Teachers Look to Film to Foster Critical Thinking

By Liana Loewus — August 15, 2013 9 min read
Lecturer Larry Knapp, left, leads a discussion of the opening scene of the movie "Malcolm X" at the Facets Summer Film Institute for teachers in Chicago, in a panoramic photo made up of multiple images.
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Twenty-one teachers sit in a small movie theater here watching a quick, dialogue-driven scene that culminates with Mark Zuckerberg, as played by actor Jesse Eisenberg, getting dumped by his girlfriend.

Larry Knapp, a film professor at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Ill., pauses “The Social Network” and asks the teachers why they think Zuckerberg is wearing a gray Gap sweatshirt.

They throw out varied analyses: It shows that Mr. Zuckerberg does not want to stand out—he’s uncomfortable in public. It’s an all-American brand and, as the inventor and CEO of Facebook, he embodies the American dream. It symbolizes the “gap” in communication between him and his girlfriend.

These educators, who work in a wide range of subjects and grade levels, are participating in a five-day intensive “film camp” through Facets Multimedia, a nonprofit arts organization in Chicago. The camp is a small-scale effort to promote the use of film studies in the K-12 classroom.

Resources for K-12 Film Studies

Despite the fact that film studies is not widely taught in K-12 classrooms, curricula and resources are available for teachers looking to incorporate film into their lessons. Places to start include:

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences
An educator-outreach page offers a series of free “teachers’ guides.” It includes an activity page for teaching students to “read a film.”

This site, hosted by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association, allows users to search for lesson ideas for using film in the classroom, including one on teaching Elie Wiesel’s Night in conjunction with “Life Is Beautiful.”

Australian Teachers of Media
ATOM offers study guides for feature films and documentaries, as well as other resources, including Screen Education magazine.

This free site has an expansive collection of movie clips teachers can show in the classroom.

Prentice Hall Media Studio
This Pearson product has lesson plans and activities focused on helping students make sense of film, news, and advertising. Clips are included. The bundle for each grade costs about $330.

Media Literacy Clearinghouse
Media-literacy consultant Frank W. Baker calls himself a “resource guy,” and his website offers evidence. See his page on film study and suggested readings on the “language of film.”

—Liana Heitin

While film-studies classes are common in higher education, the idea that a film should be taught as an academic text with younger students is still nascent.

“That doesn’t mean teachers are not showing film,” said John Golden, the author of Reading in the Dark: Using Film as a Tool in the English Classroom. “They’re absolutely showing film. But in terms of giving kids the language to talk about and learn film, there’s very little pedagogy going on.”

Critical viewing, a foundation of film literacy, is more than just putting on a movie or showing the film adaptation of a novel. Like critical reading, it’s a way of analyzing the components of a text and the choices made during its creation—key emphases, film-studies proponents point out, of the Common Core State Standards.

Of those teachers who are teaching critical viewing in the classroom, most tend to be English teachers, said Frank W. Baker, a consultant in media-literacy education and the author of Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom. Nearly all film literacy is being taught at the high school level, he said.

Proponents of media studies, like Mr. Golden, also an English teacher and instructional specialist in the 46,000-student Portland, Ore., district, argue that critical viewing of film should be an essential part of instruction—not just something taught by film buffs at the high school level. Students are bombarded by visual images, said Mr. Golden, especially now with the proliferation of mobile devices on which to view them. They’re “subject to so much manipulation,” he explained, including stereotyping, veiled biases, and false claims. “I don’t think we can say students are literate anymore if we’re not giving them the language to talk about visual media and film.”

Analyzing ‘Texts’

Jessica Keigan, an English teacher in the 44,000-student Adams 12 Five Star Schools in Thornton, Colo., received an undergraduate minor in film and spent a semester interning in the film industry in Los Angeles before becoming a teacher. For her, it was only natural to incorporate film into her classes. Now in her 11th year of teaching, she uses film about 25 percent of the time in her English classes.

See Also

See examples of films that teachers say can contribute to classroom lessons.

Ms. Keigan explains that she typically incorporates film “as a springboard for critical reading.” For instance, when introducing students to the different “levels” of literary analysis—from simple recall to complex thinking—she often starts by showing the Pixar short film “Boundin’.” After watching the four-minute short about a dancing sheep who loses his wool, she begins by asking students questions about the storyline. She moves on to questions about “what the filmmaker is doing symbolically” and then about how the film compares with other hero stories the students have seen or read. “Film gives me a chance to teach the thinking skill without having to do the reading skill as well,” she said.

Edna Camacho, an English teacher in the Weslaco Independent school district, which serves 19,000 students in Weslaco, Texas, initially began using film as a reward—students watched “Of Mice and Men” after completing the novel. Soon after, though, “I realized I could’ve done a lot more with the film if I used it as a text,” she said.

Now, she pairs novels and films with similar themes to hone her students’ critical-thinking skills. For instance, her students read the book Night by Eli Wiesel and watch the movie “Life Is Beautiful,” both of which center on Jewish characters’ experience of the Holocaust. She asks students to find similarities in the relationships in the stories, to look for archetypes in each, and to consider what the author or director does to evoke feeling. “The same type of figurative language you use with literature, we use with film,” she said.

Another way to exercise critical thinking with film, Mr. Knapp told teachers at the film camp in Chicago, is to have students look for motifs, or distinctive patterns. Mr. Knapp illustrated that by showing the opening credits of Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” in which an American flag burns until only the shape of an X is left. The teachers identified “reinvention” and “a changing America” among the motifs illustrated by that image. “If you set up this way of looking at a film,” said Mr. Knapp, “usually students will start looking for other motifs.”

