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Norwalk High students study lives through cameras

Norwalk High documentary class Seaburg
Norwalk High School teacher Kyle Seaburg leads a documentary class. Next year he is re-introducing a class on broadcast journalism at the school.

NORWALK, Conn. – It’s clear: Norwalk High School students don’t like their bathrooms.

Also clear: The kids who take Kyle Seaburg’s documentary class are willing to tackle the tough issues.

Watching Seaburg’s YouTube channel, you’ll see two – count them, two – videos showing toilet paper on the floor around the toilets. There’s a video highlighting how much the diet has improved in recent years at the school and an expose on the dangers faced by school secretaries, who come to school when others dare not – snow days.

Seaburg says the class grew out of his history class – he asked the kids to do films on various topics and then thought about the results, realizing that less sequential documentaries might be a good idea. It took him three years to get the curriculum approved. The class now is in its sixth or seventh year, with 43 students this semester.

What subjects are approved for documentaries?

“It can be on anything, but it just has to be a true documentary,” he said. “It’s not ‘Survivor,’ it’s not a reality show. I think that’s one of the hardest things for them.”

Seaburg said the class involves many life lessons, as students begin with a mini-project, watching their classmates as they work to see who they’d want to team up with for the big project – a 20-minute documentary.

“I tell them, ‘Don’t pick your friends, because you’ll want to throw them out of the window at some point,’” he said.

The resulting teams “have a honeymoon” and “then they’re married, working out issues.”

Olena Khomyk, 18, worked with classmates Vanessa Gaddy and Molly Gaumer to produce a documentary about bipolar disease last semester.

“It was just a great learning process because, in other classes, you would have homework that was due tomorrow,” she said. “But the thing with this class, you have a huge project due by the end of the semester, so it’s really your responsibility to get everything done.”

The film, “A Thin Line,” was one of two documentaries spotlighted by the Board of Education at its last meeting. Mention was made of the “raw honesty and amazing cinematography.”

Life lessons for Khomyk and her co-documentarians included learning how to adapt. “We had a hard time focusing in, choosing a topic,” she said. “What we first wanted to do was kind of attack the man and expose the pharmaceutical companies and what we do, but then we kind of shifted to mental illness.”

A bi-polar classmate agreed to be the subject, but backed out rather than be stereotyped. So Vanessa’s dad became the focus of their work.

Khomyk said it opened her mind to people who are afflicted. “It taught me that you really have to look at them as people and not the illness,” she said.

The other documentary, “The Lucky Ones,” focuses on cancer survivors.

Jenna Thomas, Julie Mammoliti and Sophia Kiriakides spoke to three people, including one of their teachers, who they never suspected of having survived cancer, Seaburg said. The resulting film showed “a great ability to get people open up,” he said.

Teacher Lauren Carlson says in the film that everyone said, “You’re so young,” that she probably didn’t have breast cancer. She did.

“I think it changed my perspective on life,” she said. “I was very high strung and I tried to control everything. … We have more strength to just deal with things.”

Both documentaries won awards at the class-culminating film festival, which featured a red carpet and trophies.

This semester’s class is working on topics that include people who are obsessed with “My Little Pony” and the world of drag queens.

Another group is going out on an oyster boat. Other students are trying to track down members of the school’s 1999 championship basketball team.

Their mini-projects are online now.

The three-minute documentary by Christina DeBlasi, Kelsey Potrykus and Jean Crisotomo studies the controversy that ensued when a banner went up at the school to celebrate the soccer team’s state championship – band members felt insulted, as they don’t get that kind of recognition, but a private company bought the banner.

Juan Olivarez, Troy Stumpf, and Edwin Jimenez asked other students how they feel about sagging pants. Amanda Emond, Aubrianna Mann and Kayla Sodaro talked to janitors about what they see as a lack of cleanliness at the school.

Jack Patterson, Jenna Jewell and Eliot Skaleski interviewed secretary Patricia Yarnold for “365 Days No Matter What,” which asks why secretaries must come in to school on snow days.

Yarnold agreed that it was unsafe, but said, “I don’t understand why we’re heating a building and lighting a building for possibly six or seven employees. Which seems a little ridiculous.”

Seaburg said that, when the class debuted, he had a lot of students. Now it ebbs and flows.

“Word got out that it’s work; that scares people,” he said. “I tell them, ‘This is the one class that you will remember.’”

Olena Khomyk
Olena Khomyk is hoping to be a visual artist.

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