November 03, 2010 | Myrna Anderson

Norman Dirk Zylstra

Brian Fuller made his first visit to the Mustard Seed School in 2009 to check out the institution’s credentials. He had heard that it was a Christian school in Hoboken, New Jersey with a curriculum anchored in the arts—and he was prepared to be disappointed. “But I wasn’t,” said Fuller, a Calvin professor of communication arts and sciences. “They really did integrate art into everything.”

He was also impressed by the school’s student demographic: “They were somehow attracting a really diverse student body. By diverse, I don’t mean that they were just opening their doors to many ethnic and racial traditions,” he said. The school, headed by 1989 Calvin graduate Christine Metzger, also drew students from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds; fifty percent of them receive financial aid.

“They defied the financial model of almost every Christian school I ever heard of,” Fuller said. “They had an education that the wealthy would want for their children, and they were giving it away so that everyone could have it.”

The filming

During his 2009 visit, Fuller had scouted locations for a possible documentary about the school, a project funded by the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning and the Battaglia Family with support from the Calvin College Alumni Association. He returned to Hoboken during the January interim of 2010 to film the documentary. With him were three students, junior Kristin Crawford and senior Kyle Berkompas, both media production majors, and junior Chad Drenthe, who served on the film as an audio technician.

“He was an education major, and I took him along so that he could see things and say, ‘Hey, that’s an interesting way of doing that!’” Fuller said.

For three weeks the film crew worked long hours. “They were behind the camera in the daytime, and they were transcribing at night,” said Fuller. They captured the students learning Spanish through sculpture, mathematics through calisthenics and the history of western migration through building covered wagons. The students also taught the rudiments of filmmaking to the Mustard Seed students.

“We got to see how intentional you had to be in filming things and how much goes into making a documentary,” said Crawford, who especially enjoyed conversations about ethics that occurred around the filmmaking.  “You’re taking people and putting them in a film, but it’s shaped by the director,” she said. “You’re shaping it.”

The crew also captured the moment that a mother of two students, a native of Haiti, dropped her two daughters off at the school in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. The girls, students at the school, had lost an aunt and a grandmother in the disaster. “She said, ‘This is where my daughters need to be,’” remembered Fuller. He praised the spiritual atmosphere of Mustard Seed School, saying: “They do community well; they do worship well.”

Finding the film

When the crew returned to Calvin for spring semester, they brought with them 131 hours of raw footage, which had to wait until summer for editing. Fuller used Calvin Alumni Association grants to hire three more students, then-juniors Taylor Wogoman, Rachel Kuyvenhoven and senior Eric Nondahl, all media production majors, to help him spend the nearly-2,000 hours it would take to shape the film. “You don’t make a documentary,” Fuller said. “You find it.

Somewhere in the middle of the editing process, Fuller lost his hearing in one ear. “We were at lunch one day, and at the beginning of lunch I could hear in both ears, and at the end of lunch, I couldn’t,” he said. Unaware of their professor’s impairment, Wogoman, Nondahl and Kuyvenhoven carried on with the edit. “The fact that I could trust them with this film—I mean, what kind of recommendation wouldn’t I write them now?” he said.

Kuyers Institute director David Smith is pleased with the documentary that Fuller and crew found amid the footage, a film they titled A Shared Space: learning from the Mustard Seed School. "We are aspiring to provide an account of urban schooling that is focused on hope rather than decay, to offer a picture of Christian schooling that runs against a number of existing stereotypes, and to enhance teacher education and staff training within schools," he said of the project.

A Shared Space will premiere at several screenings on Friday, November 5 in the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, New Jersey. Families will be there, teachers will be there, school trustees will be there. And four of the students (Nondahl has graduated) involved in the making of the film will be there, something Fuller worked hard to make happen. “I’m so excited,” said Crawford who, along with Kuyvenhoven, is currently studying in Chicago. “I’ve been waiting for the last three months to see the premiere,” she said.

Read about the Calvin premiere of A Shared Space: Learning from the Mustard Seed School.

A student at the Mustard Seed School learns to work the camera.

Chad Drenth, Brian Fuller, Kyle Berkompas and Kristin Crawford

Read a profile of Christine Metzger '89, director of the Mustard Seed School.

Read an interview with Brian Fuller about A Shared Space: Learning from the Mustard Seed School..

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