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The Authenticity of Native American Indian Character and Culture in Book and FilmbyJolene Smith
The Kayenta Middle School is one of three schools within the Kayenta Unified School District. The three public schools are on the Navajo reservation, located in the northeastern part of Arizona: an elementary, middle and a high school. There are about 2,000 students in the district with a 97.7 % Navajo (Dine’) student population and it is a Title 1 school. The middle school consists of grades 5 through 8 with a gender distribution of 54% males and 45% females. The income of an average family in Kayenta is about $21,976 per year. The district is located in a rural area and the nearest town is about 150 miles away; this is where the majority of community members shop. The district serves smaller outlying towns within a fifty-mile radius, busing students at four a.m. from their homes and returning home at eight p.m. to some areas. Many parents prefer their children to attend the Kayenta public school because of the high number of high school graduates receiving the Gates Millennium Scholarships. Since 2003, the high school has accumulated a total of 70 Gates Millennium Scholars; it ranks among the top high schools in the country producing so many GMS scholars.
Since the state mandated Arizona schools to implement the common core standard, our school has been muddling with the standard and contemplating which literature our fifth grade students will be utilizing while teaching the common core. Our fifth grade English Language Art (ELA) curriculum contains the ELA AZ College Career & Ready Standards (CCRS) and the Wheatley ELA curriculum on numerous templates. I am not particularly thrilled about this curriculum in our district; it requires us to teach it during this coming academic year. The culture component is not required nor is a priority, thus the culture component is what the Department of Diné Education (DODE) recommends. Two kinds of standards and teachers are constantly examining them and figure out how to align them to the topic. Using this arrangement gives teacher’s insufficient background about the topic and they are flustered teaching the standards because there is no flow and no connections. I believe teachers need to know the pedagogical components of their content when they are teaching their unit. The common core standards, the strategies and classroom activities are interwoven with the content.
I remember that when I was about ten years old my father took my sister and me to a movie at the Chapter House, where town meetings are held. I was dreading the walk to the Chapter House because my father usually took us with him to listen to the local politics of our town. I was wondering why we left at sunset because meetings were usually during the afternoons. I recalled this event because as we strolled into the building people were sitting up front and a white sheet was hanging down from the wall. I was fascinated because this was the first time I have ever seen a film projector. The lights were turned off and lights shone onto the sheet, showing black and white pictures moving. I saw cowboys on horseback and covered wagon trains traveling to California. The travelers encountered an Indian attack, they moved their wagons into a circle, and there were Indians riding on horseback shooting their arrows into the covered wagons. As the months went by, we often walked to the Chapter House to watch the cowboy movies. Sometimes it was the same movie. I got to know John Wayne; he was the major star in most of the movies. The movie I recall vividly was The Big Trail and I remembered that the men watching were cheering for the John Wayne because they wanted to be the cowboy. They would laugh at the Indians because the Navajo men knew the Indians did not attack unless they were attacked previously and their village was destroyed. When the movie ended we walked home in the dark and my father would hoot, howl, and cheer on about John Wayne. He was my father’s hero. This was long ago, but I remembered the Indians in the movie were not genuine. One year I heard the John Ford was producing a movie, Cheyenne Autumn, in the Valley (Monument Valley) and he was looking for Dinés to trek along with the soldiers. My father took advantage of the opportunity and was part of the group trekking in the movie. He would return at the end of the day and state “I died five times” and laugh. He did not like how the other Navajo made fun of the others when they were told to speak in their language and ended up saying inappropriate words to the famous actors. I had always admired my father for the things he did and things that were not appropriate he made an effort to correct. Today, there are still movie productions occurring in the Valley, but no one rushes out to the Valley anymore because casts of characters have been selected prior to the film shoot. Even Native American Indians were selected prior to the production. The last production in the Valley was The Lone Ranger.
This is where my unit comes into play since I will be teaching in-depth knowledge about the authentic Native American Indian character and culture in literature and film. The major component of this unit involves examining how the two literary texts about Native American Indian are modified in film, and about the accuracy and authenticity of the settings, characters, events, and theme. The rigor of the two mediums of literature and film will require classroom engagement and endurance because the concept of looking into film is a relatively new content and skill students will need to acquire.
