The massive screen at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring lit up June 3 with documentaries exploring corporate greed, religious tolerance, the balance of trade, Native American rights, a history of immigrant labor, and many other interesting issues.

Was this the famed Silver Docs, the annual documentary festival hosted by the well-regarded theater and cultural center?

Actually, it was the presentation of the year-end projects of eighth-grade students in the Humanities and Communication Magnet Program at Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring.

At times, it was difficult to tell the difference.

Known as Final Conference, the presentations were the culmination of months of research, teamwork and video production by groups of students.

The groups were required to choose a topic based on the theme of clash and compromise and tie the topic to past and current events or issues. The results were 10-minute documentaries, performances or public service announcements that included proposed solutions to the issues that they explored.

Parents who attended the four-hour showing were blown away by the sophistication of the productions, which featured images and music tied together by narratives packed with information and interviews with experts.

I was one of them.

As I sat in the theater’s plush seats, I was amazed that these eighth-graders could produce such compelling work. I wasn’t the only parent who said that she’d learned something new, whether it was about the history of Washington, D.C., or the role of enlightenment philosophy in our nation’s history.

And then I had another thought: Why can’t all of Montgomery County Public Schools eighth-graders be challenged by this type of interdisciplinary project?

Wouldn’t all students benefit from the lessons that my daughter learned about working as a team, including sharing the work load and following through with commitments? How about the skills required to research a topic and produce a video? Or to find an expert, develop a list of questions, arrange an interview and then film it?

And then to see the result in a premiere at a real movie theater as classmates and family watched—what could be better than that?

Maybe other county middle schools do offer similar projects, but I haven’t heard of anything quite like Final Conference, or FCON as it is called by students during the long weeks they spend working on their projects. When I explained FCON to a friend whose daughter attends another Silver Spring middle school, she also wondered why other kids couldn’t tackle the same project. Not providing the opportunity “creates an artificial separation between these kids and other kids who probably could do as well,” she said.

True, Final Conference utilized skills developed throughout three years of the magnet program. But I’ve often thought that all middle schoolers could benefit from the type of projects that my daughter and her classmates completed—that all students would be inspired by the interdisciplinary work and level of creativity that is a hallmark of the magnet program.

Matt Johnson, the coordinator of Eastern’s magnet program, agrees. In fact, he said that one of the program’s missions is to model interdisciplinary projects for the rest of Eastern and other middle schools.

“We’re seeing more and more of that take hold here in our building,” he said.

But he doesn’t understand why other schools haven’t followed suit and begun providing similar opportunities for students to shine.

“With exception of a science fair, unfortunately a lot of kids are not given the opportunity to show what they know,” he said. “There’s no reason in the world that other students cannot do these things. It may not be at the same level, but I think that the finished projects will be something that they remember five, 10 years from now.

“You’re not going to remember sitting in someone’s class. You’re going to remember what you created.”

“Society’s Canaries: A History of Immigrant Laborers in the American Economy” was produced by Hannah Horng of Rockville, Darian Woehr and Abir Muhuri of Silver Spring, Halcyon Ruskin of Kensington, and Eric Rosenthal and Michelle Schrier of Potomac. 

Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot can be reached at julie.rasicot@bethesdamagazine.com