For Ms. Camacho, one of the great benefits of using film is its accessibility. In the cases of students with learning disabilities and English-language learners, she noticed that film “kind of loosened them up. ... It opened the door for them to start conversations in class.”

Mr. Golden said he sometimes refers to film in the classroom as “the great equalizer” because it gives even the most reticent reader a chance to display understanding and deep thinking.

Consortia Plans

The higher-order thinking skills that students learn in analyzing film transfer to other mediums, say film-instruction proponents. “In my absolute gut, I’m convinced it makes them stronger readers when we talk about print text,” said Mr. Golden. When asked to analyze, for instance, tone in the novel The Great Gatsby, his students have already “used and practiced and discussed in really accessible terms those literary devices in film.”

And while studying film in K-12 is far from widespread, the new common standards could breathe some life into the idea: The English/language arts standards require students to analyze texts of all kinds, and several standards mention film as an example text type.

“Analysis is the word of the day with common core,” said Ms. Keigan. “You’re reading to understand the deep symbolic meaning of a text.” Film and other art forms are good ways “to practice those thinking skills.”

Mr. Golden said the standards’ emphasis on nonfiction could lead to more teachers showing documentary films. However, because the standards that mention film predominately ask students to compare two presentations of a text, he worries that teachers will simply show film adaptations of books. “The problem for me is [film literacy] is not explicitly called out as much as I’d wished” in the standards, he said.

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which is designing computer-based tests aligned to the common standards, plans to include items asking students to “read and analyze one digital source,” PARCC spokesperson Chad Colby wrote in an email. That source could be “a video, a narrated slide show, a podcast, etc.”

Pilot tests from the competing assessment consortium, Smarter Balanced, initially included items asking students to watch and analyze video clips. However, many piloting schools had technical difficulties, including insufficient broadband. The videos have since been eliminated, said Brandt Redd, the chief technology officer for Smarter Balanced. In addition, for initial stages of implementation, both consortia plan to offer paper-and-pencil testing options, which would likely preclude the use of video.

Even so, Mr. Baker, the consultant, sees the conversations around including the use of video components on tests as a start. “The fact that these national assessments have acknowledged the visual-media world in which our students reside, and are planning to incorporate images and video into tests, is yet another opportunity for us to teach film-literacy skills,” he said.

Considering that professional-development opportunities like the one at Facets are rare, many teachers who might like to incorporate film into their lessons may not know where to start. Ms. Camacho, the Texas teacher, suggests they read well-written film reviews to learn “the basics of what it takes to make a film—acting, music, camera angles.” Mr. Baker advises teachers to watch the extras at the ends of DVDs for analysis and insights on the filmmaking process.

Mr. Golden, the Reading in the Dark author, believes all teachers can and should incorporate film. “It takes 25 minutes to get an introduction to film terminology,” he said. “It’s not super esoteric—it’s pretty obvious.” The challenge from there, he said, is that teachers “have to be willing to give students this vocabulary .... and to ask kids to look at film this way.”

Classroom Cinema

Teachers share their suggestions for films that can contribute to classroom lessons.

< >

Stage Beauty
Director: Richard Eyre
Used by: Jessica Keigan

Ms. Keigan shows clips from the film to discuss directorial decisionmaking and varied interpretations of William Shakespeare’s “Othello.”

1 of 11

Directors: Bud Luckey and Roger Gould
Used by: Jessica Keigan

Ms. Keigan uses this Pixar short to teach archetypes and levels of analysis, and for general skill building around film analysis.

2 of 11

Run Lola Run
Director: Tom Tykwer
Used by: Jessica Keigan

Clips from this German film are used in Ms. Keigan’s classroom to analyze narrative elements.

3 of 11

Bowling for Columbine
Director: Michael Moore
Used by: John Golden

Mr. Golden uses clips from Moore’s 2002 documentary to discuss a director’s point of view and the concept of biases.

4 of 11

Director: Steven Spielberg
Used by: John Golden and Edna Camacho

After viewing selected clips from this blockbuster 1975 film, Mr. Golden’s class examines how the director shifts camera angles to show different characters’ points of view. Ms. Camacho uses the film to illustrate the importance of musical choices, showing a clip with the shark approaching as the iconic theme music plays.

5 of 11

Life Is Beautiful
Director: Roberto Benigni
Used by: Edna Camacho

Ms. Camacho pairs this film with the novel Night by Elie Wiesel to inspire discussion on archetypes and how a director or author evokes emotion.

6 of 11

Super Size Me
Director: Morgan Spurlock
Used by: John Golden

Mr. Golden shows the film during his unit on American literature, pairing it with books like The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser.

7 of 11

Edward Scissorhands
Director: Tim Burton
Used by: John Golden

Mr. Golden’s students explore themes like setting, atmosphere, and identity after watching sections of Burton’s 1990 film.

8 of 11

The Shining
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Used by: Edna Camacho

Ms. Camacho uses clips from Kubrick’s horror classic to discuss narrative techniques for building suspense, both in literature and in movies.

9 of 11

Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith
Director: George Lucas
Used by: Edna Camacho

Ms. Camacho has her class watch the full film and pairs the movie with Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” to discuss symbolism and the theme of family ties.

10 of 11

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Used by: John Golden

Mr. Golden pairs clips from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 thriller with Edgar Allan Poe’s writing to teach students about setting and foreshadowing.

11 of 11

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Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 21, 2013 edition of Education Week as Teachers Look to Film to Foster Critical Thinking


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