm, and 40 of them stuck it out through the documentary's completion. They researched, shot footage and interviewed their teachers and fellow students, and also gave their classmates an online questionnaire.

The resulting documentary includes footage of the storm and its aftermath, culled from television reports and videos and photos from local residents, as well as the students' own creative touch: a clip from an old Godzilla movie.

"They really blew us away," said Stokes. "They were funny, smart and the video is so much theirs."

The documentary was shown to the whole sixth grade of about 250 students.

"It was really nerve-wracking knowing that everybody was watching something that I had put together for almost four months," said 11-year-old Billy Gibleski. "Everybody was applauding."

"A lot of people didn't think that it was sixth graders who made this because it was so professional and amazing," said Anika Kalra, 12. "The teaching artists put it together really well, and edited it so it really flowed through."

Anika created the online survey to see how students were affected by Sandy. She was a little disappointed that only 30-40 students filled it out, but she said she used their responses to pick different locations from which to interview a broad range of students about their experiences after the storm.

With the help of the teaching artists, the students spent a lot of time editing down 20 hours of interviews at computer terminals. There were technical problems. The students sometimes forgot to turn on the microphone during an interview, requiring a little cleanup during post-production. But Stokes said that experience was a big part of the process.

And working on the documentary provided another service for the students.

"It took my mind off the bad parts of Hurricane Sandy and it started to feel like a good experience because I was with my friends doing something that without Hurricane Sandy we wouldn't be doing," said Billy.

He said he enjoyed learning how to edit because he's always been interested in computers. "I'm a little bit of a geek. A lot of a geek," he acknowledged, adding that he's even more interested in technology now.

Stokes said the project was funded by the school's PTA and a small grant from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. The total budget was under $10,000.

The documentary doesn't dwell much on the hardships faced by the students, teachers and their principal -- many of whom were forced out of their homes. Stokes said the kids seemed more drawn to a slogan the school developed after Sandy: Scholar Strong, Rockaway Resilient.