Mike Morris teaches middle schoolers the mechanics of visual storytelling at Utopian Academy for the Arts in Clayton County, but what he really wants his students to learn is that their voice matters.
“I teach our kids to take ownership of their stories,” says Mike. “Their perspective is unique and worth sharing. They learn to confidently use their voice to change their communities.”
Mike sees filmmaking as a different approach to teaching. Through the creative process, he says, kids learn to trust themselves and take ownership of their projects, and that helps them build confidence.
Students at Utopian Academy are benefiting from Mike’s filmmaking class. One student was the classic trouble-maker, fighting with teachers and students and struggling in many of his classes and at home. Despite the challenges he faced at home, the student improved at school and co-created an award-winning documentary on Georgia teachers. Another student ended up in Mike’s class by mistake and developed a passion for script writing.
Mike sees the growing Georgia film industry as a real opportunity for these kids.
“When I was growing up, we didn’t see Georgia as a place for opportunity in filmmaking,” says Mike. “Now, the industry is growing right around them. I’m so happy and excited that Georgia has become a place where a kid’s dreams can come true.”
When Mike started in the film industry, he moved to Los Angeles. His apartment and internship at a studio fell through, so he lived in his car. When his car got towed, he literally ended up on Skid Row. Not a fortuitous beginning. But he made some connections and eventually worked for a production company. A few years later, Mike started his own business, Visual Tellers.
After moving back to the South, a friend asked him if he’d like to teach media arts with him at Utopian Academy. At first, Mike wasn’t sure he wanted to teach. He was a professional photographer, business owner, writer and producer. He had his hands full. But he remembered how lucky he was as a kid. Even though he didn’t have much growing up, his parents entrusted him with a camera and that’s how he developed his love of photography.
Mike wanted to give the same trust to the students at Utopian Academy and serve as a positive role model. Once he started teaching, he fell in love with the job.
“The kids look up to us, they say they want to be like us. It’s humbling,” says Mike, who is also a volunteer at re:imagine/ATL, a non-profit that connects teens with mentors and resources in film and digital media. “We’re there to be a positive influence and empower them to be whatever they want to be.”