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Instructional Practice

Award-Winning Ways to Use Movies in the Classroom


Baz Luhrmann’s
The Great Gatsby hit theaters recently, and high-school students across the country filed into theaters, eager to compare the flick to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s beloved novel. Classroom instructors additionally expressed excitement at the thought of having an updated version to show to students. But when should movies be used in a classroom? SHOULD movies be used in the classroom? We at Teaching Excellence wanted to get some answers on best-practices for usage of movies in the classroom, and we knew just where to turn.

Kinder award-winning
YES Prep Southeast AP English teacher, cross country coach, and movie blogger James Sheridan was gracious enough to share with Teaching Excellence a few of his best practices around the art of using film in the classroom in order to drive instruction and impact student achievement.

Should movies be used in the classroom? Why or why not?

I am a huge advocate of movies in the classroom as long as they are studied as texts, not merely used as rewards.  I think instead of using a movie only as a reward or break, I think they are powerful tools to teach critical thinking skills, note-taking, listening, as well as apply some of Kelly Gallagher’s “Deeper Reading” principles in terms of studying method and meaning, especially upon multiple viewings.  That being said, we can’t go overboard on films in class.  I try to incorporate some aspect of film for each six weeks, though we only watched two films straight through this year.

What steps should a teacher take when determining what movie to use, when, and why?

I think movies are something I incorporate in my Essential Questions as an AP Lit teacher, so I don’t necessarily just show films of books that we’ve read.  For example, I show scenes from “Eight Men Out” when teaching “The Great Gatsby” in order to provide context for the Black Sox scandal, the post-WW1 era in the big cities, provide a window into the American Dream at that time.  It makes the chapter on Meyer Wolfshiem throwing the World Series a bit more understandable.  I showed early scenes and a few major speeches from “The Crucible” to my class because the context of the town of Salem, the churches, and the starkness of it all is difficult to visualize (plus it is a play!).  I like listening to actors perform some of the major scenes and speeches that we will analyze and write about, and not just in terms of what was changed, what was kept.

I think questions for a teacher to consider include: 1. How is this film relevant to the EQ’s and Big Goals of the classroom?  2. Do we need to watch a clip, a scene, a major part, or all of the film?  3. What is the best use of time with teaching the film?  I am a huge fan of doing less but reviewing a scene to deep read it and analyze it closely.

What should students do while watching a movie in class?

Students need to be taught explicitly how to take notes during a movie, shown examples from the teacher on the doc. Camera, and then held accountable in 3-5 minute film viewing bursts for sharing out.  “What did you see?”   “What did the director do?”  “What choices were made?” are three of the most common questions in my class.  Ideally, these notes culminate in film reflections or papers or some other kind of writing that can be evaluated or shared.  My students wrote film reviews at the end of Semester 2 in the style of Roger Ebert and other critics seen on www.imdb.com.

Describe a movie that you use in your classroom.  What is the purpose? What is the result for students?

We watched “Rebel Without A Cause” as part of our “Pride and Prejudice: What is Love? Unit.”  I provided a little background (director, actors, time period, etc…), and then we watched the opening scene in the jail 2X, breaking it down to themes and messages and symbols.  Students loved finding the things that the director put there once I drew their attention to it.  The subtle message is that it takes multiple times to understand and figure out a film and a book (any text).  Then, we stopped the film 30-40 minutes in, had a discussion, returned to our notes.  The next day, students finished the film, me breaking it at certain points to ensure comprehension, ask some questions I had scripted already in my lesson plan.  The culmination of the film viewing was a Socratic Seminar where they tied the social codes and expectations of Jane Austen’s world to the world of the 1950’s LA and Jim Stark’s family.  There could have easily been a written reflection as well.  Students had to use their notes to receive credit.

How can a movie increase student achievement?

A movie, used strategically and with accountability pieces, can build inferencing skills, practice identification and analysis of symbols and motifs, and is a natural fit for exploring method, meaning, and so what.  For example, Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock uses swirling imagery and the endless circling and chasing of Madeline by Scottie to represent the maze-like confusion of obsession, showing how possible it is to lose one’s self in the pursuit of something desired.

Is there anything else that you would like teachers to know or consider when they make the decision to use a movie in their classroom?

Watch the movie first!  Make sure that you speak with your School Director about anything controversial or R-rated, as well as putting information that is clear to parents and students if there is something that will be a bit rough.  Film clips are a great way to hit different modalities of learners, but don’t be afraid to use a less is more approach.  Conversely, two times a year, I am 100% fine with diving deep into a film (Rebel Without A Cause, Vertigo) in order to really explore it and add it to our texts studied this year.  I also like showing multiple versions of Shakespeare scenes (using YouTube or my own DVD’s) if the speech is a major one that we are diving deep on.  There are also fun adaptations (we watched the opening scene of an Australian Macbeth with 3 Witches desecrating a cemetery because it was 2 minutes, set a tone, and was on Netflix) as well as strange adaptations (we watched a scene from “Throne of Blood,” a Japanese samurai version of Macbeth by the great director Akira Kurosawa).  I think making sure you watch and know what scenes, moments, methods you want to focus on will make any film-viewing experience a great one.  Also, use film criticism and essays from www.imdb.com and online sources (Houston Chronicle, New York Times, etc…) to show models of successful criticism. Last, hang movie posters up in your room to build awareness and preview (tease) upcoming films, units, books!  In my room this year, we have had “The Great Gatsby,” “Throne of Blood,” and “Vertigo” up in the back at points way before we saw them!

Thank you, James, for your thoughtful responses! We are excited to see teachers implement these strategies in their classrooms in order to use films in an impactful manner!

What films have you used in your classroom? How will you use films in your classroom moving forward?

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