The curriculum unit is a fifth grade literature unit and will be taught to the general education students or to English Language Learning (ELL) students in the classroom. The majority of my students are Navajo and I propose to teach our children about the realities of how Native American Indians were first viewed in movies. We will discuss Hollywood’s depictions of Native American Indians when they were first depicted in motion pictures. Native American Indian roles in movies are only authentic if they validate the tribes’ culture and language. In the Diné Nation almost every 4 out of 5 households has a satellite dish and a flat screen television in their living room. Already our children are exposed to various kinds of movies and in Kayenta we have a theater, which provides the latest movie release to the community and the surrounding smaller communities. Also, some homes have internet connections and have access to streaming movie videos. I know our children enjoy viewing movies and will watch particular movies over and over and over again. I know they are analyzing films internally and they do not realize what skills they are using. As teachers we need to address these skills and show them that they are already aware of the formal elements of film.
Although our children view numerous movies, they need to know and understand that they can analyze them using the formal elements of film style so that they are able to interpret, explain, and justify their thinking. They watch the latest popular movie and we asked how the movie was? They reply, “The movie was good and it had a lot of action” and that is it. I will need to teach them there is more to a movie than just viewing it. I want my students to understand how Native American Indians are depicted in movies. Early examples of the “Cowboys and Indians” theme came from movies like the many movies John Wayne has featured in. Native American Indian roles were often played by white actors like Burt Lancaster in the movie Apache, and Charles Bronson in Chato’s Land. Eventually, I want my students to learn how the movie industry has changed over time, now featuring actual Native American Indian producers, actors and actresses in cinema. Today many of the well-known Native American Indian producers like Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals & Skins), Neil Diamond (Reel Injun), and Heather Rae (Frozen River) are making an effort to use authentic Native American Indians and culture in their films. These popular media venues give our students the exposure to films that, I believe, establishes their ideas of what and how Native American Indian actors or actresses should portray.
Teachers within our school do not extensively discuss books in relation to film, so the idea of analyzing this type of movie genre with literary texts is a new one. I feel our students need to know how to compare written texts and films. I plan to use short clips from the two movies and the books to attempt to align the actual events from parts of the book to the scene of said movies. I would like my students to read the literature and view the movie and then find similarities and differences, such as when some parts of the film do not adhere to the book. The Native American Indian literature adapted to film that I plan to use in my teachings about cultural authenticity, story, and film elements are The Education of Little Tree, and Indian in the Cupboard. While teaching the reading components, I will ask my students to compare and contrast the various settings, the different characters, the events, and the themes within the scene. Additional information needs to be taught so that students will have background knowledge about how to view films like a director. The vocabulary words of film, like sequence, motion, parallel editing, cross- cutting, close-up, extreme close-up, and mechanical motion are some of the terminology students need to know when analyzing film. Handbooks of film terms will be useful while teaching students the introduction to film, because the end product of the course is to create a short film using these film elements. As I teach my unit, students will be exposed to many examples of short, short snippets to students’ generated movies so they will begin to think about how their movies will be created up to the final cut.
As teachers in the classroom we have the knowledge and power to teach the correct factual information about Native American Indian character, events, and settings in literature and film to our students. We need to explain the stereotyping of Native American Indians and other cultures to make a change in how our students will think when they become adults. We need to inform students that Native American Indians do not say, ‘how’ when greeting people, we do not all live in teepees, we do not all paint our faces and attack white settlers, we do not all wear feathers in our hair, we do not dance to bring rain, we are not lazy and we are not drunks. I know that change is a long process, but teachers have an impact upon students’ learning. We are with them five days a week and up eight to twelve hours a day. We need to take advantage of the time we spend with them within these teaching times and to expose them to all realms of learning. Film is medium students enjoy and it is a teachable moment. We can show the film during their lunch recess or after school so that they are familiar with the whole movie. This is the twenty-first century and Native American Indians have made progress forward and have adapted to the life style of western culture (everyone likes movies), while still maintaining our traditional culture and language.
The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter and the film The Education of Little Tree (1997) directed by Richard Friedenberg.
The unit will begin with reading chapter one (Little Tree), then chapter twelve (A Dangerous Adventure) and then the last chapter (The Passing Song) from the book The Education of Little Tree.
