Thursday, 27 October 2011

Movies In The Classroom: The Sequel!

PBS's long running series Masterpiece Theatre has weighed in on the debate over film use in classrooms. The series, known best for bringing classic literary works to the screen, has its own learning resource page and offers teachers the advice reproduced below:

PBS Masterpiece Theatre - Learning Resources For Teachers
Why Study Film in the Classroom?
Anyone who has ever watched a movie with a classroom full of teenagers knows that students are comfortable with film and understand its power. By high school, they have watched thousands of movies and television shows and unconsciously understand the basic tools and conventions of the medium. Although they may still treat it chiefly as passive entertainment, they can often be sophisticated interpreters of the interplay of sound and image. They know -- often without knowing they know -- that the close-up on an actor's face signifies something different emotionally from a long shot of an actor across a distance. They know that certain kinds of music indicate that a dramatic event is about to happen, and they know that "fuzzy" camerawork can signal a dream sequence or flashback in which we are inside a particular character's mind or point of view.

In fact, students may know how to interpret film better than they know how to interpret literature -- especially the classics. Some teachers feel this is the very reason not to use film in the language arts classroom: isn't showing movies a waste of time when students have such a reading deficit already? Yes -- but only if students watch film passively.

The goal is to encourage English teachers to see film not as a guilty pleasure -- not as just the "reward" at the end of reading a book -- but as a legitimate means to enhance literacy. Contemporary thinkers on media literacy have argued that the same habits that a good reader brings to a written text are those that a critical viewer brings to a visual text; enhancing one effortlessly enhances the other. In both, a critical thinker predicts, makes connections, infers, asks questions, and interprets. In both, meaning is made through the details of character, theme, plot, mood, conflict, and symbolism. For both, we must guide students to be active interpreters.

Over thirty years ago, media education pioneer John Culkin argued that "We live in a total-information culture, which is being increasingly dominated by the image. Intelligent living within such an environment calls for developing habits of perception, analysis, judgment, and selectivity that are capable of processing the relentless input of visual data.... [Because] schools are where the tribe passes on its values to the young, schools are where film study should take place." Three decades later, Culkin's assertion resonates more than ever.

Using Film to Interpret Literature
Written texts can be  inaccessible to students. For many, the settings and historical context are foreign to them, the complex language hinders fluent reading, and the scale of books can seem intimidating. Where the camerawork between Portia and Shylock in the courtroom scene of The Merchant of Venice makes their mutual animosity clear, students might not register the same emotional intensity in the written dialogue. Even contemporary classics such as The Road from Coorain and Almost a Woman often prove challenging, particularly for reluctant or unenthusiastic readers. And yet, we want them to understand these works because they have something important and enduring to say. Using film is a way to help them do this, whether with the filmed version of the same story, in whole or in part, or a companion text that complements the themes, characters, setting, or conflicts of that story.

Film teacher John Golden suggests beginning to think critically about film by starting with a personal film inventory of one's own viewing history. First, have students make a list of ten films they have loved. (You might want to make a master list on the board of everyone's "best picks" when the class has finished.) Then have students choose a partner and take turns talking about one film each, telling each other a little about the characters, plots, settings, points of view, themes, and moods that made these films so effective. Compare and contrast the selections students made. What are the most memorable scenes from their films? Why?

Teacher Tips
Consider these ideas, suggested by teachers, for new and different ways to use film.
  1. Consider showing the film version of a literary work first, rather than last, or begin your reading with short scenes from the film version. Because students are so visually oriented already, having them analyze character, look for themes, make predictions, and make observations about the film first can help them see these elements more easily when they turn to the literature.
  2. Use film as a mini-lesson, to highlight a skill or literary element you want your students to practice. For example, let them make predictions from the opening scenes of a film, then ask them to practice predicting while reading.
  3. Don't feel you have to show an entire movie; clips of key scenes can be enough. Be sure to prepare well in advance when showing clips. You may want to show just one (from two to ten minutes long) or make a tape of clips that show a range of film techniques or plot and character development.
  4. Instead of showing the film version of a work of literature you are reading, consider choosing a companion film. This can be a work with similar themes, protagonists, characters, or settings; a film of the same genre; or a film version of another work by the same author. For instance, a coming-of-age story about a young man might be enhanced by showing The Road from Coorain or Almost a Woman, two stories about a young woman's coming of age. (See the rest of the site for more ideas).
  5. Begin class the day after viewing a film by having students write about or discuss which images or scenes stayed with them most strongly. Help students constantly ask themselves, "How did I feel during that scene, and how did the filmmaker make me feel that way?"
  6. If you are showing an entire film, use pre-reading strategies beforehand. Having students do a simple K/W/L exercise works as well with film as it does with literature for "activating schema," or prior knowledge, and for setting expectations.
  7. Try assigning small groups or individuals in the class just one cinematic or literary technique to track as they watch a film. For instance, one group might observe characterization or mood; another might watch for camera angles or lighting.
  8. Have students write before, during, and after viewing a long film. They can do this with a by using sentence starters such as "I wondered.... /felt.... /thought.... ," or by writing to a prompt specific to that film.
 The commentary and ideas above were copied from I recommend you to visit the site yourself for links to other resources and further advice as to how films might be appropriately used to support student learning.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Movies in the Classroom - Another View

Recently, a delegation of parents at our School Board meeting voiced concerns about the use of movies in classrooms. Their questions centered around the content of some films and around what rights they had as parents to be informed about what their children might view. Some also asked about how often and how long videos were used in the classrooms and whether Hollywood movies were replacing instruction.

