Vermont Folklife Center pilots exciting new summer film program for teens

LINCOLN — Two groups of Vermont students will hit the road this summer with documentary film equipment in hand, as participants in “Conversations from the Open Road,” a creative new summer program founded by Vermont educator Mary Simons, in partnership with the Vermont Folklife Center.

Each group will travel to a region of the United States to explore what Simons calls the “stories behind the issue” most pertinent to that region. The program is designed for students age 16 to 19.

“It’s for the student that’s dying to get out and see the world, that’s tired of being in a classroom and is wondering what it’s all about out there,” said Simons, a Lincoln resident. “The student who is really passionate about trying to make the world a better place and trying to inform others about important issues.”

The staff of the Vermont Folklife Center is enthusiastically lending its support to the program, training Simons and the students in documentary techniques.

“This is a unique opportunity for Vermont students to set out with the microphone as a passport to better understand their place in America,” said Gregory Sharrow, director of education at and co-director of the Folklife Center in Middlebury.

From July 27 to Aug. 8, the first group will travel down the Eastern seaboard to explore the changing face of the fishing industry; from Aug. 17 to 28, the second group of students will travel through Appalachia to explore the legacy of coal. If the pilot year is successful, Simons anticipates that the regions and issues would change annually.

After working as a humanities teacher for 10 years in both public and private middle and high schools, Simons decided to dedicate her efforts to a less conventional approach to learning. Seeing what a profound impact moving outside of the classroom could have on her students, she set out to design a summer travel program. She opted to focus the travel within the United States. Her goal was for students to learn about the people living in drastically different, yet entirely similar, places and conditions within the United States.

Simons initially thought her program would run service-learning trips, where students travel to an area and pitch in with a local charity effort while learning about the area.

But many service-learning programs exist, and Simons decided that many weren’t adventurous enough.

The “Conversations” program will instead teach audio and visual documentary skills as students travel through a region. Instead of the effects of the fishing industry or the coal industry being the driving focus of the trip, the focus will be on meeting people who have stories to tell about those industries, hearing those stories, and finding a way to tell those stories through film.

“It’s traveling with a mission,” Simons explained. “We’re on the road together 24 hours a day. The goal is to see everything, learn about it, and have a project to work on together. Creating with other people is such an exhilarating experience.”

Along with Simons, professional documentarians will work with students before the trip and on the road on their production and editing skills, culminating in the production of a documentary film about the trip. Students have the option of earning course-credit for their work.

Along the way, students will immerse themselves in local culture — from lobstering to line dancing — all the while listening to and learning from the people they meet along the way. Simons has built connections with local organizations and non-governmental organizations that will host and guide the group during their journey.

“Each day will be a blend of interviewing people, learning from community experts, and absorbing the culture and beauty of the local place,” said Simons.

In designing the trips, Simons went by instinct more than anything. She said she saw strong parallels between the rural communities in the mountains of Vermont and West Virginia (a stop on the Appalachia trip), but also vast differences.

“In Vermont, we always had a working landscape, but our working landscape does not look like (West Virginia’s),” she said.

In West Virginia, one of the least diversified economies in the United States, the coal industry has reigned for over 150 years. As traditional mines ran dry, coal companies have begun relying on a controversial extraction technique called mountaintop removal, which literally blasts the tops off of mountains with little regard for environmental outcomes.

“In Vermont we live in a really pristine environment. But a percentage of our energy comes from coal, so we should probably know what environments have been ruined,” Simons said.

The Eastern seaboard trip was also a region and an issue that Simons felt would be appealing to students.

“I thought it would be cool to be on the coast in the summer, but turns out the students aren’t thinking that way yet — they’ve all signed up for the Appalachia trip,” Simons laughed.

Admission is rolling and spaces are still available. For more information or to apply to be a participant, interested parties can visit Conversations from the Open Road’s website, www.conversationsfromtheopenroad.com or contact Mary Simons at mary.beth.simons@gmail.com.

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