In March, 5,000 residents of Grand Rapids, Michigan participated in a lip dub video set to Don McLean’s “American Pie” in response to a Newsweek article that placed the city on a list of 'American’s Dying Cities.' The video, nearly 10 minutes long, has received over 3 million hits on YouTube and accolades from film critic Roger Ebert. Their message was clear: Grand Rapids is far from being a desolate ghost town.
The staff and students at in North Hollywood hope that their message will make the same impact on their community. On a recent Tuesday, the school, which opened three years ago and is recognized for its performing arts, put together its own to protest teacher layoffs. The 8-minute video, which mixed One Republic’s Apologize with a continuous shot of students and faculty mouthing the lyrics and holding up signs that questioned the state’s budget cuts, wasn’t difficult to produce, said drama teacher Bob Arnold.
The video was shot over a period of two hours and posted on YouTube the night before the last day of school at Roy Romer. When the school was informed that they were losing 12 of their teachers, including three that teach dance, orchestra and choir, Mike Ritchie, who teaches stage production and lighting, got the idea to create a video in tribute to the RIFed teachers.
Ritchie saw other successful lip dub videos on The Today Show and the opening scene of season 7 on “The Office” and thought that the students and faculty could do something similar, with one exception: the video wouldn’t be as cheery as its predecessors.
The students took the layoffs hard once they realized that it was their teachers they were losing, said Arnold. Not one student laughed or giggled throughout the whole production, he said.
“That says a lot about these kids and how they feel about what is going on,” said Arnold.
Middle schoolers, who usually have trouble getting permission slips signed, had no problem getting parental consent for the project, said Ritchie. Nearly 300 students participated in the video, with some helping out behind the scenes and others belting out solo lip sync performances.
“We put it together in about a week,” said Arnold. “Getting the kids together was no problem; it was the easiest project I’ve ever directed because the kids all felt the same way, the staff all felt the same way. We were angry; we were sad.”
The project was scheduled as a lesson in film production. With a large portion of the students involved in the performing arts, it opened their eyes to a new creative outlet, and a possible future career. Students came to Arnold after filming was over and said that it would make a good job, and many enjoyed working behind the cameras, he said.
Arnold and Ritchie taught students what a lib dub is, stage hands and what goes on in the film making process. Every student had a job, and some were cast in parts, while others were extras or made signs.
“After the two hours, they really had an experience of what the film set looked like,” said Arnold.
Part of the lesson was also teaching students to take a stance, which is part of a unit taught in sixth grade that involves Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. The faculty wanted to teach the students that they “don’t have to take this just lying down,” said Arnold.
Next fall, students will be affected by changes to the schedule that will limit their opportunity to take elective courses.
Their current 4-by-4 schedule (four extended periods one day, four others the next) will be changed to a six-period day. It would deny students access to electives like leadership, yearbook and performing arts, said Principal John McLaughlin.
Electives are what drive the academic programs, said McLaughlin. The school awards students more electives based on their academic performance, he said.
Now, students would be limited to only one election course, and they don’t have many performing arts options to pick from.
Mr. Arnold’s drama program has enough years in the district to be saved, but the school is losing orchestra, dance and choir.
“We pride ourselves on our performing arts,” said Arnold. “We’re known as an undercover performing arts magnet, and that is being destroyed by our layoffs.”
Mclaughlin, who said he is “embarrassed” to go to a six-day period because it limits electives, said that electives are the reason children get up in the morning and go to school.
The faculty at Roy Romer knows that budget cuts are affecting schools across the city, but they wanted the video to focus specifically on their school.
“What’s happening here is happening everywhere, and all we can do is focus on our school,” said Arnold. “I don’t want to see anybody out of work.”
Ida Sanamyam, who has been with the district for over five years and with Roy Romer for three, was notified in March that she might be laid off; the third year in a row that she was RIFed. She taught English, Math and History to sixth-grade students and worked with English-language learners. Her role in the lip dub video is, perhaps, all too real: she plays a teacher carrying a cardboard box out of the school.
Sanamyam said that the district hasn’t made it clear what is happening to the 1,700 RIFed teachers in the district, who remain in limbo until they’re either fired or asked to come back.
“We’ve been juggled around like little tennis balls with information,” she said, calling from her empty classroom after the last day of school let out on Friday.
There are 45 schools exempt from the RIF process because they went to court and argued that their school could not handle the cuts, she said. Roy Romer’s principal tried to fight the cuts in court last year but was denied.
The middle school, only three years old, has been hit hard, said Sanamyam, with most of the faculty young and with little seniority.
Teachers with less experience and seniority are staying over teachers with more experience because they have more credentials, she said.
“If this is about student achievement, this needs to be done a different way because this is not helping our students,” said Sanamyam.
If a teacher takes over her English language learners class, she hopes they will be prepared to teach each student differently and push them when needed.
“It’s a special class,” she said. “You’ve got to know how to push those kids. You’ve got to modify every lesson.”
Sanamyam said that if a student doesn’t learn the English language correctly in middle school, it could lead to dropping out in high school if they don’t understand the material and get frustrated.
Now, she will apply for unemployment and wait to see what happens. She said that she can’t send her résumé to other schools because they are only considering teachers who have been displaced, not ones who have been RIFed.
“I feel everyone forgets about the students,” she said. “Right now, they’re not a priority.”
Arnold and the rest of the faculty hope that the video will start a movement and make people aware of what is going on at their school.
“To a student, their teacher is everything,” said Arnold.