SOME THOUGHTS ON HOW TO SHOW
THE FULL-LENGTH FEATURE FILM
Whenever possible, a study guide for showing a full-length feature film should begin with a previewing prompt that will hint at one of the themes in the film. An example is in the following section. Remember that this is the connecting stage of engaging students. Try to keep the prompt as personal and meaningful to the students’ schemata as possible, so that they will have some voluntary and active participation in answering the writing prompt. Hold a discussion after the students have had a chance to write on the prompt. If you feel it is necessary to involve your students more aggressively, then hold the discussion before you ask the students to write. This gives them a chance to think and organize their thoughts on the subject, and if your students are in the category of at-risk as are mine, then it will help them write that first sentence or paragraph that is always the most difficult to write.
As the film unfolds, it is important to have opportunities where the students can see the tie in of the previewing prompt to the theme of the film. When you are sure your students have not seen a film previously, have them make predictions as to what’s going to happen in the film based upon the previewing prompt.
If your school has the flexibility of arranging block time or is set up with the concept of small learning communities, the best schedule for presenting a full-length film is to block an entire day of five to six hours. This allows time for the connecting stage to be fully developed for those films that do not fall with the blue circle (see graphic page___) or have a built in connectivity to our students’ schemata. It also permits time to concentrate on the involving stage when you can present graphic organizers such as the KWL or the anticipation guide. It allows time to view the film with only minor breaks every hour and time to hold a complete and thorough discussion of the film between breaks (very important).
My school had a small staff that specialized in at-risk students. We had the kind of flexibility that many large schools lack. Our staff chose Fridays for scheduling the film class. In the past, this was a problem day because many students were absent on Fridays to get a head start on weekend parties. Our attendance fell as low as 30 to 40 per cent of normal. After initiating the film class to run all day long on Fridays, it became our best-attended day.
If it is not possible to implement an all-day schedule or the decision is made not to do so, here is a technique for presenting the film using a schedule based upon five, one-hour periods. These periods may occur on one or several days or even stretched out over five days. If the viewing must happen over several days, there are advantages even in light of one major disadvantage: students (especially at-risk) may not attend all the days of the viewing of the film. Then there is the problem of students who have not viewed the entire film attempting to analyze very difficult writing and discussion prompts.
THE FIRST HOUR (NON-VIEWING)
This is the connecting stage. This is the time in the teaching schedule that the instructor attempts to tap into or connect to the schemata and prepare the students for the literature (film) that follows.
Regardless of whether the class is scheduled for one day or over five days, previewing activities should take place during the first few hours of this connecting stage.
It is during the first hour that any previewing writing prompts should be introduced. Previewing writing prompts should be associated with the theme of the film to be shown. For example, before showing The Bronx Tale, the students might be asked to identify what role peer pressure plays in their lives. How influenced are they by the attitudes and customs of their friends? Have they done anything they regretted under the pressure of their friends? This leads into the theme of growing up in a working class Italian neighborhood and the decisions that a young man has to face on his journey to manhood.
I have included three examples of graphic organizers that work well with the connecting stage: the KWL, the Anticipation Guide, and the Concept Questioning, which is Janet Allen’s Word Questioning graphic organizer adapted from the word to the concept. (Allen)
The K part of the KWL represents what the students know about the issue. For example, if the film Platoon is the featured film, the instructor might begin previewing activities with a KWL on the Viet Nam war. Using large chart paper or a white board, the instructor could label three columns with a K, a W and an L. In the first column, the students brainstorm everything that they know about Viet Nam. The teacher should serve as facilitator, but not hesitate to correct anything is not factual during the brainstorming. After the students have explored what they know about the subject (guided into areas related to the film), the instructor should move into the W phase of the organizer, what the students want to know. Here any questions that the students might have that were not answered by the K phase can be charted. The L phase, or what the students have learned, can be charted either before the viewing of the film or afterward. I prefer to use that part of the organizer as the final project for the day.
It is also possible to have the KWL as a part of the film study guide for the students to complete individually, but I like to conduct this part of the connecting stage as a charting exercise as outlined above. Sometimes I have the students break into small groups to work cooperatively and then report out.
