Local educator gets some creative juices flowing

Debbie Vanni fell in love with film as a child, making home movies with her brothers on their family’s 8-millimeter camera. Her passion for visual media followed her to Homestead High School, where she served as the head photographer on the school newspaper staff, and then to Chico State, where she took electives in film even though she was an English major.

Twenty years later, she still shares her passion for film and visual media with her students at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino.

Hired by the school in 1990, Vanni was invited to teach comparative literature when the school district created the class two years later. The curriculum originally contained a “film as literature” component, which was eventually dropped.

Even so, Vanni, 46, continued the tradition of combining literature and media, educating her students on the different aspects of film and television, and requiring them to complete short films based on what they had learned.

The idea proved to be slightly ahead of its time.

“It was really rough because back then, there wasn’t a lot of equipment,” said Vanni, who edited her own childhood projects with scissors and tape. “I just told them to do the best they could.”

More than decade later, Vanni’s students are still chomping at the bit to create short films as final projects for their comparative literature class. Students submit a summary of what they plan to create and spend their spring semester working on their short films in groups of six. At the end of the semester, five films are chosen from the batch of 10 to 20 films for a screening at the Quinlan Community Center in Cupertino.

Vanni cites the emergence of technology in everyday life as a major help for students. “They’ve grown up with technology,” she said of her current students. “In 1992, it was hard to get a video camera.”

But the film component of the class isn’t just about integrating technology into curriculum. Vanni argues there is a place for media in every class in order to encourage students to be aware and active citizens.

“At this point in our world, their life is visual,” she said. “They play video games, they watch television, they go to movies, they see billboards–everything’s visual.” She added, “It’s not just understanding the written; it’s also understanding what’s being put in front of your face.”

This piece originally appeared in The Cupertino Courier.

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