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What began as a conversation between Bettendorf Middle School teachers over lunch has evolved over the last three years into a program that allows students to highlight their heroes, under the mentorship of college students they admire.

“It all started with a lunch discussion among teachers about how factual the movie Apollo 13 is,” language arts teacher Lisa Barnes told Iowa Now. “It kind of snowballed from there, and we decided to ask students, ‘Who has a story that deserves a Hollywood blockbuster?’”

The project tasked eighth-graders with creating movie trailers for fictional films about real heroes, in their lives or in history. Some students looked to their relatives, others highlighted passengers on the Titanic, Holocaust survivors, and civil rights leaders.

In the first two years, students at the University of Iowa’s Department of Cinematic Arts watched the trailers and picked winners for different categories. The middle schoolers who won were invited to the UI campus, where they toured the school, sat in on classes, and ate lunch with cinema students.

This is a beautiful example of the informal and indirect means of teaching moral development. A fun assignment is reinforced with older mentors and role models to the end that heroes are honored and students inspired. Researchers at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture stress the importance of this informal articulation of a moral culture through the example of others.

Over the last two years, Bettendorf has issued Chromebooks to all students, and invested in better video editing and recording equipment. And this year, UI students expanded their role by visiting with the 150 Bettendorf students participating in the program to help them perfect their videos.

“I was blown away by how, at their age, they understood what images to use to pull at the heartstrings, what elements to use to create suspense, where to cut music out and where to put music in, and really just understanding how to entertain within a few minutes,” UI student Sam Kessie said.

Barnes told Iowa Now the time UI students spent with the middle schoolers not only helped students improve their fictional movie trailers, and gain skills they can apply in the real world, but also exposed them to opportunities some may not have considered otherwise.

“Every student left that room feeling as if they had done something well and there was something they could work on,” Barnes said of the UI mentorship.

“It opens their eyes to the fact that the University of Iowa is more than a football team,” she said. “That’s what many of them think at this point in their lives. But to go and see the things you can do in college opens your eyes to all the opportunities that exist and the world of careers available to you. It brings out a whole new side of college.”

Teachers and principals working to strengthen moral and citizenship formation in their students will find information, strategies and teacher lesson plans at the UK's The Jubilee Centre.

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