THE CONCEPT QUESTIONING
This organizer works very well when one particular concept can be applied to a film in some way. For example, before showing To Kill A Mockingbird, the concept, prejudice, might be taken and broken down into a whole group discussion with the teacher charting while the students discuss the concept according to dictates of the graphic organizer. (See the included example.) The concept-questioning organizer looks at a particular concept from every approach and angle and therefore is very effective for understanding complex or difficult concepts. Also, as in the KWL, cooperative groups who discuss and report out their results can use this device.
THE ANTICIPATION GUIDE
With this guide, the students’ attitude about the theme of the film is charted and then charted again after viewing the film to see if there has been any movement in attitude. It is a very effective device if the film has impacted on the students and a true movement has occurred. A discussion about why such movement has taken place can be initiated. I have only mentioned three, but there are many other graphic organizers that can be used in the connecting stage. Almost any organizer used for literature can be adapted for the film.
Just before starting the film, I emphasize the importance of the double entry log or journal that is included in almost every film study guide that I prepare. On the left hand side of the log, the students are asked to note the scenes in the film that have an impact on them (either favorable or unfavorable); in the right hand column, they are asked to react to the scenes they have noted in the left hand column. The double entry log or journal is an important part of each student’s evaluation of the film being shown. They are reminded that they can note the scenes during the showing of the film and wait until the end of the film to record their reaction.
APPLYING THE RECIPROCAL TEACHING PROCESS
The very effective reciprocal teaching (RT) process, original developed by Annemarie Palincsar and Ann Brown, can be applied in partnership with film to increase literacy skills in the classroom. The technique of reciprocal teaching applies the four key strategies of questioning, clarifying, summarizing and predicting to help students collaborate together to make meaning out of text. I have used the four techniques in many different ways outside of the formal process of reciprocal teaching and found them to be very effective when used with other strategies and even when used as stand alone strategies.
The process appears to be very flexible for use with other strategies, since the four concepts of RT are the very things that good readers do when making meaning out of text. Adapting the strategies for use with film is more effective if the students have been trained in and have experience with applying the techniques in the formal RT process. By utilizing the approach in different environments, such as film for example, students and teachers can remain focused on RT, retaining the process so that students can keep it in mind when monitoring their own learning and thinking with text. In the chapter on utilizing film clips, a scene from the film, Cinderella Man, is used to illustrate how effective this technique can be.
The surface questions are the, who, what, where, and when questions that students seek to answer from the text. There is one correct answer and it can be found easily, so that you can actually “point to it.” The below the surface questions are those wonderful complexities that are very similar to Bloom’s Taxonomy: evaluation, synthesis, analysis, application and comprehension of text. In Reading Tree terms, the how, why, would, could, and should of the text, unlike the surface questions, have more than one answer and they might be very complex.
The wonderful effect of working in such a concept is that it provides students with a simple, step-by-step method for getting to the complex or higher thinking concepts illustrated by Bloom. By beginning with the surface facts in the text, the students can easily move on to more complex evaluation. The use of the next illustration is demonstrated in the chapter on how to use film clips in the classroom. It is an effective technique for using the concepts illustrated by the questioning tree.
THE IRONIC JOURNAL
The following is an example of the ironic journal, a graphic organizer that students can use to chart any examples of irony they can find in the film. The ironic journal should stand along side the double entry journal so that students can be constantly vigilant for any examples of irony that they might discover while viewing the film.
THE SECOND HOUR (BEGINS THE VIEWING)
After using the first hour (or hours—whatever it takes) to prepare the students for the film (the connecting stage), the instructor should attempt during this second hour to show the first third of the film. When at all possible, time the film so that the break in the second and third hours occurs at a critical moment in the film, called a crisis point. (See the accompanying graphic.) These are the times in a drama when a character in conflict has to make a decision. These are turning points in the flow of the drama and good places to pause and ask for predictions as to what the character might or might not do.
Obviously, asking for predictions will only be effective if the students have not seen the film before.
THE POWER OF PREDICTING
Predicting is a powerful tool to be used in reading or in viewing films or in any kind of presentation of a narrative where a story is being told. By asking students to make predictions about the outcome of a story, they are asked to buy into or take a risk that their judgments are correct. Predicting adds an additional level of engagement to the film. When students make predictions, they hypothesize what the film will be about. To do this, they must activate relevant background knowledge (schemata) that they possess. The students then have a purpose to increase their engagement in the film, either to confirm or disprove their hypotheses. Also, they can link the new knowledge to what they already know because they have already activated and made current their schemata. This strategy increases the students’ awareness of attempts by the director of the film to foreshadow or plant plot points for surprises or unusual twists in the story. It also alerts the students to crises or turning points in the plot where characters must make important decisions. If the film is one that is well known to the students, such as Silence of the Lamb or Goodfellas (both favorites with my students), instead of asking a predicting question, the students might be asked to reflect on or interpret certain behaviors of the characters. Giving the students something to consider between the different hours of the film viewing is important. If the break between viewing the different sections of the film stretches over night, as in the five day schedule, the question asked could be a writing prompt that is more involved than a prompt for the students to consider over a ten to fifteen minute break.