The first chapter begins when Little Tree loses his mother and his maternal relatives are taking away his mother’s furniture. His paternal grandparents, who are of Cherokee descent, attend the funeral and Little Tree inches his way towards them, hugs his grandfather’s leg, and will not let go when the aunt tries to grab him. Little Tree ends up living with his paternal grandparents. The grandparents lived a simple Cherokee way of life in a cabin in the mountains.
I will begin by reading chapter one, then we will view the two-minute movie clip of the first chapter. There will be a discussion of the two mediums to explain the character of grandpa. Both mediums show the different events and characters, the physical differences of grandpa, the events of how the families want the boy. The chapter ends with Little Tree making his decision to live with his grandparents, and as the trio travel home, grandma reads the letters on the side of the bus. The movies do not address this scene and I think this short passage is important because this features the authentic Cherokee language and alphabet writing. Cherokee history tells of how Sequoyah had created symbols that produced letters and words. He demonstrated his reading and writing to tribal elders and the nation adopted them in 1821 and called them a ‘syllabary.’ Within a couple of years thousands of Cherokee learned to read and write using his format, which was carried on into the 1930’s and to the present. Grandma knew how to read, I assume, since she used the Cherokee language and the English language to comprehend the writing on the bus. The idea of Native American Indians reading is not looked upon favorably during the 1930’s. Another moment in the written text that should be discussed involves the way that the bus driver addresses the trio as they board the bus. The driver says, ‘how,’ this not the accurate way that the Cherokee greet one another. ‘Si Yu’ is what the Cherokee say when they greet each other. There are numerous other events within the two mediums that are excellent comparisons and contrasts with the initial part of the book and film.
In addition to comparing book to film, the formal elements of film will be introduced. The beginning of the film, the sets, and the scenery, which is the natural outdoor background for a tracking shot into the town. Then the camera zooms in to Little Tree standing alone against the steps. The narration explains what is happening in the scene and the initial part of chapter one is the prologue in the film. The first two minutes of the film contain numerous film elements that teachers can show in shorter snippets to explain the film vocabulary.
The middle of the book, chapter twelve, explains the various flowers grandma and Little Tree pick for food and medicinal purposes. The passage tells us that grandpa and Little Tree listen to the many varieties of birds and discuss their purpose and character within Cherokee legends. Then grandpa and Little Tree stroll to a stream and he shows Little Tree how to catch a fish with his hands. When Little Tree searches for frogs, he suddenly encounters a rattlesnake near the pond. The movie does not elaborate on the flowers or the birds at all but the rattlesnake scene was similar in the book and in the film. There were minimal changes in the movie, for example that grandpa killed the snake by stepping on it and throwing it farther away, whereas the literature had a detailed description of the snake, “He was bigger around than my leg and I could see ripples moving under his dry skin.”1 The movie clip of the rattlesnake scene in both mediums really complemented one another. The scene and passage where grandma used a live quail to take out the poison does not seem authentic because common knowledge about being bitten by a snake is that there is the traditional Native American Indian remedy, to use plant herbs (roots, leaves, and juices within the stem, bulbs) which are found within the surroundings in the environment of the Appalachian Mountains. Depending on the tribe, in this case the Cherokee, sometimes tobacco and whiskey are included with the herbs. Another event when grandpa cuts the area where the snake had bitten him on the hand, this scene and passage, discussions, questions, and the critical analysis of what he did, will facilitate discussions of ‘what if’s or suppose,’ to justify, defend, or evaluate his actions when he sucked out the poison, used an unclean knife, and created an open wound. Again, a variety of examples in both the book and film bring out life-threatening issues. Protecting kin or a loved one is the underlying issue of this part of the chapter. The elements of film form viewed in this portion of the clip are the scenery, the extreme close-up shots of Little Tree and the rattlesnake, and the shot /reverse shot cutting that happens with cuts to Little Tree and then to the snake, back and forth. The camera focuses on grandpa when he was bitten: it only wanted to focus on his reaction to the snakebite. The film score has slow, sad music playing while they were waiting for grandpa to get better. These examples of film vocabulary are addressed while viewing the movie.
