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?
Consider these ideas, suggested by teachers, for new and different ways to use film.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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?"
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.