West Middle School students take a stand by creating film

When Andrea Pyle, an English and drama teacher at West Middle School, decided to give her advanced drama students the opportunity to make a movie, she knew it would either be amazing or an absolute disaster. To the 60 or so students, parents, and community members who attended the movie's screenings on Friday, March 23, the end result was clear: the film project was a major success. The movie, entitled "Taking a Stand" was based on a nationally recognized program called Character Counts that was created by the non-profit organization the Josephson Institute. The program provides youth with framework for acting ethically. Specifically, Character Counts outlines what it calls the Six Pillars of Character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. Character Counts has been embraced by thousands of schools and communities across the country, including Downey. In 2005, the Downey Unified School District incorporated Character Counts into its curriculum and the rest of the city followed suit, going as far as hanging the Six Pillars of Character in the Council chambers and incorporating the framework into the police department, after school programs, and sports. The city has even named streets and alleys after the Six Pillars.

It made sense, then, that Pyle would choose "Taking a Stand" as her student's first film. Originally written by students at Portola Middle School in Tarzana, CA in 2004, "Taking a Stand" is intended to be produced as a play and often is at middle schools across the country participating in the Character Counts program. Pyle, however, took a different approach, enabling her students to learn about the craft of filmmaking while also becoming better people in the process.

"The movie deals with a lot of topics that kids this age really have to deal with, but I think that the content of the movie and their willingness to work this hard and this closely for six months has really taught the students what 'Taking a Stand' is about: how to treat themselves and others with dignity and respect," Pyle said.

The movie focuses on Stacy, a new girl at school, played by real-life actress Megan Suri. As "the new kid," Stacy must find her footing, figuring out who her real friends are while navigating the various cliques typical of junior high. Stacy also encounters different types of bullying at her school, from the snide remarks that constantly emanate from "the pop girls," to more overt bullying that comes in the form of a rude and crude female bully named Cory, expertly played by Cheyenne Pitts.

A real standout was Kamyia Bell, who plays the part of Barbara, the school custodian who doubles as the movie's narrator. Barbara is the eyes and ears of the school, watching as all the drama unfolds, verbalizing what the students in the film are unable to. Bell, despite being in just seventh grade, brought a great deal of maturity and sincerity to her role. Her extreme talent is apparent, as she steals each scene she's in. Bell immediately related to the content of the script because she can still vividly recall a particularly grueling time endured as the new girl in third grade.

"I really connected to the story we were telling because sometimes people can be mean. In third grade I was the new kid and no one talked to me," Bell said. "It was very hurtful, I felt like crying every day and sometimes I did. I wanted to make friends, but I was basically alone for three weeks. When someone finally sat with me they told me that the reason no one talked to me was because they thought I was mean. I couldn't believe it."

Even students who weren't part of Pyle's advanced drama production felt attached to the content. Faith Lozano, a 13-year-old West Middle School student who attended the 6 p.m. showing, has only been attending West for six weeks and she said she could relate to many of the storylines.

"At other schools kids could be really standoffish and mean, but everyone at West has been really welcoming and I feel thankful for that," Lozano said. "I don't have to feel afraid to be myself here. I'm still looking for my best friend, but I feel like we're all family here."

Some of Pyle's students even admitted to bullying in the past, but growing up a bit and participating in "Taking a Stand" made them rethink their choices and discourage others from participating in those behaviors.

Almost as amazing as the empathy and respect the students have learned from participating in the filmmaking project are the real world skills they've developed. Students learned how to storyboard each scene of the movie and some experienced their first ever audition when trying out for their roles. Others learned how to work behind the scenes on sound and one student, Lanie Monroy, even acted as the script supervisor. The students were also placed into groups and after learning how to edit using the program iMovie, they were each responsible for editing footage from their scenes.

The actors were also forced to learn about the importance of continuity. The movie took six months to shoot, but the actual story only takes place over two days. For six months the student actors had to bring the same outfit to school each day, do their hair the same way, and remember their lines. For many kids their age it would be an overwhelming task, but Pyle feels that her students this year are an exceptional group.

"Thirty students participated in this whole process and I'm in awe of all of them," Pyle said. "After this, I hope they realize there isn't anything they can't do. The success of this movie is completely attributed to them and their commitment and willingness to embark on this crazy journey with me. All I did was shoot the footage; they did everything else."

At the conclusion of the 6 p.m. showing of the student movie, before the actors were given the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion, before they happily signed autographs for audience members, Pyle gave a speech thanking her students for their hard work and during this speech she became emotional. In turn, many of the participating students became teary eyed as well, and it was hard not to. Watching the bloopers and behind the scenes footage of Pyle's advanced drama class is enough to make you nostalgic for them. They will never be this young again and while the friendships they've made may not endure, this movie will forever act as a snapshot, reminding them of who they were and what they were like at this exact moment in time and that is something that Pyle should be particularly proud of.

For those interested in purchasing a copy of the "Taking a Stand" movie made by Andrea Pyle's advanced drama class, DVD's can be purchased for $10 at West Middle School or by contacting Pyle directly at apyle@dusd.net. All proceeds will go to the drama department.