For the past 20 years, Will Cavada has supported students at Mount Pleasant High School in San Jose, California, as they tell their stories. While his role as a new and emerging media arts teacher has evolved over the years, his mission has not—to equip students with the skills to communicate their own true stories.
Since 2016, Mr. Cavada and his students have participated in Digital Promise Global’s 360° Story Lab, including the 360 Filmmakers Challenge and MY World 360°. This September, one of his students’ films, “Food Desert,” was selected as part of the first MY World 360° playlist, a collection of youth-produced 360° media from across the globe that was screened at the United Nations in New York City.
We visited Mr. Cavada in his media studio to discuss why he sees digital storytelling as a critical media literacy skill. He spoke about the potential of teaching 360° media and immersive storytelling, as his students inspired us with their creativity in mixing media forms and formats to power their stories and amplify their messages. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Digital Promise Global: Your title is “New and Emerging Media Arts Teacher.” Can you talk a little bit about what that role means and how it has evolved over the years?
Will Cavada: When I first started teaching the media class it was more of a graphics class based on the print world—Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. What we can do with digital media changed things dramatically. We now have 360° films. We have drones. We’re using cell phones. One student is doing her whole film using a cell phone with a speaker on it so she can go around and film, because that’s the best tool for her film. You may not have all the tools, but you find what works best for each student’s skills, what they’re interested in, and what’s best for their film. It’s about learning which tool works with what.
It means that you’re never teaching the same thing. You’re still teaching film and you’re still teaching the craft of storytelling, but the lens that you’re doing that storytelling through changes immensely as new media is always popping up. I love that aspect of it. And then ultimately, it’s about staying true to storytelling. How do you tell a good documentary? How do you tell a good live action script? How do you tell a story if you’re just doing animation and using Adobe After Effects? It’s still going back to storytelling and using those tools to tell that story.
Digital Promise Global: What do you hope students gain from your classes?
Will Cavada: One of the things I always want my students to get is that they are creative—as individuals and as humans. I want them to know they have the capacity to create; they have the capacity to affect the world through their own lens. No matter what you’re doing, you’re trying to tell someone a story. You’re trying to convince them. With their digital media assets, students have another subset of skills to be able to tell their story using media, which becomes really important in today’s world.
From my experience, it doesn’t matter what career they go into; there’s always someone who may ask, “Who can do this poster? Who can do a quick film? Who can edit?” And they have this capacity to step in and say, “Oh I can do that!”
Digital Promise Global: Let’s talk about media literacy. How do you think the ability to create helps students be better consumers of media? And do you believe 360° media changes their perspective of what they’re consuming in the media?
Will Cavada: I think that regardless of what they’re using, when students start to create their own media they have an attachment to it that they don’t have when they just consume someone else’s media. It’s that ownership that becomes really powerful. With 360° media and working with MY World 360°, I’ve noticed a way of experimenting with a 360° camera where they’re maybe above me in terms of the media because it’s not something that I’ve used. So they have to become an expert and there’s not a lot in their lives where they are really the one who is instructing the instructor on using something. They impress themselves that they’re able to command new media that people don’t quite know what to do with yet.
I know that for Rogelio [the student filmmaker behind “Food Desert”], it was his first time in the 360° world, and his first time doing a film. It was really interesting to see how he grew in confidence. He was shocked to know his film made it to the United Nations. It was really exciting for him to go, “Oh my gosh, it’s there, and that was my first film.” He was able to do that because it’s such a new media that he was able to craft it towards his own story.
What's been the greatest thing for me is that I get a lot of kids who don't think they're artists or didn't think to be creative and then come in and find a passion.
Digital Promise Global: Did the Sustainable Development Goals resonate with your students?
Will Cavada: Yes! Rogelio looked at all the goals and there were a lot of them. It was almost overwhelming because there are so many goals! As he was looking, I said, “Go through the goals and find something that resonates with you.” He chose health (SDG #3: Good Health and Well-Being).
Then, we had a wonderful conversation about what aspect of health is of most concern to him in his community. We started to research good foods and how we get to those good foods and saw that we’re actually in a food desert. Within a mile, there’s no grocery store our kids can go to other than convenience stores. He started to look at the idea of a food desert and that really resonated with him. It made him think about the foods that all the kids bring here, and that what they’re eating is because that’s what’s available.
Digital Promise Global: The National Association for Media Literacy says that media education is a study of media, including hands-on experiences and media production. Why do you think it’s important for young people to make media, and what skills have you seen them gain from it?
Will Cavada: I think it’s so important for my kids, and for myself and for our community, because we are a community of color, a community that has been impacted, and a community whose stories don’t get told. The ones who do have control of the media are the influencers, and so the only way we can change our world is we have to become influencers ourselves. Our students need the skills that other people have access to, and the digital environment allows us to actually gain that access. We can affect change by giving [students] the skills to communicate their own true stories.
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