Peter Wyndorf’s class brings stories to screens

Milton High School teacher Peter Wyndorf (left) talks with former students Gage Gibbons and Hayley May in the New Media Lab, a space Wyndorf built in just a year. For his innovation, he was named one of Milton’s Outstanding Teachers of 2013. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

Someday, Wyndorf hopes students will tell these stories using the technology in the district’s New Media Lab, a 10-seat classroom Wyndorf grew from the ground up. Students have already produced songs, music videos and silent films in this space that was just a glorified storage closet a year ago.

For this innovation, Wyndorf’s peers voted him Milton High School’s Outstanding Teacher for 2013. He’ll be recognized at the University of Vermont later this month.

Wyndorf’s computer lab has a certain a college vibe: Movie posters for “Jaws” and “Ghostbusters” decorate the walls. Instead of facing a lectern, students sit, headphone-d and intent, plugged into iMacs.

Last Thursday, students were in full production mode. Wyndorf made rounds, answering questions as needed. This go-and-explore style defines him.

“It was hard at first, because I had no idea how to do the [camera] angles. I didn’t even know where the pause button on the camera was,” Nate Brock, 17, an MHS senior, said.

“He has a good way of teaching – give you a camera and go learn,” Anthony Bourgeois, 18, another senior, said. “But if you need help, he’ll be there,” Nate chimed in.

The two students had just finished a project: The class took the script to the opening scene of “Blade Runner,” a 1980s Harrison Ford flick, and filmed their own sequence. They used iMovie, Apple’s preloaded editing software, to add sound effects.

Wyndorf, who also teaches three blocks of global studies daily, found his passion for music and film early. After seeing “E.T.” at age 8, he practiced becoming a movie director with his uncle’s Betacam.

He later got a film production degree from Keene State University and studied at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and San Francisco Art Institute.

Kwang-Rei Beak, 17, a Milton High School senior, works on a video project in Peter Wyndorf’s Video Production class on Thursday, Oct. 3. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

Back in New York, he worked on commercials and indie films as a production assistant and then left music to play in a jam band for 10 years, touring the East coast. “A lot of guitar solos,” he recalled, with laughter.

Wyndorf’s wife convinced him to get a teaching degree, and in 2009, he joined Milton School District as a middle-level teacher on the I-LEAP team, which championed technology use.

Last year, his first in high school, Wyndorf opened the media lab. Much of the equipment was donated by Howard Wooden, who served as an interim principal in Milton and who was part of Vermont folk band Wood’s Tea Company. Wyndorf scoured the school for unused video cameras and supplied his own amplifier and keyboard.

“I can’t see any other teacher building this from the bottom,” said Hayley May, who took Wyndorf’s music class, Gold Records and Glory, last year.

Her classmate, Gage Gibbons, agreed: “Once he has his mind set on one thing, he’s gonna go for it,” he said.

Gage used the class to produce and write a rock song. Called “A New Life,” the metal-like track features a heavy bassline and screaming guitar riff topped with vocals. Gage learned to appreciate the complexity of recording albums, as it took two months to make one five-minute song. He and his friends tracked each instrument separately.

For her part, Hayley covered Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” featuring a fiddler from Montpelier. She eventually made an album her mom still gifts to relatives.

“It wasn’t like any other class,” Hayley said. “You would put your piece out there, and people would tell you what worked well, what didn’t. It was cool. You could grow from it.”

Since taking the class, Gage has decided to apply to Berklee College of Music and wants to become a music teacher or at least study music history.

For Wyndorf, his class is less about teaching pre-professional skills and more about the freedom of creation.

“Kids can make something beautiful,” he said, even funny videos or horror films. “This is really an art class, [but] it’s got a lot of real-world applicability.”

Which brings him back to storytelling. Wyndorf envisions a broadcast production studio, even a media department, so students can tell Milton’s important stories. Doing so ultimately makes them proud of where they live, he said.

Peter Wyndorf (center) poses for a photo with his Video Production class. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

At the very least, Wyndorf wants to host film festivals and record release parties for his students and any others who pick up a camera or microphone.

Gage knows there’s already a lot of good material out there.

“There’s no other words to describe it; it’s incredible,” he said, noting that once unknown, the media lab now draws  many students after school.

“This room is kind of an escape for them,” he said. “It’s awesome what some students produce.”

This is exactly what Wyndorf hoped. His love for teaching is about the kids, he said, and that means experiencing all their ups and downs.

“It makes you feel so alive,” he said. “The content’s great, what you teach, but the day is consumed by that interaction, that interplay. If you enjoy humans, this is the perfect job.”