The third hour actually begins the second hour of viewing the film with a discussion of the question or writing prompt assigned at the first break. Keep the discussion brief because the students wish to get back into the film. (How long a discussion is held, of course, depends on the length of the break.)
But remember, this is a good time for guiding the students in building or connecting to their schemata. Answer any questions they might have and mention points in the film that might help them understand and better appreciate the film. For example, it is very important in The Truman Show to point out and define Truman’s normal world and the parts of it that have begun to unravel (the dropping of the light, for example— what does this mean?). Point out the role of the TV viewers in the film. You might equate the role of the viewers to the Greek chorus of Greek drama. Just before the break, give the students something to predict or think about over the next break.
Begin with short discussion or answers, but keep it brief for the film should be nearing the climax. At the end of the viewing of the film and before beginning the final discussion, I ask students to write their immediate response to the film before speaking with anyone about it. This is to create a climate so that everyone can react to the film without the influence of peer pressure (of course, some is inevitable). I then go around the circle and have everyone speak on their reaction to the film and how they rate it.
The questions I include in my study guides are demanding and challenging. I have taught for many years in different colleges and universities and would not hesitate to ask these questions of my college students. The complexities of the questions require the instructor to go over each one with the students before turning them loose to answer. If the students simply view the film and the instructor hands the questions over to the students to work on individually, then the complex study guides I prepare should not be used. The instructor will have to work much harder from the confusion of the students than if the questions had been discussed thoroughly from the beginning.
They at least must be allowed to work in small cooperative learning groups. The discussion aspect of the study guides is the bridge from the student’s schemata to the writing prompts. It helps students formulate their ideas, gain confidence, forge and temper their reactions and prepare themselves to put their ideas to paper.
I do not provide answers to the questions on my study guides because I believe that the most important aspect of questioning students about literature is to elicit their responses (make meaning), and later, to have them put their responses (or meaning) on paper. It is hoped that without my formulating answers to questions, the students and I undertake a journey of mutual discovery from our group discussions and arrive at a conclusion I may or may not have anticipated. Many times I have been pleasantly surprised by an answer.
It is very important at this point for the teacher to design activities that will help the students to extend their engagement with the film into other activities that relate to literacy. It may be research that comes out of the film (I have examples based upon each of the ten engaging films); it could be essays that attempt to extend their involvement by taking advantage of the interest in certain writing prompts in which students have shown an extraordinary engagement by their participation in group and small group discussions.
The following are examples from a film not included in the ten engaging films.
--Extension of the Afro-Americans participation in the post Civil War United States Army: Readings on the Buffalo Soldiers.
--Further readings on the Civil War: Popular novelists on the Civil War, such as Bruce Canton
--Fashions worn during the Civil War: A look at the dress and customs of the period. Research into the actual black regiments during the Civil War. How much was fact in the film; how much fiction?
--Analyzing the historical period of the film: What in the World? See the following graphic organizer on the following page.
Many of the teachers I have in my workshops are restricted from using the full-length film because of R or PG ratings. They are also frustrated by the demand for standardized testing which leaves little time for anything but the prescribed curriculum (and in many cases, not even that).
We don’t know what is going to happen to No Child Left Behind, but we can be confident that the trend toward increased standardized testing in the class room will continue which will restrict the high school teacher’s time and curriculum even more. No matter how busy your classroom, there are ways to utilize the film that can help make your teaching easier and still allow you to adhere to your teaching standards or prepare for standardized testing. And if you are careful in your selections, you don’t have to worry about R ratings.
We can utilize the most popular of our popular cultures by using a selected portion of a film—the film clip. When selected carefully and used properly, the clip of a film can have an impact on our students as forceful as the full-length feature. When integrated into a well-designed literacy curriculum, the film clip can facilitate the connection between your students and literature.