At the end of the book, “The Passing Song,” Willow John dies from the flu and grandpa and Little Tree bury him in the hill close to the mountain. One evening while the trio is sitting on the top of the secret place in the mountain, walking on the high rim trail, grandpa slips and falls. He never recovers from the fall and eventually dies. A couple of years later a hound dog dies and then grandma dies sitting in her rocking chair. She leaves a note for Little Tree, “Little Tree, I must go. Like you feel the trees, feel for us when you are listening. We will wait for you. Next time it will be better. All is well. Grandma.”2 She is buried next to Grandpa. Little Tree leaves the cabin and walks away heading west. In the film scenes of this chapter there are changes in the plot: both of his grandparents have passed away and Little Tree ends up living with Willow John farther away in the mountains. Eventually, Willow John is gone and Little Tree travels west and meets other Native American Indian tribes. In the last ten minutes of the film, grandpa falls and dies and eventually grandma passes and Little Tree narrates his impressions of what his grandparents taught him about life and the afterlife. The narration says to look at the Dog Star when the grandparents say, “Next time it will be better.” The Dog Star is not mentioned in the book but is in the Cherokee legend and in most Native American Indian legends. According to the Cherokee, the Dog Star is the brightest star in the sky; it is the traveler’s path after death and all spirits travel to the star towards the spirit world. We will analyze the quote “Next time it will be better.” Willow John, grandpa and grandma mention these words throughout the last chapter and it is one of many critical story elements discussed in literature. We will ask what the quote means. Again the movie elements are discussed to prepare the students for their own short film. The vocabulary, including film score, narration, the foreshadowing of grandpa’s fall, the crane shot of grandma standing on the top edge of the cliff, the sound of her song, and the scenery in the area are examples of what students need to learn about.
Another main point of this unit on book and film is to focus on teaching the background of film vocabulary to help my students see and learn how a film is made. Of course it is also to explain the cultural relevance of the Cherokee tribal culture, in addition to our own Dine culture to justify Native American Indian authenticity. As I teach the culture of the tribes, I will contact the tribe’s culture specialist and use my cultural knowledge to authenticate the passages and scenes in both genres. Students will begin to understand that native tribes have different cultures while reading the passages and viewing the scene on film.
The author of the book, Forest Carter, had a racist past during his lifetime, but I believe that a human has traits of compassion and empathy for living beings. Carter’s involvement with a cult labeled his character as undesirable, damaged, and destructive. In a sense, my belief is that he might be balancing his harmony and making amends by writing this book.
The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks and the film The Indian in the Cupboard (1995) directed by Frank Oz.
The book is about a boy named Omri, a young English boy who does not know much about Native American Indians. On his ninth birthday he receives unusual gifts from his older brother (an old medicine cabinet he found in an alley), his friend, Patrick, (a plastic toy Indian), and from his mother (a special magical key for the cabinet) and other gifts. Omri takes his gifts to his room and plays with the cupboard and the toy Indian. He puts the plastic toy Indian in the cupboard and discovers that the toy comes magically alive when he turns the key and opens the cupboard door. Omri and the Indian, Little Bear, become friends, and soon his friend Patrick knows about the Indian and is involved with Omri’s game. Complications arise when his friend quickly puts a cowboy in the cupboard and the goofy cowboy comes to life. The two little men end in fighting each other, which is interesting because both of them come for different time frames, Little Bear from the 17th century and Boone from the 19th century. Omri realizes the toys are real people and he is putting the miniature men in danger when they are taken to school. In due time, Boone is accidently shot by Little Bear’s arrow because Little Bear viewed the television show as a real event of cowboys and Indians fighting. Then the adventure of the loose rat roaming around the house creates anxieties for the boys and their little men. Finally, Omri uses the cupboard to change a toy medic from WWI to help with Boone’s injury. Omri finds out that it takes responsibility to care for the little beings and to do what is right for them. Little Bear, Bright Star, and Boone are returned to the cupboard and are sent back to their own time. In the end Omri realizes that he is becoming responsible and mature when using the cupboard. It is not a game when peoples’ lives are involved—it is real--and playing around will hurt them.
The book Indian in the Cupboard encompasses sixteen chapters and needs to be taught in chunks of two or three per day, which will take about seven days. Story and film elements will be addressed using the two mediums, book and film. For instance, analyzing chapter two, “The Door is Shut,” creates discussions about the authenticity of how the Native American Indians are represented when Little Bear informs Omri that his tribe, the Iroquois, live in a longhouse, not a teepee. The longhouses are sacred because the clans believe that these homes are related to everything about the earth, sky, and in the spirit world, very similar to the Navajo hoghan concept.
