Teacher Turns Kids Into Filmmakers, Ornithologists, and Authors

How award-winning educator, Robert Jeffers, works his magic. As told to Suzi Parker.
High school teacher Robert Jeffers has been recognized as both LAUSD Teacher of the Year and Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year.
Sep 10, 2013· 3 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

What works best as a teacher changes year to year.

You have to be sensitive to what students are learning. If technology is the way to go, students have a flavor of the day. Right now, it’s Instagram. So I post homework assignments there as a reminder and as a resource for absent students. If kids are using social media, this is another way to meet them at their point of interest, instead of fighting the tide.

We are starting to write these summaries—in 140 characters or less—about what you did in class today. Sounds simple, but this helps students summarize and distill information into its most essential form. While students aren’t necessarily using standard grammar, they are writing for concision and word economy. It’s a language exercise that forces students to think about what I did, what the class did, and what they did as individual students. Emphasizing what was learned, not what was done, requires that they move beyond surface summaries and think about the day’s activities and the actual value in them. Then we’ll post them to Twitter. That’s my other way of co-opting digital media so that students feel they have access to it and own it.

We have a school garden on campus that has organic and native plants. I say that the most important technology to use there is the shovel. It’s a tool, just like a phone, used for getting something done. I teach them how to use a compass. A tool can be an iPhone or ancient in origin.

We have other programs that allow students to improve their local eco-systems and habitats. In one, students go out and teach elementary schools about environmental issues, especially habitat restoration. The other one allows students to help L.A. Audubon with their bird count every February. Audubon has donated binoculars and paid internships for students to do this positive work in the community.

The classroom is the campus, the community, and the entire city. Los Angeles is one of the biggest, most diverse, and most dispersed cities in the country. By bringing an organization into the school, it makes it feel more like a neighborhood, more local. I believe it is a key responsibility of schools to invest in the community and the community to invest in the schools. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

We’ve worked with 826 Los Angeles, an imaginative children’s literacy organization, to publish a hardcover book with students’ essays. It’s an amazing example of what students in a struggling inner-city school can do when the community becomes involved and when they are held to high standards.

We’re the only high school, I believe, that has an ongoing project with any of the five major Hollywood studios. Twentieth Century Fox gives us scholarship money and equipment for student films. Every year I give the students a new project. In years past I’ve had them adapt children’s books, melo-dramatize a daily routine, and film only using pans or tilts. They’ve also made sizzle reels and PSAs for nonprofits and community causes.

The last couple years I have drawn on inspiration from local museums, like LACMA and the Getty Center, or specific art shows. A couple years ago we were among the first high schools to have work displayed at the Getty Center in conjunction with the citywide art show, Pacific Standard Time, which covered the influence of Los Angeles and Los Angeles-based artists on the contemporary art scene. Last year students adapted paintings by Caravaggio displayed at LACMA into short films. This year the students will play with light, informed and inspired by the work of James Turrell, now in a special show also at LACMA.

Once the films are done, the executives at Fox serve as the jury to choose the best student film. And the students get to watch their film on the screen in an amazingly fancy and formal way at the 20th Century Fox studio, where blockbuster films are seen.

Robert Jeffers (left) with his student filmmakers at 20th Century Fox. (Courtesy of Robert Jeffers.)

Organizations want the opportunity to work with a school. Our school is struggling, but we have the ability to have amazing rates of success. You are blending the expertise of people in the field with my teaching skills and different teaching models for a terrific learning experience. This blended learning helps students who are personally motivated to go to college by giving them a chance to realize their dreams and their potential outside of a classroom.

As a result, I’ve had some amazing students go off to 50 different colleges. Some step right into jobs. The way I teach ultimately illustrates the power of collaboration.

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.


Robert Jeffers has taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) for 10 years. He currently teaches English, environmental stewardship, and filmmaking and production at Susan Miller Dorey High School. During his tenure with the district, he has received awards and recognition from parents and peers, including LAUSD Teacher of the Year, Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year, and finalist for California State Teacher of the Year for his innovative methods of engaging and educating students and for the sustainable and impressive partnerships he's forged with 20th Century Fox, ABC Family, Los Angeles Audubon, and the Sierra Club. He has also been a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.