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Personal Stories

Catherine "Cat" Kelly and the Hollywood Kids

By: Catherine Kelly
Catherine 'Cat' Kelly

The "Hollywood Kids", grade school students with learning disabilities, produce and star in their own movie and news programs each year, under the direction of their teacher, Miss Kelly. Since 1994, the Hollywood Kids and "Nutty News" programs have been awarded several times, including a Best Practice in Education Award (NJ) and an Unsung Heroes in Education Award.

Catherine Kelly, Teacher of the Year in 1994, was one of 35 teachers nationwide to be honored the Walt Disney Company by receiving the American Teacher Award in 2001. The Hollywood Kids and their parents were present for the ceremony at a Los Angeles movie studio. Miss Kelly used her prize money to fund a college scholarship program for special education students.

Cat Kelly believes the arts are the true equalizer. She has started a "Wall of Fame" where she has framed pictures of actors, authors, and talk show hosts who also have learning differences. Cat Kelly says:

"It is my hope that if they see that there are others who have already gone through what they have and have come out on top that there is nothing to stop them from achieving their goals. While I don't expect them to be movie stars, I do expect them to have high goals for themselves and to feel confident that they can make whatever they want of themselves.

Whether it is making a movie or a news show, the students shine. Their creativity shines as bright as a star in the heavens. They have an opportunity to show themselves and others that they have a lot to say and their big message is that they CAN do it! Each child has different experiences in school, however, there is often one that they share. Somewhere in their early years, they were made to feel "stupid" because reading, writing, and verbal expression were not easy for them.

These kids needed an opportunity to show that they are more than a letter grade and that they have the gift of creativity. The Hollywood Kids and Nutty News programs provide an excellent way to showcase their burgeoning talents. I believe that these kids are more creative than most as they have learned to look at things differently in order to learn. It is because of that, that they are the creative individuals that they are!"

The Hollywood Kids started in 1993 as a "hands-on" approach to teaching my young students about conflict resolution. It evolved over the years to an after-school program for children 8 - 12 years old and in Special Education. The first time we had only 9 students involved, most of whom were in the first Hollywood Kids movie, titled the "Get Along Movie." In the following years we would tripled in size to a whopping 28 kids!

The students meet after school for a couple of months to collaboratively write their own story for the movie. They write and draw on storyboards to keep track of the plot while I use an overhead. Their ideas come streaming out so fast that it is hard to keep up with them at times! Everyone has a chance to contribute, and all ideas are somehow used in the movie. While writing the film, the students learn the vocabulary that goes along with the movie making process. The fifth grade kids are taught how to work the cameras and are invited back the following year to be part of the camera crew. Our past movies include the "Get Along Movie," "Fire Safety Movie," "The Invisible Kid," "Haunted Story Chest," "Saving President Sanderson," and last year's hit, "Around the Campfire in Less than a Day." This year's movie, "Mrs. White and the 7 Dreams," revolves around the dreams that students have when they fall asleep in class because the teacher is so boring! There are dreams of Queens and Princesses, Rock Stars and Superheroes, dancing teachers and silly students. It is bound to be our best film yet! Certainly very funny!

Most of the movies involved scenes filmed in a special location. We have filmed in Washington D.C., at a campsite in the Pine Lands (complete with s'mores and a beautiful fall day), at the local ice skating rink with the Philadelphia Phantoms hockey team, and at Philadelphia's Betsy Ross House. The kids often suggest locations to film.

The Hollywood Kids have had their fair share of local celebrities in their movies. We have had three of Philadelphia's news reporters in cameos during the "Invisible Kid." The Philadelphia Phantoms played hockey with two of our boys in "The Haunted Story Chest." Our local talk show host, Bob Shryock, interviewed the main character in "Invisible Kid." Our mayor, Don Sanderson, graciously played the President in the movie "Saving President Sanderson."

The Kids are not strangers to fame. Each movie airs on our local Educational Access Channel 31. The Hollywood Kids have appeared in newspaper articles every year since the movie club has started as well as several television news appearances. They were even on the radio once! The Emmy Award winning, "Classroom Close-up NJ" has also covered their unique talents. The Kids are recognized in town and have become role models for students with and without learning differences!

Due to the success with Hollywood Kids, I also developed a news show for the students in our school's Resource Center. "Nutty News," named after the school mascot, Nutty the Squirrel, focuses on both independent writing and cooperative group writing. It was appropriately named since the various segments that the kids create are "nutty" indeed! The show is set up like a regular news program, complete with anchors. The younger students are paired with older ones if needed. The kids are responsible for all the news segments. "Nutty News" features movie reviews, a cooking segment, and other special reports about the people and events in our school. For each airing, a major writing assignment becomes a part of the show. For example, for our first show this year, the students made puppets to illustrate their persuasive essays. Nutty News has recently received a grant from Arts for EveryKid in New Jersey.

