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Teaching Film in a High School Classroom

Being able to critically analyze visual information the way one would analyze text is a key skill in today's world. Teenagers are bombarded with visual stimuli and need to be able to pick it apart and ask questions of it.
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It's a scene we can all imagine: the teacher flips on a movie, dims the lights, and sits in the back of the classroom catching up on grading papers. The students slump in their seats half paying attention, while they snooze or text or do chem homework. We can imagine this because many of us have been there.

Americans have these associations with bringing film into the classroom because, in the past, movies have been used as "breaks" from instruction. And occasionally, that's a fine use for them (rainy day lunches, a post-AP treat). However, if we cling on to this idea that it is the only way movies can work in the classroom, we are losing an incredible source of learning material.

The week after the Academy Awards seems like the ideal time to talk about teaching film. Each year, the Oscars remind us how fantastic movies can be. After all, most filmmakers consider their craft as significant as a piece of literature. And films have the added complexity of requiring their audience to process visual and auditory information along with plot and character development.

Certainly, being able to critically analyze visual information the way one would analyze text is a key skill in today's world. Teenagers are bombarded with visual stimuli and need to be able to pick it apart and ask questions of it. Many advocates of using film and TV in the classroom point out that kids need to learn how to tell if something in the media is a social construction. They should learn how to evaluate if a movie is biased, or if a TV show is portraying cultural stereotypes. This is true -- we don't want our youth to be "victimized" by the media.

But I think movies are worthwhile pieces of learning material in and of themselves, even without the victimization argument. That's how film professors treat movies in a college seminar -- why can't we apply some of that seriousness and enthusiasm to a high school classroom?

Yes, high school students are not college students. Teenagers are difficult and there are some major management issues associated with showing movies. Thus, in order to teach films in the classroom most effectively, there are a few guidelines we should follow. My boss, Kim Birbrower, and I put our heads together and came up with the following teaching tips:

1. Do your own homework. To prepare, watch the film yourself before you show it to your class. Take special note of places to pause for discussion. Jot down questions as you watch and take note of segments that might be confusing or require extra facilitation.
2. Provide background information where necessary. It is important to provide students with background information so that when they start watching they don't lose time trying to figure out "where they are." You may need to provide information on the setting or time period in which the film takes place, background on the issues that the film addresses, or the cultural context in which the film was made.
3. Relate the film to your students' lives. Prior to starting the film, plan an "empathy-building" or "connection-making" activity for your students that can start them thinking about the larger issues or themes in the film, and how they relate to their own lives. This way, they are primed to make a connection.
4. Teach the language of film. You don't have to teach film theory, but providing students with some basic terms (such as cut, focus, frame, fade, and close-up) will help them articulate what they are seeing more easily.
5. Frame the film. Prepare questions and short activities that highlight what you want students to consider as they watch the film. For example, begin class with a pre-viewing discussion and end the class with a piece of reflective writing that points to the key aspects of why they are watching. This will help them know what to keep an eye out for as they continue watching.
6. Ensure active viewing. Provide your students with a note-taking sheet -- a table, a graphic organizer, or a set of as-you-watch questions. A great way to do this is to create a customized "viewing chart" with columns where students can identify particular scenes and then take notes on how these scenes relate to specific themes. This will allow them to actively process the information in the film.
7. Hold kids accountable. It doesn't have to be a quiz, but your daily discussions, homework assignments, journal entries, and/or viewing charts should eliminate lazy viewing, and can also serve as a short portfolio for self-assessment and future reference.
8. Assign viewing as homework. Maybe you don't have the time to devote a week to a film. Luckily, in today's technological landscape, it is often feasible to assign some viewing at home. Give your students a 30-minute teaser in class and assign the rest for homework. A lot of movies are streaming online, on Hulu, Netflix, SnagFilms and a number of other sites.
9. Don't let tech discourage you. Having to depend on a DVD player or projector for your lessons can be daunting. If possible, test out your device the afternoon before and cue up the film ahead of time so it's ready to go. If something goes wrong the day-of, consider having copies of an article or small group activity that relate to the film to serve as a backup.
10. You don't have to turn off the lights. Yes, most people argue that it's the most enjoyable way to watch a movie, but if you are worried about kids goofing off, keep the lights on.

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