Also, Little Bear’s oral English language structure is not how Native American Indians from his tribe spoke. The Iroquois nation is a confederacy of five nations and it has had a political system and a constitution. I believe these attributes tell us that the Iroquois tribes were intelligent and could communicate fluently, which does not match the literature. Little Bear’s intelligence as the son of a chief will be discussed with respect to how a person of his stature is supposed to behave, in contrast to the book and film. In the Iroquois clans a The Council of the Great Peace was formed and clan councils discussed and voted on numerous issues. Pine-tree chiefs were chosen by the council for their leadership and speaking ability. The literature and film does not tell about the Council of the Great Peace, so chiefs do not make major decisions within the council. There are various examples of events in the book and film that tell us about actions performed by Little Bear which are not accurate. These passages and scenes will be analyzed and compared when discussing accuracy and inaccuracy and cultural relevance. The passages view Little Bear as insistent and demanding, which makes readers view his character as not aligned with nature, harmony and Iroquois cultural teachings. Little Bear’s demand for meat is another example of what is not accurate. The Iroquois do not emphasize meat as their main diet, the three sisters meaning corn, beans, and squash are the clan’s food staples. The corn husk, cobs, and stalks were used to make mats, twine, belts, and pit-lining. All parts of the plants were used and not wasted. There are other illustrations the teacher will be able to discuss with their students about using all parts of plants and animals. Additional characters, settings, theme and events are analyzed to ensure authenticity while teaching comprehensible input, critical thinking skills, and comparing and contrasting of book and film.
I want my students to think about their thinking while reading or watching a film. They need to begin to think about such things as “suppose this happens, then what or why and how can it change?” These high levels of questioning and thinking are meaningful and will engage students with enduring understanding when utilizing the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy teaching strategies. As story elements are taught and discussed, students will focus their learning on authenticity, film elements, and how specific passages or film clips connect to the Diné culture. Teachers will understand that literature and film are an excellent combination when teaching. A movie should not be a reward at the end of the unit for completing the literature. Comparing the two mediums gives students a wider dimension and exposure to how the authors, illustrators, producers and directors process and think. They will also think about how these writers and filmmakers think about creativity and how meaning is displayed by a written text or on the screen. Educators need to make sure the literature chosen is from an excellent source and that there is a film in relation to the book.
In the medium of film the scale or the size of the characters has a great visual effect when working with the zoom of the camera. The visuals of Little Bear, Boone and his horse are beautiful, and the film about Omri and his friend Patrick visually shows plastic toys changing into real live humans. Many camera angles create both close ups and the depth perception of the set with its characters. A film vocabulary booklet will be used to help students recall and use the vocabulary while they create their own short film clip as their summation of the unit. Thanks to the advancements of technology in supplementing movie production, students will perceive the visual depiction of the story in vivid details, which is especially helpful for those who do not have extensive background knowledge and experiences about the events, characters, and settings in the passages we read. This is when we will have a discussion of why some parts of the book passages are not explored in the film. Students will brainstorm and discuss the various reasons for this, such as the budget of the movie, the time constraints, the much collaboration of people involved in cinema production, and so on. The many facets of the mediums of literature and film give the teacher a wide spectrum of topics and skills to discuss and, at the same time, these elements can be narrowed and controlled when addressing the common core standards or other state and district requirements in the English Language Arts.
The author, Lynne Reid Banks, a British author who currently resides in England, has received favorable review from various critics who have read The Indian in the Cupboard. The book has some fantasy and some realism as the boys change toys into living beings. But the author’s descriptions and the actions of the characters are stereotypical. For instance the character Little Bear is described as an ordinary Indian like all other Indians and Boone is a common cowboy who drinks excessively. Both do not speak appropriate English and are depicted as sworn enemies. There is some inappropriate language in the literature and fifth grade students need to be informed about this. Lynne Reid Banks’ book was the bestselling novel of the year in 1981 and has received numerous state awards. She has published an additional series of books after The Indian in the Cupboard, including The Return of the Indian, The Secret of the Indian, The Mystery of the Indian, and The Key to the Indian.
