Published Online: November 20, 2013

How Leonardo DiCaprio Is Helping Me Teach the Common Core

In the spring of 2012, I was filled with fangirl frenzy when I came across the first trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby. One of my favorite directors working with one of my favorite actors (Leo!) to adapt one of my favorite books—what could be better? I saw an opportunity to relive the magical high school spring when I watched "Romeo + Juliet" on the big screen no fewer than eight times…

More importantly, though, I saw an opportunity to engage my students.

I don’t know about you, but most of my high school English teachers showed movies—usually an adaptation of a full-length book—as a “reward” for finishing the reading. There were no classroom discussions about film technique. No questions to gauge our ability as students to analyze various artistic representations of a theme (i.e., CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7). No opportunity to meet rigorous standards, like our new Common Core State Standards.

Sixteen years after the “spring of Leo,” I teach in an integrated, humanities-style classroom that pairs social studies with English language arts in a co-taught, blocked course. The beauty of this program is that it offers the opportunity to teach both the historical context and the literary/artistic response in a seamless way. My essential questions, or themes around which I develop my instruction, are simple:

• How is art timeless?
• How is art also a product of its time?

As a teacher, I work intentionally to help my students observe, synthesize, and form coherent arguments about film adaptations of texts.

Step-By-Step Process

Last December, I suggested some steps for using film effectively to teach the common standards. I explained that providing students with leveled approaches to interpretation can be helpful. This allows me to push my readers and thinkers toward deeper interpretation of any visual text that I bring into my classroom. Students start with literary analysis, move to cinematic/dramatic analysis, then conduct critical analysis.

My students have already had some practice with these types of analyses. In previous units this semester, we’ve practiced reading visual texts from late 19th-century American history to better understand how artwork is reflective of historical trends and cultural attitudes. In addition, we have looked at early examples of film, such as Charlie Chaplin’s "Gold Rush," and discussed both the historical impact of the art form as well as the multi-layered messages early filmmakers created.

Connection to a Time Period

Luhrmann’s adaptation of the text is not the first Gatsby to hit the silver screen, nor will it likely be the last. The themes addressed in Fitzgerald’s book can translate to a variety of contexts, yielding many ways for us to engage with the text.

Cue the teachable moment.

Just as authors are influenced by their worlds, filmmakers (however subtly or inadvertently) mark their art with the time period in which it is created.

After reading the novel, my students will watch excerpts from two film versions. In 1974, Robert Redford took on the role of Jay Gatsby in a slowly paced, overly stylized adaptation directed by Jack Clayton. Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation, by contrast, is filled with mash-up versions of hip-hop and jazz music. The film’s pace is best described as frenetic. Both films are as connected to the time period in which they were made as the novel is to its own publication date.

Pairing the text with the films will allow me to ask students to dig deeper into the idea that an artist is never able to escape his or her context. I can then have them analyze why this is significant.

The standards ask us to provide opportunities for students to analyze multiple interpretations of a text and evaluate the choices of the artist interpreting the source material (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7). Asking students to examine multiple film adaptations of a text gives them a basis for this conversation.

The Lesson in Practice

My students started reading the novel this week. Many have already seen the new film and were much more excited about reading this book than is typical. They even asked me to skip all the “teacher talk” at the beginning so we could dive right into the book. Those familiar with The Great Gatsby will know that once students are immersed in it, some will become a little overwhelmed by Fitzgerald’s prose and vocabulary.

To counteract that feeling and to prepare them for our comparative analysis later this month, I chose a focus for our reading that will also be our focus for viewing. That is, I won’t just pose a wide-open and intimidating question, like, “How are these texts products of their times?” Instead, I will ask students to pay attention to how Fitzgerald portrays the “American dream”—and how different characterization techniques provide useful information about Fitzgerald’s purpose.

Once we’ve finished reading the text, I will use clips from both film versions and ask them to analyze what influenced each filmmaker in his choices about character development. I will ask them to consider Fitzgerald’s rhetorical purpose as well as Luhrmann’s and Clayton’s.

With this analysis in mind, we will return to our larger essential questions in a formal discussion about how the American dream takes on different meanings depending on the era from which it is investigated.

More Movies

The Great Gatsby is not the only text that works for this kind of thinking/activity. I have used a similar approach to help students examine the symbolic nature of science fiction writing during the Cold War era. Later this year, we’ll discuss the progression of metaphors in various interpretations of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.

This activity can also work well when there is no literary source text. "Titanic" (Leo again!) is a great film to analyze for director James Cameron’s parallel social commentary about the world of the Gilded Age in 1912 and the late 1990s in America. The portrayal of class struggles and the forward-thinking Rose offer fodder for discussion of the recurring themes of 20th-century history.

One of my favorite things about the implementation of the common-core standards is the freedom to push kids beyond identification and basic comprehension. Asking students to grapple with texts of all kinds and to look at how those texts are connected can help them engage more deeply with what they read and view.

In the meantime, this English teacher is patiently waiting for Leo to continue his streak of literary film adaptations (Hamlet maybe? A girl can dream!). More importantly, though, I am constantly looking for ways to push my students towards deeper levels of understanding about all kinds of text—and the contexts from which they come.

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