Effectively Using Film in the Classroom

Shawnda Moss

A recent survey of young adults found that, on average, each had watched 22 films in the preceding month. Similar surveys in the popular press report that the average high school student views up to six hours of television a day. Specialists currently advocate limiting severely the time a young person spends in front of the television. Reports are printed daily about how the passivity of the television and film contribute to shorter attention spans and hyperactivity in children and youth. So with all of this negative attention on media, it is easy to ask why in the world anyone would want to push the statistics even further by introducing film into the classroom. The obvious temptation for a teacher to pop a movie into the VCR or DVD player—the educational equivalent of TV as babysitter—is what makes districts and states enact strict guidelines about proper use of films in educational settings. However, on the other side of the statistics and anxiety is a baby in serious jeopardy of being tossed out with the proverbial bathwater: if the moving image holds such great sway over the minds of the young, the cinema must also represent a great, and relatively untapped reserve of educational power, as teachers who have experimented with film in the classroom can attest. Used correctly, films can provide a concrete focus for instruction in the classroom. Viewed either in short segments (clips) or in their entirety, films can provide a new learning experience and a dynamic supplement to traditional lecture or textbook formats.

There are three steps to keep in mind when sharing a film in class: pre-viewing, viewing, and post-viewing. Pre-viewing means to activate the students background knowledge of the film and explain the purposes in showing that particular film or clip. It could include discussing the theme or historical or theoretical context, teaching about genre, or introducing vocabulary used in the film. Viewing time should be spent completing a specific task given to the students to perform while watching the film. They could follow an individual character, answer questions about content, or compare and contrast aspects of the film. Post-viewing discussion and assessment is necessary in order to relate the film and its message or theme to the topic at hand, the students’ individual lives, or to their understanding of the world in general.

Following these three steps gives educators access to the unique educational properties of film and allows them to take students into a realm of dynamic learning they cannot reach any other way. Film’s ability to teach crosses the curriculum and touches all areas of education. English classes can review narrative structure and determine the function of characters. History teachers can teach the concept of historiography with both fictional and documentary films. People and places can be brought to life for geography lessons. Music teachers can point out how music manipulates mood and enhances or subverts the meaning of the visual images in film. Art departments can see the value of the various design elements of film, especially animation or formalism. Young scientists can explore the processes and systems they are testing in their labs. Theatre students can analyze acting techniques and performances. Observing and understanding the role of social groups and politics in films can improve even a citizenship mark. And the list goes on. Each classroom can gain similar, basic skills if film is used effectively: stronger literary criticism, varied interpretation, increase in reading and writing skills, enthusiasm for further reading and study, and increased communication.

The positive results of using film in the classroom are significant. Film can provide a visual image and a sensory experience that cannot be generated with the same magnitude elsewhere. Film can give life and dramatize a specific idea or activity that otherwise might go unnoticed. It can personalize history and provide a means to study the past as an active participant rather than a passive observer. Film can be a catalyst for class discussions and debate. Film links disciplinary perspectives and can serve specific courses or units in conjunction with other media. Theoretical issues can be enlarged on the screen than can motivate writing and promote further research on a subject, event, or person. Teachers who use film to supplement their teaching can reach students who may find other media inaccessible or difficult. With preparation and careful attention, film can be an intellectually stimulating and emotionally meaningful tool in an educator’s belt.

See Also

Developing Literate Thinking through Family Film Discussions

Of Mice and Men

Not One Less

A Man for All Seasons