Southwestern Elementary School fifth-graders sit in the audience section behind one of the new cameras in the school’s “Star Production Company” studio. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)
Southwestern Elementary School fifth-graders sit in the audience section behind one of the new cameras in the school’s “Star Production Company” studio. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)
Lauren Ross wants to one day become a professional videographer.

And this year, the fifth-grader is already on her way.

In fact, at Southwestern Elementary School you'll find teams of writers, actors, directors and producers collaborating on a daily basis.

They might find inspiration in an upcoming holiday, a historic event or an off-the-wall poem about smelly feet. Whatever the case, more than 100 students are learning new ways to tell a story and engage fellow classmates.

The children make up the school's SWJCS Star Productions, a project for high-ability students that incorporates technology and extensive creativity.

The program, created by teacher Shannon Dattilo and modeled after a similar effort at Paoli Community Schools, is in its first year at Southwestern. In just this fall semester, students already have created more than 50 videos for the organization's YouTube channel - they churn out about eight to 12 new videos each week. Their videos can be found at www.youtube.com/swjcsstarproductions.

"I was looking to change our program so we could reach more students," said Dattilo, who has taught at the school for 15 years.

Ross, who has wanted to work in film well before this year, said she has learned more about the process through the program. And her love for the career has intensified.

"It's helped me improve to be a better writer," she noted.

Meanwhile classmate Jessica Taflinger, hoping to become a veterinarian, is focusing her new-found skills on animal videos, including a piece in which she describes caring for horses.

For her, the production offers insight into a world she only knew at face-value through the TV screen.

"Whenever I'm watching a show, I understand how they did that now," she said. "Before I thought it was really cool, but I didn't know how they did everything."

Dattilo, who teaches high-ability students at the school, has trained the children to use the tools of writing, acting, editing and directing to produce a well-structured story.

"It's fun as teachers to see the kids with their hobbies," Dattilo said. "We learn about the kids, and they get to share something special as well."

Before each project, the students fill out a video segment sheet that describes the video, the target audience and lists the crew of participants.

The video segments also air on Madison Channel 15 and at Hanover College.

"They have a real audience, so that's very exciting," Dattilo said.

This week, the class received new camera and production equipment from Southwestern High School to help further their training and exposure. A green-screen also is on the way.

Dattilo said her hope is for the school district to pick up the production classes in the middle and high school.

As she finished the first trial run of the program this semester, she said the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

"The parents have been very receptive. In fact, they want more and more," she said.

The goal is include every student in the school in a least one project this year and to publish a newspaper that prints once a semester.

The paper will include news features, reviews and editorials, and students are currently in the process of rounding up stories for the publication.

"I told the kids our job is help inform, inspire and entertain," Dattilo said. "I think we've done well with the entertaining. Now I want them to do more informing and inspiring."