HSE Teacher Jamie Follis Inspiring Students Through Creativity
Writer / Kara Kavensky
Photographer / Demi Lawrence
His day job may be as a social studies teacher for Hamilton Southeastern High School, but like everyone else who works in the building, Jamie Follis has an array of outside interests. What’s interesting about his life outside of teaching is that he works at conventions for Lucasfilm, sculpts, has created figurines that have gone viral and has launched cosplay participants to explore a new realm of steampunk.
Follis brings his creative element into his classroom by creating a course on comparative religions, inspiring learning through games and by creating a film club like no other.
Follis began his teaching career at HSE in 1999. Within a couple of years, he was one of only a few teachers in the state of Indiana instructing AP World History, which began in 2001. He is the only AP European History teacher in the building.
In the history courses, Follis incorporates various games based upon subject matter throughout the year. One such game was a Cold War simulation where the students were separated and could only speak through red phones. The Cold War simulation included the space race, Olympics, arms race, propaganda and spies. Feedback from students indicated that they were exhausted from all of the paranoia, and a few had to take a nap when they got home.
As the district was becoming more diverse, Follis proposed a course on comparative religions. After a lengthy approval process and not knowing how the course would be received, enough students enrolled to fill 12 sections of 30 kids each. The course is identified by the State Department and guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Follis, who is accustomed to being observed, received an email from the State Department that he would have some guests in his classroom.
These guests represented the King of Morocco and were members of his entire Cabinet. This delegation had dined with the Clintons the evening before and was in Fishers, Indiana, to observe Follis’ class the next day. Other observers via the State Department include a high-ranking Muslim leader from Russia, a Chinese delegation and a Canadian Minister of Education.
“Dignitaries and heads of state have visited Mr. Follis’ classroom,” says Phil Lederach, Director of Secondary Education for Hamilton Southeastern Schools. “Just think about that for a moment. How many high schools have had the entire Cabinet of the King of Morocco in for a classroom visit? It is an incredible accomplishment and a real learning experience for his students.”
“It felt for a while that we were one scenic tourist site to check off a list,” says Follis, who says the interesting observations happen periodically but now average once every year or two. “I made up this class to accommodate the diversity of religions and felt it was necessary. A lot of kids go off to college and feel far more accepting. Their roommate may be Zoroastrian. The students make more friends, are more tolerant and accepting. This is vital in our 21st century world.”
Just as Mary Armstrong has a play and a musical each year, Follis thought, “Let’s make a movie!” What Follis has created is a Film Production Club. Follis culls the talent in the group to encourage everyone to find their niche of creativity.
“The first year was a failure, but these can be the best learning opportunities,” shares Follis. “So we have worked out the kinks and have created some meaningful films. We have so many really talented kids here and so many great resources to utilize.”
Students begin by writing the screenplay. The resources include the orchestra, wood shop, maker space, editing lab, sewing machines for costumes and a theater. “The seniors mentor and lead the production,” shares Follis. “This is not ‘five friends and an iPhone;’ this is a collaboration of extremely talented kids who discover shared interests and make new friends. Some of these kids are rooming together in college, and for many, creating this film is their crowning achievement in high school.”
The timeline for this production is impressive. From start to finish and given the quality and substance of the efforts involved, to complete a movie from script to screening within one school year is no small feat. Former students of Follis’ attend NYU, UCLA and USC. Many of them are majoring film. “Not many incoming college freshmen can say they worked with a 100-person crew on a full-length feature film while in high school,” states Follis.
“Jamie Follis has the ability to take his eclectic personal interests and integrate them seamlessly into his classroom,” says Lederach. “He is able, somehow, to share with student his love of art, filmmaking, history and comprehension of world religions in ways that engage students and deepen their experience at HSE.”
In his spare time, Follis is a sculptor. His pieces revolve around pop culture, including “Star Wars.” He put new spins on them, redesigning them in various ways. This has become a common thing to do in the comic and gaming industry. A breakout collection for Follis was steampunk Justice League, which earned him a great review with DC Comics. Follis started creating his figures for fun, and the work quickly gained in popularity, thanks to the Internet. He can now post a line on his website, and it just takes off from his fan base, going viral almost instantly.
“I kept my sculpting private, but one day, I saw a student with a photo of a Wild West Boba Fett I designed as his wallpaper on his laptop. I told him, ‘Hey, I did that,’ and he didn’t believe me,” shares Follis. “It was then that I realized that I should share this aspect of my life with my students and be open about it. It’s not a secret, but it was personal, and I wasn’t sure how it would be received.” Now he shares his website on day one, so there is no secrecy … underground.
Follis spoke at the Fishers Library on “Star Wars” toys. He shared a slide of himself playing with “Star Wars” toys as a kid and a photo of himself with George Lucas whom he had the privilege of meeting while he was working at one of the Lucasfilm conventions.
Follis is now a staple at conventions where he is paid to present on panels. Follis became connected with Lucasfilm by helping at a convention here in Indianapolis called Celebration 2 when the new trilogy of “Star Wars: Episodes I-III,” were being released. During that show, Follis worked with Frank Diorio to help children create dioramas of scenes from a Galactic city. This is one of the few areas during a convention where there are no items for sale; it is where parents work with their children to create something.
“I have had stars from the movie tell me our area at the convention is their favorite,” shares Follis who spends as much time as he can with his daughter, Katie. He even has set up a desk for her next to his own, so that they can work on creative projects side by side. During his summers off from teaching, while his wife Tammy is at work, Katie gets a lot of daddy time.
This past summer, Follis turned down an offer to work in Los Angeles on the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” after his longtime collaborator comedian Patton Oswalt recommended him. Instead, he chose to work on a local movie production with Joe Crump. “I agreed only if my daughter could join me. Summer is our time,” shares Follis who was Art Director/Production Designer for “The Storyteller.” Follis helped create the visual imagery for the film. One prop Follis made for the film was a sculpture made from vinyl records for one of the character’s rooms. That prop now resides in Katie’s room, which she thinks is “totally cool.”
“I loved working on ‘The Storyteller’ movie set this summer with my dad because I got to meet great people and have fun on a real movie set,” says 10-year-old Katie Follis, who inspires to become an Imagineer at Disney or an actor. “My dad often asked my opinion on his projects, and I give him my advice and ideas for new projects. Sometimes, he takes it, and sometimes he does not.”
“After working with Follis in the film production club and alongside him on ‘The Storyteller’ this summer, it is clear where Jamie’s passions lie,” shares former student Bryce Reif, a sophomore journalism major at USC who is applying for USC film school. “He loves his students and can connect with them by any means, whether it be through a shared love of ‘Star Wars’ or his appreciation for good storytelling. In film club, he sets up his students for success by creating a microcosm of the actual film industry, so they have the tangible experience of working closely with many others. Early on, that is crucial in any field a student may wish to go into. From what I understand, he aims to open minds and give people confidence going forward in whatever way that may be.”
For more information on Jamie Follis’ creations, visit sillof.com. For HSE Student film productions, visit oliordprod.weebly.com.