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Blown with the Wind: A Week in the Classroom in the Wild

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Wye River Classroom in the Wild

Spring break: Skiing in Telluride? Beaching in Cancun? Downtime with the fam?

Or how about sleeping on the floor and skipping a shower for the better part of the week while 15 heretofore strangers become your 24/7 companions, you swathe yourself in enough thermal layers to insulate a small village, and people less than half your age patiently explain "spray and pray," "two shot," and why you need a dead cat.

After more than two decades as a freelance writer, I've been a laptop-toting member of the gig economy since long before the gig economy got its name, and if there is one thing I've learned from nearly 25 years in the contingent-labor trenches, it's keep learning or get left behind. So with an established background in conservation and environmental writing, and a recent focus on expanding into multimedia storytelling formats, I was immediately intrigued when I discovered the American University School of Communication's "Classroom in the Wild." It was the only filmmaking intensive I'd come across that would put me where I wanted to be: outside, where the stories I am interested in are found and the storytelling conditions I find are inevitably unpredictable.

And intensive it was. From the class's first dinner meet-and-greet Saturday night to the final goodbyes one week later, our days and nights were filled. Our "classroom" was the Eastern shore of Maryland, where we spent many hours at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, and our base of operations, Wye Island Natural Resource Management Area, where the living was close-quartered, the dinners were an enjoyable group labor, the mornings came early, evening lectures were conducted in front of a crackling fire, and the sun rose and set in a gratifying glory of colors over the Wye River outside our windows.

There was rain. There was a little snow. There was bright sun. There were frigid temperatures. And there was wind. Lots and lots of wind. So. Much. Wind. Did I mention it was windy? And that's how I found out why you need a dead cat, that evocatively named fake-fur sock that covers a shotgun mic and muffles the otherwise maddening, car-windows-open-at-70-miles-per-hour, buffeting-your-mic roar of what the Beaufort scale of wind speeds cheerily dismisses as a "strong breeze."

I didn't come to this class expecting I would leave an expert filmmaker in a week. But I was able to build on my basic knowledge, practice with gear I might not otherwise have access to as a freelancer, and benefit from the experience of deeply knowledgeable course instructors, a terrific slate of guest speakers, and my generous, creative classmates who were mostly undergraduate and graduate students at AU. 

From wiring a lavalier mic to scribbling a notebook full of pointers ("always be listening on earphones," "shoot selectively," "unplug the refrigerator-but put your keys inside to remember to plug it in again before you leave"), to animated conversations as we traveled to and from our destinations, to the final two days we spent back at AU editing some of the more than 500 gigabytes of film, stills, and audio we'd captured, I learned so much that my brain was still catching up several weeks later.

But the most valuable takeaway, the one lesson reiterated throughout the week, turned out to be the one thing I already knew: if you don't have a story, you've got nothing.