From Paper News to the Ultra-Small Screen

A lot can change in a decade, and we see that in the educational, experiential and physical growth right here on our campus. In the Communications Office at Hackley, how we share stories with and about our community has also changed.

Storytelling tools have evolved over the years, from traditional resources like this printed magazine that arrived in your home by way of snail mail, to the sneak peeks into the daily life of the School via photos or mini-videos on Instagram through a function that is literally called ‘stories.’ Storytelling has become instantaneous, and the use of highly visual content is no longer a fun bonus but an expectation of a school’s news cycle. These changes may seem like they happened all at once on the Hilltop, but the truth is that the magic of visual storytelling has been present for many years—and it is amplified through video. 

Roaming our campus with his video camera in tow is Wade Tonken (Hackley’s Assistant Director of Communications, Multimedia) whose work is focused on video production. Today, Wade is a full-time member of the Communications Office, but before 2021, he was also part of the Performing Arts Department as the coordinator of the Music Institute. His earlier work included teaching seventh and eighth graders songwriting, music production, and music technology, and providing support for such initiatives as the Upper School Coffeehouse. In fact, Wade’s roots are in music production, but a little Hilltop charm brought him to Hackley approximately 15 years ago. 

The boom of computer technology meant more storytelling opportunities for schools. “I went from focusing on audio at Hackley to also filming video. I recorded shows and concerts for the Performing Arts Department and found myself with the flexibility to do more for the School,” shared Wade. “The Communications Department—before it became part of the Advancement Office—began to have a need for video clips of students taking lessons and kids ‘in action’ around the campus. It was a way for them to show, rather than just ‘tell’, the community how the kids were learning. This coincided with schools recognizing that they could invest in three videos produced by external companies for about $30,000, or they could hire video experts who could really get to know the culture and the people, film at a moment’s notice, capture the essence of student life, and produce 60 or more videos each year.” Wade had the skills and flexibility to meet the School’s needs, so he began to split his time evenly between Performing Arts and Communications.

The Communications Office, under the management of former director Suzy Akin, was publishing incredible written works highlighting the happenings of the School across print publications and Hackley’s website, and, even before the social media craze, recognized the value in video storytelling. “A picture paints a thousand words,” expressed Wade. “You can better demonstrate community, culture, quality of teachers, philosophy of sports, and more in a two-minute video…or you can do that in a 15-page article. But not many people today want to read through that article.” And so Wade expertly crafted video-telling narratives, which the Communications team added to website news articles and shared via email with families, friends of the Hilltop, employees, and alumni.

At first, Wade filmed mostly interview-style videos that featured what he calls “talking heads”—a description used internally for such videos as close-ups with Department Chairs sharing information about curricula. But, talking about the curriculum to engage audiences is one method, while seeing students in the science lab conducting an experiment or watching them as they rehearse for a play figuratively places the audience on campus and in the room. “With a wink and a nod,” and a less formal approach, the School empowered Wade to enhance the ways in which to highlight what makes Hackley a special place—the people, the opportunities, the education, and the friendships— in a way that really moves viewers.

Today, Wade’s work includes man-on-the-street video journalism, B-roll footage capturing moments of fun and learning in the classroom and around campus, classroom clips used for such digital mediums as social media and weekly e-newsletters, amusing content like snow day videos that inspire joy for their comedic style, and, of course, all the serious stuff. Wade’s work elevates the published digital works of the Communications Office and adds exciting elements to traditional storytelling.

“When we look at ourselves and laugh a little, there’s a lot of learning that goes on. And in an institution like this one, that is so highly esteemed and can be perceived as very ‘serious,’ you can ease people into the culture and community by putting a smile on someone’s face as they watch a video of kids enjoying the campus or each other’s company, and of interactions between students and teachers beyond the classroom,” Wade shared.

Never losing sight of his love for music, Wade’s incorporation of popular music into his videos is a hallmark of his work, to which he credits the public licensing made possible through YouTube and Google. Wade’s use of music within video elevates the visuals that dance across the screen and nurtures feel-good vibes. And newer technology, such as drones, creates cinematic storytelling for more interesting videos.

Wade’s vision for the future of school video, he shares, is already being realized today. He believes that students will begin producing more videos themselves and sharing the School’s story through their own lens, which we are witnessing now through such content as student social media “takeovers.” And Wade indicates that student journalism curricula across schools might expand to include video components that allow students to interview their peers and adults about student life through on-screen newscasts. “When I interview students around campus for any video project, lots of psychological tricks go into helping them relax on camera. But when a student interviews their peers, that approach is not necessary; they are already comfortable and genuine,” Wade added.

School video has unlimited potential. Cameras in designated spaces may be powered on with the click of a button to livestream events and provide on-demand coverage of important moments. The manipulation of aerial video is also advancing with enhanced drone capabilities. Our mobile phones can capture photo and video like never before, but Wade opines that it will still be a long time before amateur filming can replace the instinct and skill of professional videographers. While the need for large, heavy video cameras and compact digital cameras is rapidly going away, replaced by mobile phones, the intuitiveness of the operator is still necessary, he shared.

Casual videos that show a lighter side of things are on the rise. Experiential videos that don’t quite have a formal point other than to impart feelings of joy still tell a great story and most authentically can demonstrate the human experience. “We’re trying to make different sorts of connections with people and pull heartstrings, and, in doing so, we’re capturing the real story—the one that matters above all else—the story of a love of learning and respect for one another.” 

Wade films on campus every day. You can find him covering the fun at many events or in the classroom capturing the experience. Some of his videos feature students sharing their “day in the life” of the classroom or division. Others include overviews of the campus captured with the use of his drone. And all of his videos utilize music to evoke emotion. Video and digital storytelling is changing how we communicate. The glimpse into the classroom through video and the stories heard directly from students will continue to lead the way and inspire a strong sense of community for generations to come.

This story first appeared in the
Hackley Review Summer 2023 edition. To see the full digital issue,
click here.