Reel Education: Grad Creates Afterschool Film Club for Camden Students

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By Tom McLaughlin

Education is key, but it’s only as effective as how you reach students, says Kenneth O’Kane.

“Giving kids agency in their learning is going to make them that much more invested in it,” states the 2016 graduate of Rutgers University–Camden with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in urban studies.

O’Kane was reminded of the power of engaging students last fall when he and his classmates in his urban education course – taught by Lauren Silver, an associate professor of childhood studies, and Clovis Bergère, a Ph.D. student in childhood studies, at Rutgers–Camden – were tasked with creating a curriculum at one of the several Ignite program sites in North Camden. The Ignite program, led by Rutgers–Camden and schools in the Rutgers/North Camden Schools Partnership, seeks to “spark” student discovery through a variety of hands-on educational courses and experiences.

So, equipped with little more than a donated video camera, low-budget editing software, and what he calls “rudimentary editing skills,” O’Kane led the formation of a film club for elementary- and middle-school students at Holy Name School in Camden.

As he quickly found out, however, getting the students involved took a little more than just yelling “Lights, camera, action!” Some of them didn’t want any part of it, he recalls, before realizing that they could take the reins of the project.

o-kane-secondary“I never assigned them homework, but soon they were spending their free time coming up with scenes and dialogue, and couldn’t wait to show me,” says O’Kane. “Before you knew it, the kids were laughing and having a great time – that’s when the project really took off.”

Over the course of the semester, the students learned and implemented almost every facet of the moviemaking process – story building, writing scenes and dialogue, acting, and filming – culminating in a short film.

Based on the overwhelming success of the program, the Office of Civic Engagement at Rutgers–Camden expanded the program to all Ignite sites this spring, with O’Kane serving as the club facilitator. Students from Cooper’s Poynt School, Rafael Cordero Molina Elementary School, Holy Name School, and Camden Community Charter School created short films between 6 and 10 minutes in length that can be viewed on Ignite’s YouTube channel.

“I am so excited and proud of all the work that the students have done and it all started in Lauren and Clovis’ urban education course,” says the Blackwood resident. “Supporting and fostering student creativity in out-of-school time programs, especially in urban areas like Camden, is extremely important. That desire to be a part of something beyond what they are required to do is what I think gets kids motivated to succeed.”

For O’Kane, his personal understanding of what drives students’ creativity and ambitions dates back to his own school days. As he recalls, with the exception of English, he often failed to see the reason why he was learning the subjects that he was required to take.

“English was the one class where I never had to ask ‘why,’” recalls O’Kane. “I realized the incredible value of learning how to express yourself clearly and concisely.”

After missing school on a daily basis, O’Kane was still a high-school sophomore when his former classmates were making plans for graduation. So he did what came easiest – he dropped out.

O’Kane took a full-time job at a local movie theater, but soon realized that he would need to work several minimum-wage jobs round the clock just to get by.

o-kane-third“I knew that I wanted to do something more; I just didn’t know what yet,” he recalls.

So O’Kane got back on track with his studies. He earned his GED in 2009 and attended Camden County College in Blackwood before transferring to Rutgers–Camden in spring 2013.

Wanting to help people, he initially pursued a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice before turning his attention to being an English teacher – an irony that isn’t lost on him.

“Just because I dropped out doesn’t mean that I don’t value education,” says O’Kane. “On the contrary, some students – just like I was – need another reason to come to school every day and they need to learn how to find it within themselves to succeed. I want to bring those messages to them.”

In addition to his work with the Ignite program, O’Kane has also been active in the annual Louder than a Bomb–Camden poetry slam, leading poetry workshops for participating Camden County students, as well as serving as a guest judge this past year. He also formerly worked as a group leader for EducationWorks, an organization that provides educational opportunities for children in Camden, and has volunteered as a mentor with Mighty Writers in Philadelphia, a nonprofit that uses creative writing to strengthen literary skills. He and his current student at Mighty Writers are working on a fun web comic called “When Pigs Fly.”

O’Kane now plans to pursue a master’s degree in education at the Relay Graduate School of Education in Camden and has applied for the school’s two-year teaching residency program, which will qualify him as a full-time teacher in Philadelphia or Camden.

Ultimately, he dreams of one day creating and leading a nonprofit that serves as a “creativity and imagination-fueled safety net” for students.

“We can catch those kids who don’t want to be in school anymore,” he says. “By finding ways to get them interested, we can catapult them back into their educations.”

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