Developing Literate Thinking through Family Film Discussions

Sarah Olson

When I was a high school English teacher, my attempts to discuss literature with my students frequently evoked disgruntled reluctance. “Why can’t we just read the book?” they’d ask, dragging their intellectual feet. “Why do we have to talk about it?” My short pep talks and didactic answers sometimes helped momentarily, but their willingness to discuss theme, plot structure, and character development (among other things) would inevitably wane, sputter, extinguish far before the end of the literature unit.

And the truth is, current language arts curricula, as mandated by local, state, and federal policy, are dramatically increasing the scope of the English teacher’s responsibility. Gone are the days when English class was even primarily about literature. Formally, teachers are currently required to teach something of what Judith Langer calls “literate thinking,” which includes, and in fact often emphasizes, the ability to decode information in an informed and analytical way in any manner of presentation.1 This is often incarnated as reading or working with informational or functional texts, texts designed strictly for informational or utility purposes, such as bus schedules, how-to manuals, encyclopedia entries, and scientific articles. This leaves even less time in the English curriculum year for us teachers to delve into the lifeblood of our discipline—the words that teach the complex issues of humanity, that expand experience and extend understanding, that lift and build and heal.

With ever less classroom time devoted to the literary arts, it becomes increasingly important that we use well the time we do have, and wrenching analysis out of unwilling students can feel like a frustrating waste. One solution has to do with the students’ relative preparedness and confidence in their ability to discuss a text.

Though films are absolutely valuable studies in and of themselves—as art, information, and/or entertainment—they can also be opportunities for family discussions, which can help students better understand other literary texts, including those they’ll encounter in high school English classes. Parents can help students develop literate thinking, in part, through discussions about films they and their families watch. If parents begin early to talk about films in literary ways with their children, then when their children enter secondary English classrooms, those students will be better prepared for instruction and discussions about literature and literary analysis, and about the art and humanity of language.

Following are two lists to help you as parents begin to lead family film discussions. The first is a list of general techniques to guide you as you speak with your children. The second is a list of statements/questions that you can import or adapt for discussion of virtually any film. Remember that the goal in discussing films this way is to help your children become literate thinkers, thus the target should be discussion rather than lecture.

General Techniques

1. Try to ask questions or discuss the issues that really intrigue you. If your children know that you have not yet formed concrete and full opinions or views about a topic, they may be more willing to engage.

2. Speak honestly. Not only is this important from an ethical perspective, but honesty is often provocative. In my classroom, I discovered that my students weren’t used to being addressed honestly or frankly, and consequently, I felt they were more open and responsive to my questions and statements than they might have been.

3. If your child is resisting, don’t push. Short but honest one-sided discussions can plant seeds for future discussions. And sometimes, we all of us, don’t want to talk.

4. Remember: analysis (rather than moralizing) is the goal. Morality will come in, too; parents will have ample opportunity to express your opinions and beliefs about moral issues, as part of the larger literary discussions, but the goal is to develop literate thinkers, not to express didactic moral messages. Be sensitive to when and how frequently your comments are didactic rather than evocative.

5. Remember: your child may (a) disagree with you, and (b) may make unsophisticated analyses at first. The important thing is to engage your child in a process: help them learn to support their opinions with references to the text/film. Even if you disagree with their opinions, be willing to concede what validity their points have and be proud of their ability to disagree in an informed way. As the discussions continue, everyone’s ability to analyze and discuss will improve.

Possible Discussion Leads

Research suggests that children may be so accustomed to being asked questions by schoolteachers and adults that questions, in fact, are not always the best way to open a discussion.2 Thus, each of the ten following prompts are presented in both statement and question format, allowing you to pursue discussions in whichever way most effectively prompts and/or continues them.

1. This movie reminded me of [another film, text, etc.] because/in that…

• Have you ever seen a book or a movie that reminds you of the one we just saw? What was it? What about that reminds you of the one we just saw?

2. The part of this film that I enjoyed the most was …

• What was your favorite part of the film? Why?

3. You know, it felt like the whole movie pivoted around [the film’s climax]. I thought this was/wasn’t a satisfying climax or turning point because…

• What do you think was the most important moment in the movie? Did the movie have a turning point? What was it? Was it satisfying or effective for you, or were you disappointed by it? Why?

4. You know, [character’s name] really reminded me of [actual person, character from same text or from another text] because…

• Did any of the characters remind you of people you know? Which ones? Why?

5. When [character’s name] did…it really reminded me of me because…

• Did anything about any of the characters remind you of yourself? Were there any characters you identified with? How? Why?

6. The filmmakers (the people who made this movie) really seemed to be emphasizing that [theme of the movie]. I do/don’t agree with that because…

• What do you think the filmmakers (the people who made this movie) wanted us to take away/learn from the film? What do you think the point was? Is that a good point? Do you agree/disagree with it? Do you think it’s a valuable lesson? Why or why not?

7. While I didn’t think…was as effective as it could be because…, I really liked…because…

• What about the movie did you like? What about the movie didn’t you like? Was it worth seeing even though you didn’t…?

8. While I enjoyed/understood…about this film, I felt like it was really meant for [target audience].

• Who do you think the filmmakers wanted to enjoy this film? Do you think they were making it for people like you or for some other group of people? Who do you think the target audience was? Why or why not? What did you enjoy/understand about the film?

9. If I were going to tell someone who hadn’t seen this movie about the movie, I would probably say [one or two sentences of plot summary].

• How would you explain what happened in the film or what the film was about to someone who hadn’t seen it? Can you do it in just one or two sentences?

10. If I were going to tell someone who hadn’t seen this movie what I thought about the movie, I would probably say [one or two sentences of summative commentary].

• How would you summarize your response to the movie to someone who hadn’t seen it? Can you do it in just one or two sentences and still make it specific?

Conclusion

As you and your family discuss the films you watch together, you may find that your understanding and enjoyment of movies increase, your ability to communicate with your family increases, and your opportunities for loving instruction and enjoyable family moments increase. In the end, family film discussions may help your family become not only literate thinkers, but also a closer, more communicative, and more sharing unit.

Endnotes

1. See Langer, J.A. (2004, May 4). Developing literate minds. IRA Cosponsored Reading Hall of Fame Session. Retrieved May 17, 2004 from the World Wide Web: http://cela.albany.edu/

2. See Dillon, J.T. (1988). Questioning and teaching: A manual of practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

See Also

Film in the Classroom