A group of sixth-grade literacy students at Thomas Jefferson Middle School learned what it takes to convert the written word into a movie with the premier of "The Last Thing I Remember," a movie they made themselves based on the novel of the same name by author Andrew Klavan.
The students selected Klavan's novel for their "read aloud" book a few weeks ago. After cracking the first chapter, they soon were engrossed in the thriller.
"The Last Thing I Remember" is the first in a four-book series; the main character is Charlie West, a patriotic teenager who excels at karate and dreams of joining the Air Force. In the story, West - played by sixth-grader Jarrett Smith - wakes up in pain and strapped to a chair next to a table of blood-spattered torture instruments. He is confused about where he is in time and space. After escaping from his bonds, he finds himself accused by the police of stabbing his best friend and pursued by a group of jihadists called "The Homelanders."
"We got so excited, we wanted to come to reading every day," said 12-year-old Trent Kempker, who played a guard called Rat Face. "Once we finished it, everyone was asking, "Is this a movie? Can we make it into a movie?'"
Teacher Jeni DeFeo said her first inclination was to the tell the students it wasn't feasible to make a film so late in the school year. But she hated dampening their enthusiasm, so she found a way to make it work.
Soon the class was making a list of the novel's key events, writing dialogue to go with those 37 scenes and placing them in a sequence. The class has 27 students and all of them were responsible for writing and acting in the production. They also doubled as crew - scouting locations, making makeup and wardrobe decisions, selecting music, etc.
"All on a $3 budget," DeFeo added.
As part of their work, the students also Skyped with a screenwriter in Kansas and a casting director in California. They used two iPads to film the scenes, which included special effects like a dog barking and a blown-up bridge. The students also auditioned for the various roles in front of their peers.
They also contacted Klavan, who granted his permission to the students to turn the book into a movie. When she first saw the author's email, DeFeo said she was "blown away."
"To actually have the real author respond back to us ... I was so excited I nearly knocked (Smith) out of his chair when I showed him the email," she said.
She said she knew the pre-teens were truly engaged in their learning when some started cracking down on others' off-task behavior themselves.
"It's amazing to see what kind of learning happens when they take on a project and make it their own," she said.
Smith, 12, said he thinks he's better at writing because of the project. And Nyjia Turner, 12, the actress who played West's girlfriend, relished her acting experience.
"I wanted to make the movie because I wanted to be an actress when I grow up," Turner said. "The hardest thing was I had to cry on cue. And it was hard saying "I love you' to Jarrett because he's my friend."
Turner said DeFeo helped her figure out how to emote onscreen and make her acting believable. Smith found it harder to take his role seriously.
"You kept laughing," Turner teased him.
"Yeah, I did," he responded.