Most of the strategies used in this unit involve an embedded writing process. The Inquiry Chart is similar to a KWL chart, but it is taught throughout the unit. Third is a method from the Guided Language Acquisition Design (GLAD) model from Marcia Brechtel’s book, Bringing It All Together. This chart is used to get students to think like a scientist, and to inquire about what is known and ask questions in order to learn more about the topic. Students begin think while the teacher models the process on the chart. The reason I use this chart is for active background knowledge and to have students think, predict, and hypothesize as the teacher writes the students’ comments and questions onto the chart. The chart is revisited throughout the unit as the teacher revises the chart and students will cite their sources on the chart to validate their new information.
I also use the Morph Hoghan, adapted from the Morph House from the English Language Learner workshop of the state of Arizona. I have modified the graphic organizer to make it relevant for my students. This strategy uses all structures of vocabulary study and grammar and builds a complete morphological word. The graphic format includes the base word, other word forms, syllabification, sketch and definition of the word, synonyms and antonyms, the suffixes and prefixes. The five sentences format (declarative, interrogative, imperative, exclamatory, and negative) is written collaboratively with student input and teacher modeling. The base word is used to create related words or a word family using base word plus the suffix and/or prefix when writing the various sentences. The vocabulary process of the Morph Hoghan/House should be taught twice a week for English Language Learners. Prior to teaching the in-depth vocabulary, select key robust vocabulary words.
The strategy Process Grid is a strategy from the GLAD model. The grid supports writing expository text and teaches reading for information through expert groups, vocabulary, and concepts. The four to five expert groups promote comprehension and discussion of key concepts and aid in forming the categories for the process grid. While in the expert groups students will use the Close Reading strategy when reading the information, they will look for and highlight key vocabulary words, headings and subheadings, picture captions, boldface and italic words, and to look for the key information, because they will then teach the information to their team. The information is categorized into boxes like a grid on a folded paper. Students will read and explain the information and then will complete the boxes from the information read. The topic in the process grid becomes a paragraph of compare and contrast, a paragraph with similarities, or a paragraph of information. The Four Picture Story Frames are used when retelling a story or a movie by frames in sequence, character development, setting variations, or comparing and contrasting, which is then connected to the expert group and the process grid.
Chunking the book into three chapters a day will be a feat so I need to focus on the compare and contrast aspects of the book and film and then analyze a least two aspects of Native American Indian authenticity. The compare and contrast organizer are the basic Venn diagram with a summary then to the complex comparison matrix. The Venn diagram and summary is completed in one fifty minute setting, the varied topics are the three tribes (Cherokee, Iroquois, and Dine-Navajo) comparisons in home structures, common food staples (corn, beans, and squash), clans, establishment of government structure, and the book and film contrasts. I will use the basic Venn diagram during the first week of the unit. The comparison matrix will take two to three 50 minute sessions because there are five to six columns with two to three horizontal rows and a concluding box for a summary. This graph organizer is similar to the Process Grid, which is used during the second week of the unit. A rubric is a tool I use to gauge students’ progress, and eventually students will learn to use the rubric for self-assessment, which will help them reflect on their work.
Character analyses of the characters in the book and the film are examined and compared. All aspects of human characteristics from the beginning to the end are discussed. Visual sketches of the characters from the literature and the film are displayed on charts using colored markers while the chunked information about each of characters is written on the chart. The following day we revisit the charts and add vocabulary words in strips onto the chart to emphasize them. This process teaches the students how to say, read, and pronounce the word and soon they are able to explain the meaning of the word. After reviewing the words, students will turn over their right or left shoulders to partners and explain two facts about the character. These oral facts are shared with partners then with the whole class. On the third day, students review the character charts with pictures of specific vocabulary words that describe the characters. The chart is revisited again because they will write a “Text and You,” exercise about the characters which is two paragraphs long. The text will be explaining the characters and how the student connects to the characters. This lesson involves a four process.
At the conclusion of my unit, my students will create a short video clip to demonstrate their knowledge of movie production or to provide an explanation of Native American Indian culture in part of the literature they have read or a movie they have viewed. Students will create props for their scenes and dress as the characters or create puppet characters to demonstrate their knowledge. This is when parents are involved in providing materials and resources for their child’s movie production. They will have a choice of a classroom setting or outside in the surrounding school campus, either of which can be used to film their video clip.
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