What started as a class project for teacher Niki Vriens’ Digital Storytelling course last fall ended with a regional Student Production Award for a small group of Mechanicsburg Area Senior High School (MASH) students.
“If These Walls Could Talk: The MASH Senior Legacy Murals,” compiled by MASH students Catherine Levengood (producer), Allie Whitmore (videographer), Katra Abdille (archivist) and Liz Vigliano (producer/editor), recently earned first place in the Long Form category of the 2023 Mid-Atlantic Student Production Awards hosted by TUTV at Temple University’s Performing Arts Center on May 16.
Vriens’ class worked with digital equipment provided through a grant from The Wildcat Foundation, the education foundation that provides financial support for the Mechanicsburg Area School District (MASD).
“The premiere event for “If These Walls Could Talk: The MASH Senior Legacy Murals” in May was an incredibly special event for all of us in the class,” Vriens said. “Honestly, I think it might be one of my proudest moments as an educator. We conquered incredibly technical, professional equipment, learned the highs and lows of the production process, and were able to create a very special time capsule for the Mechanicsburg community.
Documenting MASH history may be the most important aspect of the students’ work.
“The award solidified that we had created something pretty remarkable.”
The Student Production Awards are managed by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Mid-Atlantic Chapter, which also runs the Mid-Atlantic Regional Emmy Awards for television and media organizations.
The awards recognize outstanding cultural, educational, technological, entertainment, news, and informational achievements by high school students in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. All entries were judged by media professionals and college educators from within the chapter. There were a total of 127 entries and 74 nominees.
An engraved Crystal Pillar is presented to each of the 20 winning entries and all nominees received individualized Academy certificates.
When Vriens developed her media production idea into a digital story telling class three years ago, she turned to the Wildcat Foundation for help to provide the equipment. Fundraising events and charitable contributions from individuals, groups, and businesses provide the resources that allow the foundation to achieve its mission to strengthen the educational, cultural, wellness, and athletic programs of MASD.
The foundation used funds gained through Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit program to provide the funding. EITC grants provide tax breaks to business who donate through the program to approved educational institutions, like the Wildcat Foundation, in the state.
The documentary highlights the history behind senior class murals painted on the walls of the Mechanicsburg Area Senior High School since 2003. Ongoing renovations and construction at the high school pose threats and challenges as to where and how those murals can be preserved.
“Kids were talking about (the murals), that it stinks that it would go away. They were all disappointed,” said Whitmore, a junior who served as the videographer on the project.
“The murals are a significant part of the MASH hallways, yet we rarely stop to look and think about the story behind each one,” Vriens said. “I knew this subject would allow students to interview various subjects from past to present, with the new façade at MASH serving as the motif.”
Vriens estimates that it took the students upwards of 100 hours to complete the project, which began filming in October and November. Editing took place in December and January when the students cut hundreds of hours of footage down to the 20-minute documentary.
That production process included learning things on the fly, with Vriens and the students teaching themselves how to perform the tasks along the way.
“I didn’t know anything about production when I started the class,” said Levengood, a junior who served as the producer for the project. “But every shot has a story and there’s a specific way to do each of the scenes.
“It took several months – we worked on it a long time.”
Learning as they go
The video explores the stories behind several of the murals, talking with graduates and current students who planned and painted them. It features small reunions, historic perspectives and visuals highlights of the murals.
“Every day we would do something new,” Whitmore said. “Different people would teach us things, different parts of the process. We had a small tight-knit class.”
“I certainly served as the lead producer in the project, but I purposefully gave them as much responsibility as possible,” Vriens said. “When it came down to the day-to-day tasks of preparing for the interviews, getting the filming space prepped, operating the equipment, and taking the lead on editing, each student was instrumental. It was truly a collaborative project—I was just the lead learner.”
The Wildcat Foundation, celebrating its 25th anniversary, delivers grants on a yearly basis to programs within MASD. This year’s grant applications were received in January, reviewed by a committee of volunteers, and funding recommendations totaling $89,497.78 were presented to and approved by the foundation board of directors and School Board of Directors in April.