Broadway was dark during the pandemic, but lights remained bright at Montclare

In March of 2020, Covid dropped the curtains on live theater and darkened the screens at multiplexes, but the doors to creativity remained open for a certain group of four-year-olds on New York City’s Upper West Side. The Montclare Children’s School’s annual film festival proceeded as it has for the last six years, producing student-written, directed, and produced short films that may not show up in Sundance, but are worthy of their own awards for imagination. From a group of adventurous seafaring pigs to a magic treehouse, a tale of chocolate rain, and another featuring ghosts and cheetahs, the fantasies and creativity of these preschoolers are only surpassed by the joy the films bring their audience.

Montclare Children’s School has long been committed to developing innovative solutions that integrate technology and storytelling into its classrooms in a developmentally and age-appropriate manner. With this goal in mind, in 2014 Montclare approached then preschool parent and founder of the Award Winning program Writopia Lab, Rebecca Wallace-Segall, with the idea of piloting a film-making program for their ‘senior’ class, four-year-olds. Wallace-Segall quickly agreed, confident that with Writiopia’s guidance, and the support of Montclare’s creative administrative and teaching staff, the children would be successful crafting their own original stories, and using digital cameras and iPads to tell them.

The new program was an excellent fit with Montclare’s balanced learning programs founded upon the philosophy that the most effective preschool curriculum combines teacher-guided experiences with self-directed exploration. Wallace-Segall’s confidence in the collaborative project was validated by the pilot program’s outstanding success, and the Montclare annual film festival was born and has evolved each year.

“Montclare has always been an important thought partner when it comes to celebrating children’s innate storytelling abilities, creating student-driven projects, and cultivating collaboration and critical thinking skills,” said Writopia Lab’s Director of Programs Yael Schick. “Over the years we’ve grown the program together with Montclare, adding new features such as green screens and more time for on-site editing. We now bring the program into preschools in homeless shelters and other sites for underserved youth.”

But then 2020 happened.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented a new challenge to the festival. Could the show still go on with students attending school via hybrid classes and some fully remote? The short answer – ABSOLUTELY! The longer answer is that Montclare’s balanced approach philosophy retains structure with agility and is applied to daily learning and even something as complex as a student film festival.

Writopia’s team pivoted as seamlessly as the school, integrating more technology exposing the preschoolers to a different aspect of filmmaking. The children continued to collaborate on story concept and development, but instead of workgroups in class, they met virtually. Instead of children acting the roles in the films, the ‘actors’ were cutouts, drawn on paper, and colored with crayons. Instead of performing on sets at the school, the characters were inserted into virtual backdrops. Stories were told through narration supported by music and graphics.

With expert guidance from the Writopia duo, Yael Schick, Director of Programs, and Ethan Shafran Moltz, Media Manager and Instructor, the hard work of Montclare’s teachers and the vivid imagination and creativity of Montclare’s soon-to-be graduates, the results, which can be viewed here, were as festival-worthy as ever. The 2021 film festival ran from May 18-20 showcasing films produced by each of the three four-year-old classrooms

The 2021 film festival ran from May 18-20 showcasing films produced by each of the three four-year-old classrooms