Using media to support instruction is a time honored practice. Used appropriately, motion pictures can hi-light ideas, inspire debate, energize and engage students. Used excessively, or inappropriately media can bore students to death, or expose them to controversial, even dangerous images. No one is suggesting that movies should never  be shown in schools. The challenge is to determine what materials are suitable, how they should be used and to what degree parents should be informed.

How appropriate a film may be for classroom use is determined by a combination of factors. There are legal considerations, such as copyright, to consider. Does the film have relevance to what is being taught? What rating did the film receive? Is it age appropriate? How much of the film should be used? What is the purpose of showing the film? How might parents react to their child seeing the film? All of these questions should be considered before a teacher puts a picture before a class.

There are lots of good websites on this topic. Alberta Education has a 48 page guide about using film in the classroom (  Another good site is 50 Best Movies for Middle School  and yet another can be found at All these sites contain basic common sense recommendations about previewing the material to be shown, knowing the ins and outs of relevant legal and copyright issues, and being aware of the sensibilities and feelings of target audiences and their parents. They also give tips on how to best utilize media as a resource. Good media use needs to  scaffold and support good teaching; not be a substitute for it.


Keeping parents informed about what, why and when their children will be viewing is also important, especially if the materials being considered are in any way controversial. Keeping parents, and principals, in the know, can prevent misunderstandings and difficult post viewing conversations. Whether by means of email, notices home or the collection of pre-viewing permission slips, telling parents about what’s going to be showing is good practice. It provides teachers with the means to pre-empt parental concerns and demonstrate that lessons are organized with a greater purpose than how to kill an hour or two. It also allows parent to be heard and have their legitimate concerns dealt with before they grow into bigger issues.


Ultimately, better communication is the answer. Teachers and parents need to know why a film is to be used. Effective use of media can be an exciting way to support learning. It should not be used thoughtlessly or as electronic babysitting. Parents need to know that teachers care, and can appropriately excite and engage students. Used well, film can help a teacher get their point across. Used otherwise, films in the classroom are pointless, possibly dangerous and likely a waste of time.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Running A Great Extra Curricular Season

Considering that the physical fitness of students is always a hot topic, it worth noting that another district cross country season wrapped up Wednesday at Kin Park. Thanks to Principals Doug McCracken and Donna Holland for keeping this athletic activity going by hosting events this year. There were over 140 runners at the event at Upper Pine and over 130 at Ambrose. All this from basically only 6 schools. Imagine the size of events the district could host if all, or even just most of the elementary schools participated.

 An interesting thing about x-country running is that it needs virtually no equipment, costs next to nothing to run and involves as many kids are as willing to show up. The skills involved are simple - move your feet, left, right repeat, breathe - and have fun. The whole event Wednesday ( three different age groups - 6 different races) was completed in about an hour, presentations and all!  Transportation was the only real cost. It's also an activity where rural schools can compete on par or better with town schools. All you need is access to a little bit of geography!   And....... running is good exercise for everyone!

If other schools are interested in getting on board, or even hosting their own event next year its easy to do. There are lots of resource people available within the community willing to help you organize a race! Just ask your local running club!  If you have questions as to how hard it is to run such an event just ask the administrators who ran this year's events.  Until recently neither of them had extensive experience with this  sport.  Now they are both savvy veterans!

There is a perception out there that running is hard work, but really, running is what kids do! Anyone who has supervised an elementary playground or even been in a middle school hallway at break, knows that student energy is not the problem. Running is a life time sport - one that people can continue well into their adult years, and one that gives an instant sense of accomplishment. Whether a runner is the first or last across a finish line they've still successfully completed a challenge - instant positive feedback.

Thanks and congratulations go out to all the coaches too. Even in this interesting time several teachers, parents and administrators came out to assist with this sport! At a time where everyone is looking for ways to keep kids active without breaking the bank or clogging up the calendar, it amazing that cross country running is not more popular! Given the success of this year's events I'm already looking forward to next year. I'm betting I'm not the only one!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Giving Thanks

Yesterday was Thanksgiving Day and like many people spent some time thinking of things to be thankful for. It has been a busy start to the school year. Job action has been hard for everyone and it has been especially difficult to find quiet moments in which to regroup and recharge. None the less there are always things to be thankful for. For me two key moments came in the form of responses from former students. One came to see me. The other visited virtually via twitter.

The first student was a young man I had taught years ago who was looking for a reference for his university applications. It had been a few years since I had seen him last and more than a few since he had been one of my students. He made his request and we reminisced a bit about his time in my class. He remembered mostly the good times, the assignments that had made him think and the fun he had learning. He concluded by thanking me for being one of his "better" teachers. "Your class was never boring" he smiled, "considering that it was English that's saying something!" I happen to think that English should never be boring, but I truly appreciated the praise. Its nice to be validated as a teacher.

The second student visit came via a response to a tweet I had sent out last week in recognition of International Teachers Day. "Can you remember your favorite teacher?" I had asked. This student responded in a way that really made me smile. Not only could she remember her favorite teacher - she had a favorite for every stage of her education. She listed her favorite elementary, secondary, college and university teachers. I didn't make the list, but that was ok. It made me feel good that she had so many fond memories of educators who had helped her along the way!

These students' visits and encouragement came at just the right time! I'm glad that they have fond memories of teachers and of learning. Cliche or not, they reminded me that I work in a profession that gets to make a difference in the lives of so many people. And for that I am truly thankful!