Flonora Merritt, FNN Advisor & Alum December 10, 2020 By wpengine It’s deeply rewarding to offer students a platform they can use to delve into issues that are close to them. I encourage them to speak freely and honestly about important issues. What do you do at Friendship Public Charter School? I teach video production at Collegiate for Friendship News Network (FNN). I’m also FNN’s webmaster and after school advisor to advanced students. Many people know my face at this point because I am a teacher at most events at Collegiate. This is the most fun part of journalism — just having the students, even the shy ones, participate in Collegiate events big and small. I also push my students to cover things going on in their community and the country’s top news stories. In the past, I have taken my students to rallies. We had a record-breaking turnout for our March Against Gun Violence a couple years ago. Before we were quarantined, I was also taking my students to community meetings that addressed gentrification in the city. We got to experience the grassroots movement and work with all the people involved like Link Up and ONE DC. It especially touched scholars, because a lot of them are witnessing the displacement of friends and family due to gentrification. It’s deeply rewarding to offer students a platform they can use to delve into issues that are close to them. I encourage them to speak freely and honestly about important issues. An exciting challenge right now is to try to do video production at home. When we first quarantined, we were asking, “Can we still do this?” We’ve still been able to produce content. Even over the summer, we continued to work on The Gentrification Project, Fading Color, and now it’s turned into a full documentary. We received a $30,000 grant from the DC Arts and Humanities Council. My advanced group of graduating seniors got paid to produce this. They’re still working on it, even though they’re in college right now. My goal is to show them that, yes, you can get paid for doing this work. It’s a valuable skill set and a viable career path. How have you seen students carry these skills with them into college and beyond? Do you see many students follow this career path? Many students are into politics and very vocal about social issues, but their career paths differ. One student is an artist, another is into international relations. Recently, I’ve been seeing more students go into journalism or film production. Often, when they first start, they’re very quiet, like I was in the program. The most gratifying thing about this program is witnessing a student’s transformation as they find their voice about issues close to them. At first, they may rather be behind the scenes. Then they finally say, “Oh, no, I want to be in front of the camera and talk about this.” Their parents tell me they see a positive change in their children, too. You see their personalities bloom, and they carry this confidence with them. How long have you been at Collegiate doing this? My connection to Friendship goes way back. I’ve been doing this work ever since I graduated from Collegiate. I am an alum of the class of 2008. I had been interning with the Friendship News Network on and off since I was in college. I returned to FNN as an advisor in 2014, and then started teaching a class in 2016. It’s been a wild ride, but, yeah, I’ve been pretty devoted to the Collegiate bureau ever since I graduated. Ms. Tindle was my teacher back in the day. She introduced me to Ms. Kaufman, the Director of FNN. She recommended me because I was such a good writer. She could see how outspoken I was in my writing. That’s where my involvement with FNN started. We started as a magazine called “Rated T.” From there, we started to dabble in videos, and it was like, “Okay, now I have to speak on camera.” It was intimidating at first, but once I got into it, it got easy. Once the spotlight was on me and everyone was watching, I found my rhythm. During my senior year, I had to interview Bill Gates’ father. It’s a funny story. Originally, we thought we were going to be interviewing Bill Gates. Then, at the last minute, I found out, “Oh, it’s his dad.” I had to think on my feet and switch up my questions quickly because they were about Bill Gates and his company. I’d thought I was going to interview him one-on-one — just me, him, and my cameraman. Then it turned out that, “Oh, you’re doing the interview in front of all these important people, all the higher-ups at Friendship. All of them are going to be watching.” And I was like, “Oh, okay. Well, that’s not intimidating at all…” As the old saying goes, pressure can either break you or turn you into a diamond. Sometimes you just have to go for it. I carry this philosophy into my work with my students. Before the pandemic, I’d started a tradition of taking my students to a comic book convention, Awesome Con towards the end of the year. I pushed them to really talk to people, whether it was other attendees or some of the celebrities. At first, they were a little bit hesitant, but I said, “Go for it. The worst thing they can do or say is, ‘No.’ That would be fine, too. Just move on to somebody else and ask them, ‘How do you like the convention?’ They’re regular people. You can talk to them.” It was a huge success. At first, they said, “Nobody’s going to talk to us.” Afterwards, it was, “Okay, that wasn’t so bad.” This pushes them to step out of their comfort zone in front of the camera, too. Can you talk more about your experience as a student at Collegiate? Being a product of Collegiate has certainly benefited me. When I was a high school student, I was part of the early college program. I’m very thankful for that opportunity. I earned 44 college credits, which took a year off of my college requirements. Instead of graduating from college in four years, I graduated in three, which saved my parents some money. The program also prepared me for what college was going to be like. The professors had a syllabus, and I needed self-discipline to get all of the work done and on time. Having that early exposure to college at the beginning of high school really prepared me. Everything was such a breeze for me. I heard stories of other people struggling during their freshman year at college, and I just couldn’t relate. I’m so glad they’re pushing for the whole Collegiate campus to get involved in dual enrollment. They have more options now, too. Students can enroll in college classes online. In addition to UDC, I think they’re also working with Trinity, Georgetown, and other universities, too. Maybe this will help them obtain early acceptance into these colleges. It’s amazing how much our programs have grown since I graduated 12 years ago. Are there any tips you would offer other teachers who want to help their students gain confidence? When we’re trying to figure out what stories to talk about, I get my students’ input. I find out what their interests are and build off of them. In the past, we tried to give them a general topic to talk about. Some got into it and some didn’t. When you give them the freedom to choose their topic, it unveils what they’re passionate about. The difference in their enthusiasm is clear. They’ll put forth more effort if it’s a topic that touches them personally, something that they care about. While we’re learning from home, I’m helping my students become YouTube stars. We’re using the platform to talk about issues important to them. We’ve provided them with ring lights and microphones so they can look professional. I’ve offered them lessons on how to set up their newsroom to reflect their personalities. They’ve done a good job with their first video project, which was to introduce themselves and share what’s unique about them. I’m already learning about their interests. Some students already wanted to be YouTube influencers, so I was like, “Oh, then this is the right class for you.” Are there any fun facts you’d like to share? Those closest to me already know that I’m a huge comic book and anime nerd. That’s where I can connect with many of my students. We can have a debate on something and turn it into a project. I do like sharing this bond with students. If you hear my ringtone, you might recognize the Power Rangers theme song. I grew up with them. I had the opportunity to meet most of the original cast at Awesome Con. That was pretty cool. I’ve been experimenting more with my photography, whether I’m out in nature or taking self-portraits. I’m trying to sharpen my skills. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough cameras for all of my students to use right now, but one of the most fun aspects of my class is the mix of technology and art. We look at basic skills like composition and how to adjust the settings of the camera to take amazing photos.