Hollywood Kids tends to include the kids from the "regular education" classes in a limited way. I think that Hollywood Kids and Nutty News are there to offer these kids an opportunity to share thoughts and ideas, as well as camaraderie with other kids who, like themselves , have difficulty in school. By keeping the majority of the roles and the writing exclusive to the Kids, they are free to make mistakes and not feel as though they will be laughed at. We certainly laugh a lot during our filming and writing, but not at anyone's expense. Many kids who have behavior issues tend to want to come to school and stay out of trouble when there is a movie at stake (each student signs a "contract" with expectations of good behavior in and out of the "Kids"). My students are telling me that they are making movies at home so I know that they are inspired. In addition to all of this, the "Kids" also sets up long lasting friendships for the kids and brings together support for their parents as well! Several parents have become friends through meeting each other during our trips and premiere nights.

By creating the club, I started out with pure educational goals and the side benefits, such as increased self esteem and feeling a part of something - instead of feeling like an outsider, came second. Now that we are an after-school club, the educational goals are secondary to the side benefits. Many of these students participate in sports and do very well. Others try to play sports, but lack of good coordination impedes their ability to play well and therefore they are chosen last. Being in a movie that THEY made and to be a STAR is something very unique and powerful. They soon learn how they can make people laugh, think, listen. They also learn about how the media can manipulate them into believing what they want them to through special effects - the Kids become better consumers for that. There is so much more enthusiasm for their work and their writing when they know that they will be sharing it with the school and the community.

I am extremely proud of my students, past and present. I will continue with projects like the Kids and Nutty News as long as there is interest from the students. I hope that I can inspire other teachers to try to do something as creative as a movie so that they, too, can see the light of pride flickering in their students eyes. It does not have to be on a grand scale by any means, but it is certainly worth the effort. I have so many good stories, memories, moments from every movie to remind me why I should continue with these projects.

Marie, a 4th grader

Marie

How do you feel about doing Nutty News or Hollywood Kids?

When I am in Nutty News, it makes me feel happy because I am with all of my friends and because it helps me read and learn. And my teacher is the best in the whole world. I like to dress up for the movies (in Hollywood Kids).

What advice do you have for the kids reading this?

My advice to you is that I want you to know that you are not dumb. You are very smart.

Paul, a 5th grader

Paul

How do you feel being a part of Nutty News and the Hollywood Kids?

Nutty News and Hollywood Kids are like a fun way to learn. It is a fun way to show how smart you are and it is a way to show how you feel. There is not another teacher like Miss Kelly. She lets us use the cameras and stuff.

What advice do you have for kids reading this?

I would tell them that they are not stupid. They just learn differently that's all. You see things differently but that is good. Lots of famous people do too.

Kayla, a 3rd grader

Kayla

How do you feel being a part of Nutty News and the Hollywood Kids?

Being in Hollywood Kids is fun because it means that you are not stupid. We are stars and we write a lot but it is really, really, really fun. It was fun because we went to a campfire scene [in last year's movie].

What advice do you have for kids reading this?

You are not stupid. You are smart. You can be a star.

Mike, a 4th grader

Mike

How do you feel being a part of Nutty News and the Hollywood Kids?

Nutty News and Hollywood Kids helps me show people that we are not stupid and we are smart. I like to do the camera. I like to make people laugh, too. Having a learning difference does not mean you are stupid. It means that you are smart and creative.

What advice do you have for kids reading this?

You are getting help on your reading. Don't be sad because you ARE smart! You are NOT stupid! A lot of famous people have a learning difference just like us!!!

Ron, a 4th grader

Ron

How do you feel being a part of Nutty News and the Hollywood Kids?

It's fun.

What advice do you have for kids reading this?

Being in a special class it does not mean anything bad. It means something good.

Robert, a 4th grader

Robert

How do you feel being a part of Nutty News and the Hollywood Kids?

Hollywood Kids is too cool. There is a lot of writing, too. And Nutty News is cool to film. She [Miss Kelly] lets us use the camera. It is a lot of fun. I like to pretend to act.

What advice do you have for kids reading this?

It is not funny if kids make fun of you. Then you will need some help. They need help too, because they are making fun of themselves. You are not stupid because you know a lot. You can show other kids how smart you are and be creative, too.

Sean and Megan, fifth graders

Megan and Sean

Sean

Before I was old enough to be in Hollywood Kids, I got frustrated all the time because I had all these ideas and I didn't get to tell anybody. Hollywood Kids lets me do that.

I like Hollywood Kids because we get to make the movie. We write it and everything. It helps me with my writing skills. Miss Kelly is the funniest nicest teacher I ever had. Hollywood Kids is fun and everybody knows that I have good ideas too.

Megan

Hi! I have been in Hollywood Kids for three years. And it is so fun and Miss Kelly is so funny she makes it so fun and not nervous for us. We get to wear costumes and act it out. It almost seems like we were just playing not acting. And we get to go on trips. And we get awards and all of our families are there and we have a party and we watch the movies that we made. Miss Kelly even makes the writing fun by making funny characters but we put them all together. We have snacks during the writing.

Hollywood Kids is fun. Funny acting is wonderful because it makes us laugh. We get to go places we never went to and we get to make new friends from other schools. It is so cool when we are in the movies all together. I love getting in costumes and acting.

I love Hollywood Kids so so much. I think every school in the world should have this and wish they could have Miss Kelly, but we do. This will be my last year but Miss Kelly said I can be a filmer in sixth grade. I am so happy I can be a filmer but I still want to act. But I can tell you that Hollywood Kids is the best thing that happened to me in school. I think every school should have it.

Bye! Love, Megan

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