With the engaging films I have selected, I have provided writing prompts for utilizing portions of the films as journal starters and lead-ins to literacy concepts that both literature and the film share. There are even examples of cinema techniques to show the contrasts between literacy and the film. I have tried to emphasize how to use the film to carry your students on to other aspects of the language arts curriculum, ever mindful of the important last step in the CIE, the extending stage, the step that carries students into the realm of becoming lifelong learners.
THE FILM CLIP
USING A PART OF THE FILM TO TEACH
THE METAPHORS OF LITERATURE
In a very comprehensive book on the cinema, James Monaco observed that people who are highly experienced in film
“…see more and hear more than people who seldom go to the movies. Those who are more experienced are able to read a film better than (or perhaps differently than) those who are less experienced.”
Monaco devotes a chapter to examining the theories of the semiologists who laid the foundation of classifying film as a language, not a language in the sense of a language system like English, French, or Chinese where grammar can be studied and applied, but something like a language, something that is a very basic form of communication.
If film is viewed as a form of language, we might learn to read it better by employing some linguistic principals in much the same way we teach reading. Monaco says:
“Film is not a language, but is like language, and since it is like language, some of the methods that we use to study language might profitably be applied to a study of film…”(Monaco, 4)
We are aware, Monaco observes, that we must learn to read before we can attempt to enjoy or understand literature, but we tend to believe, mistakenly, that anyone can read a film…”(Monaco, 4) Because anyone can see a film, but not read or comprehend it, he suggests that we must teach viewers how to read the film much like we teach students how to read a book. This approach allows a film teacher to take the literary devices of language and apply them to the visual complexities of the film in much the same way that we use these devices to understand and appreciate our literature.
For many of us teaching in public schools, however, our students come to us with a limited knowledge of literature; therefore applying the literary devices of language to the visual complexities of the film seems to be placing the cart before the horse, at least for these students. Our purpose in teaching the complexities of literary devices is for students to better appreciate literature, not learn to “read” a film better. Our students are not condemned to be unable to comprehend a film because they have difficulty reading or appreciating the subtleties and complexities of the metaphors and figures of speech.
Because of their love and experience with film and other visual media, my students appear to be proficient in understanding and comprehending the subtleties of film much better than they are, all other factors being equal, in understanding and comprehending the subtleties of written or spoken language. I believe that many of the concepts that underlie the skills of literacy proficiency are the same as those underlying visual proficiency. I am speaking of the “the interrelatedness” of most of the skills involved in making meaning out of any form of communication, those skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing—skills that are interrelated and dependant upon good critical thinking. Therefore, it makes sense to me to utilize the concepts of film (for which students in my classes seem to have a head start) to understand the concepts of written and spoken literature.
Looking at film as a language offers a dynamic and unique approach for the film teacher, but it can also have a significant impact on how we utilize film in the language arts classroom in order to increase literacy skills.
In order to increase our students’ literacy skills, we should reverse the direction of Monaco’s approach. Instead of looking at film as a language in order to apply some of the methods that we use to study language for a better understanding and appreciation of film (which will be done, by the way, in the natural application of the film in our classroom), we should do the opposite. If we agree that film is like language (which permits us to use the metaphors of language to describe it), we should be able to utilize the exciting and dynamic singularity of film to teach the metaphors of written and spoken language. In other words, we use the overlapping concepts found in both media in order to strengthen our students’ understanding of how those concepts are utilized in literature.
Understanding the complexities of the literary devices of language is just another way to use film to connect our students to literature.
We know how popular film is with our students. We know that our students understand the visual arts in ways that those of us raised on reading can’t comprehend. We are aware that given the choice, our students would rather watch a film than read a book. Why not use the power that film seems to have over our students by connecting to the common literary concepts that both media share? In utilizing film as a language to teach language arts, we can emphasize the shared metaphorical styles of language and film and thus establish a common ground for leading students from the visual to the literary.
I have discovered that employing film in such a manner brings about an improvement in my students’ literacy skills when combined with a classroom emphasis on reading and writing. Not only can I use scenes from films as prompts for writing and discussion in journals and logs or as lead-ins to composing essays, but I can also more effectively exhibit various metaphorical and figures of speech techniques of language that authors use to enrich and increase communication in their work.
It is in both the similarities and dissimilarities of the metaphorical styles and figures of speech found both in language and film that the effectiveness of this methodology is best illustrated.