Published Online: March 4, 2014

How Movies Can Connect Students to Writing and the Common Core

As the focus on high-stakes testing increases, I worry that my students are only being prepared to think and write in one way: the way the tests ask them to. When my state adopted the Common Core State Standards, I immediately began wondering how I could help my students meet its requirements—especially with writing.

As I started brainstorming, I found myself turning to movies. I discovered I could use film to create writing assignments that would engage students and help them develop key skills required by the common standards, such as using evidence to support claims, analyzing literary and informational texts, and using precise words, telling details, and sensory language.

English teacher Nancy Barile uses
English teacher Nancy Barile uses "Bowling for Columbine," a documentary by Michael Moore, in her film course.
—WikiMedia

I was also drawn to movies because students love watching them. After viewing a film, students often have strong opinions that they want to discuss. They may debate a movie's message or share how a particular film relates to their own lives. Film even engages reluctant learners by dramatizing events and personalizing history.

A few years ago, I launched a "Film, Writing, and the Common Core" (FWCC) course as an English language arts elective at my school. It has become so popular that we now offer two sections. Since starting this course, I've seen my students become excited about writing in new ways. They are anxious to explore ideas like race, class, gender, and other issues that impact them as teenagers. Writing about film also gives them a much-needed opportunity to develop their own voice through class discussion and writing.

Here are some things I've learned in trying to make film projects work.

Choose films that students probably haven't seen before—such as classics like "One Flew Over Cuckoo's Nest" and "Do the Right Thing," or sleepers like "Breaking Away" and "Billy Elliot." I'm not going to lie—most movies I show are personal favorites. A teacher's enthusiasm can be contagious!

Sample Lessons

Film: "Bowling for Columbine"

Student writing piece: Synthesis essay

Standards addressed: Examining multiple sources of information to make informed decisions and solve problems (RI.11-12.7); evaluating the accuracy of sources (W.11-12.1a); and presenting findings and evidence while addressing opposing perspectives (W.11-12.7).

Lesson Description: Students begin by reading expert Keith Beattie's definition of a documentary as a film that "represents the observable world." Then they watch director Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine." Next, they read the Free Republic article "Bowling for Columbine: Documentary or Fiction?" which argues that Moore's movie is fiction and not a true documentary. Students also watch the YouTube video "Six Degrees From Truth: Michael Moore" which claims that "Bowling for Columbine" is loaded with fallacies, misinformation, and visual manipulation. After reading Moore's rebuttal to these criticisms on his website, students evaluate each source and synthesize all the information in an essay to decide whether "Bowling for Columbine" is a true documentary.

Film: "Fatal Attraction"

Student writing piece: Critique

Standards addressed: Collaborative discussions (SL.9-10.1); feminist critique of a film, TV show, or music video (Massachusetts Reading Literature Standard 8).

Lesson Description: Watching "Fatal Attraction" in class is always an enormous amount of fun (parents/guardians sign a permission slip, and I fast-forward through the particularly steamy scenes). I can assure you that no one is ever absent on day two's viewing.

After watching the film, students read a feminist critique (written in college, by yours truly) and begin to see the movie through a new lens. They discuss gender roles in the film and then write their own feminist critique of another film, TV show, or music video. Students choose a wide variety of media to examine, from "Batman" to "Friday Night Lights", and analyze gender stereotypes and portrayals of gender. An assignment like this causes an "awakening" to gender issues that carries over to students' critical analysis of other films and books (and often results in students telling me I've ruined some movies for them forever).

Film: "Pretty Woman"

Student writing piece: Claim

Standards addressed: Asserting and defending a claim (W.11-12.1); and conveying what is experienced, imagined, thought, and felt (Massachusetts Speaking and Listening Standard 2).

Lesson outline: After watching "Pretty Woman", students (who are reading "Hamlet" in their English class at the same time) analyze Polonius' observation that "apparel oft proclaims the man." A lively discussion ensues about Vivian's transformation from street prostitute to social doyenne merely by adjusting her wardrobe. I ask students: Is changing your social identity as simple as changing your clothes?

We then pursue a sociological experiment in which students come to school dressed differently than normal. They don't wear costumes; instead, they attempt to transform themselves through their clothing. After the experiment, I ask students to respond to Polonius' statement based on their own experience. Allowing students to test a hypothesis and take part in a real-life experiment that explores social behavior is extremely powerful.

Have parents/guardians sign permission slips, especially for R-rated movies. On the slip, stress that the movie is relevant to the learning process and that the student will be viewing the film under your supervision.

Read reviews and criticisms about movies online. See if there is an interesting topic that could launch a powerful writing assignment. That's how I decided to connect the cult classic "The Warriors" with the famous Battle of Cunaxa at Babylon. It's also how I came up with the idea of having students write a psychological analysis of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" in which they tried to uncover why the birds attacked people.

Sit down with the standards and brainstorm which movies might help you nail each benchmark. I was looking for compelling ways to have students demonstrate an understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meaning (L.9-10.5). After showing "The Graduate," I had students listen to Simon and Garfunkel's "Sound of Silence" album and reflect on the lyrics, which mirror the main character Ben's isolation and alienation. Students then wrote soundtracks for their own lives, paying particular attention to the facets of the standard.

Think about specific issues that affect your students. An exploration of negative cultural stereotypes in "Sixteen Candles" launched some of the most exciting discourse I've ever heard in class. Examining the challenges immigrants experience in a new country, in connection with "Bend It Like Beckham," also resonated with my students, many of whom only recently came to the U.S. themselves.

Consider what pedagogical approaches and technology you can use to engage students. I use "flipped" learning to facilitate learning through discovery. I create instructional and background videos that help students practice grammatical concepts and learn more about historical periods. Students also use technology like Google Docs to collaborate on projects and graphic design software to design movie posters based on advertising and marketing theory.

Invite a wide range of students to participate. My FWCC course has proven especially effective for English-language learners and students with learning disabilities or behavioral problems. During the first course, I was worried about getting butts in seats, so I went to guidance and told them to put any "hard-to-place" or "at-risk" kids in the class. Later, it became apparent that the diversity of the class was one of the main reasons for its success.

Adapting Movies for Your Classroom

You don't have to create a separate film course to use these strategies. Film can be used effectively in almost every English language arts classroom and elective. For example, you can easily pair movies with literature, such as a coming-of-age movie when you're studying Catcher in the Rye. And film is certainly not limited to the ELA classroom—it can spark compelling discussions and powerful writing in history, social studies, technology, science, music, and art classes as well. If you're looking to hit nearly every standard in the common standards, a course like this is a fun, engaging, and effective way to do it!

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