Frankly, Andy Nichols didn’t think he’d ever see episode two of Itawamba School News, let alone episode 200.
But roughly 11 years after the Itawamba Career and Technical Center Digital Media Technology instructor borrowed a camera from the school counselor, taped a few sheets of green paper to the wall, and had some of his students sit between the two and present Itawamba County School District news, the student creators of the web-based news program posted its 200th episode.
Nichols said the bicentennial episode looks considerably different in 2019 than its inaugural, cobbled-together counterpart. These days, the program is just a few steps away from professionalism. Those green sheets of paper are long gone, replaced with a movie-quality green screen. The borrowed camera has been replaced with an iMac, which also doubles as the presenters’ teleprompter (no more reading from note cards). The entire studio, located in one corner of the sprawling, cluttered classroom, is surrounded by freestanding lights.
“We were really in the stone age back then,” Nichols said of the program’s early days. “When we first started out, the sound and video quality wasn’t that good.”
That was OK, at least at the time. Itawamba School News didn’t start its life with the purpose of becoming a linchpin of the Digital Media Technology program. It was more of an experiment. A goof. A “what if” made reality.
“We just wanted to see if we could do it,” Nichols said.
They posted the video to the school-based video site, SchoolTube. They still do, although most of their views come from their Youtube channel these days.
Although the look of the show has changed over the years, the content is similar. Each episode features a mix of information and entertainment … “skits” as Nichols calls them. Episodes are written, presented and produced by a group of five or so students, each of whom has a hand both on camera and behind the scenes. Presenters will cover the latest sports news, provide watchers with information about upcoming school events and discuss the latest movies, video games, etc. Each episode runs for around 10 minutes.
Although they try to put out episodes weekly, the class doesn’t adhere to a strict schedule. That’s more out of necessity than lack of ambition.
“In public schools, you’re dictated by everything from weather to tests,” he said. “A rush job is not a fun job … If it’s a rush, we don’t do it.”
The point isn’t to frustrate his students. One of the purposes of Nichols’ program is Nichols is trying to teach technology through the joy of creation. He wants to show his students how tech is used to facilitate and enhance creativity.
“We have to make sure it’s fun and positive,” he said of making an episode. And although he has the final say as to what makes the cut, Nichols said he mostly leaves the creative decision-making to his students.
“It really changes each year depending on what students want to do,” Nichols said.
Take, for instance, Kerigan Todd, one of a trio of students regularly featured on ISN as “The Movie Girls.” Over the years, there have been multiple teams of “Movie Girls,” each different from the ones before them. Think of it like a popular morning show. When as host changes, so too does the vibe of the show.
Todd said being a member of the ISN team has challenged her in unexpected ways.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” Todd said. “The first day, I was, like, uh … ‘What’s my line?’”
Over time, Todd became more comfortable in front of the camera. Now, she and her fellow Movie Girls, Kaitlyn Smith and Madison Johnson – have a natural banter when on camera.
That, Nichols said, has been one of the greatest and most surprising joys of ISN. Running a news program has taught his students more than just the basics of television production.
“A lot of it is confidence,” Nichols said. “I’ve had students in the past who would barely say a word [when they got here].”
Stick some of those same students in front of a camera, however, and they open up.
“It gets them out of their comfort zones,” he said.
If there’s anything Nichols hopes his students take away from their experiences with ISN, it’s confidence … a willingness to try new things. To tape some green paper to the wall, hijack a coworker’s camera and make an impromptu news program.
Who knows where such bursts of creative confidence could lead?
“We never thought we’d hit 200 episodes,” Nichols said, just hours before they did.