Teaching the Film as Literature

Michael Vetrie

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Films that Engage Students

What does this mean? What takes place when a film (or any literature for that matter?) engages students? What exactly happens? In order to answer this, let me make a simple analogy with marriage. When students are engaged in a film, their engagement is a first step in a process toward a more serious commitment. Engagement promises that a more complex and complicated relationship will follow.

When films engage and engross my students, the relationship between student and teacher that results is much like that between a newly engaged couple: living together (and all that entails) is the goal and is just around the corner. But for the moment, they are not yet married. Anything can still happen. The environment they are about to enter together is a dynamic and receptive one, unquestionably, but one that fulfills the promise only when the teacher offers opportunities that will take the student beyond the simple pleasures of viewing. The teacher and student, like a married couple, have to work together to make the marriage successful. With film, however, the teacher has a great advantage:

Film is particularly apt because it is a medium with which the majority of our students are familiar and comfortable. Students will stand around in the halls between classes talking about the movies they watched over the weekend, whereas they will rarely stand around talking about the essays they read (or wrote) over the weekend. Because film is a graphic medium that is already part of their repertoire, they have little difficulty engaging with it. They respond positively to opportunities to watch films even if they have to analyze what they watch.
(Calendrillo, Linda T., Fleckenstein, Kristie S., Worley, Demetrice A., Language and Image in the Reading-Writing Classroom: Teaching Vision, 2002, 19)

 

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Click on any of the following chapters of Teaching the Film as Literature. You will need a pdf reader, like Adobe Reader, installed on your computer in order to open the files. Adobe Reader can be downloaded free at www.adobe.com

Since some of the pdf files contain clips from films, there may be a slight delay in opening these files, depending on your download speed. They are worth the wait.


Making a case for using film to increase our Students’

Literacy and Critical Thinking Skills.

girl

You are a language arts classroom teacher meeting your students on the first day of the new semester. You discover that they have come to you with a love and passion for reading. All they want to do is read. Anything! Everything! They want to share what they recently read. They want to talk about the best way to read. They want to talk about the art of the novel. They reveal that they want to write a book themselves at some time in their future. They are interested in the history of literature. You can hardly wait for the new semester to get underway. Then you wake up. How realistic is this in today’s world? Not very.

But what if you substituted the word film for book? “Meeting your students for the first time, you discover that they walk into your class with a love and passion for the film! They want to share what they have just recently seen. They want to talk about the best way to watch a film. They want to talk about the art of the film. They reveal that they want to write or direct a film at some time in their lives. They are interested in the history of the film...”

Which scenario are you more likely to find in the typical language arts classroom? Unfortunately, in most of the classes in America today, you are not going to find a majority of students with a passion for reading. Just the opposite. Most of your students will have a passion for nonreading.

Students everywhere, however, love the film. They understand its language because it speaks directly to them. It is the most popular of our popular cultures and has had such an influence on our society, it is the primary driving force behind visual literacy now being considered the “fifth” language art.

In a time when many adults are staying home, building their own visual centers in order to watch their high definition televisions, their digital video recorders or viewing films from DVDs, it is our high school students who are keeping the multiplex theatres open. But whether they watch film downloaded from the Internet on their I-Pods or cell phones or leave their homes to see it in a large multiplex theatre, film is our student’s favorite form of popular culture.  Film is contemporary and relevant to their lives; it is high interest, easily accessible and inexpensive; it develops lifelong, active, involved viewers; it demands critical thinking skills and it addresses the various intelligences; it does all the things that reading once did for our students.

Because it is such a powerful and popular medium, film has, over the years, found its way into the classroom by becoming the leading edge of a new visual literacy. Film has a significant role in the development of our students’ new as well as old-fashioned literacy skills.

In The New Literacies: What Is Basic Education Now? Susan Marcus makes an observation and then asks a very important question:

...the youth are far ahead of us (adults) in adopting the use of sound and images. They are out there, living passionately in the popular culture, saturated with pictures, music, and chat…delivered by digital media. But are they literate with them? Do they have the thinking skills to be both analytical and creative with these symbol systems? So far, we haven’t given them much support. (Marcus, 4)

How do we give our students support so that they develop the thinking skills to be both analytical and creative with the new popular cultures that Marcus calls “symbol systems”? If they are not proficient with these systems, how do we teach them to be? And if we are successful with improving their analytical, creative and visual literacy skills, will this lead to an increase in their other literacy skills, most specifically, their reading skills? Is there a way to use our student’s “living passionately in popular cultures, saturated with pictures, music, and chat…” for the benefit of the language arts teacher as well as the student? I believe there is.

But if we are successful in finding a way to use film and other popular cultures effectively in the classroom, how do we answer our critics? From the very first attempts by progressive educators to utilize any form of popular culture in the classroom, prominent detractors from both the left and right found commonality in attacking its use. Those on the right considered it “…a form of barbarism…” and those on the left believed those who embraced it were “ …passive dupes…” The right believed it was used to manipulate the masses…(Giroux; Simon; and Freire, 3) Conservative critics such as Arnold Toynbee, José Ortega y Gasset, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot have gone so far as to view it as “… a threat to the very existence of civilization as well as an expression of the vulgarization and decadence of the masses.” (Giroux; Simon; and Freire, 4)

Over the years, modern educators and administrators have tended to agree with these critics, believing that film and other forms of art popular with the masses do not belong in any educational curriculum. As I attempted over the years to utilize film in my own classroom, I have had to have an answer for very pointed, and, in some cases, valid criticisms, such as the following: …showing a film in class is little more than entertainment; it is too violent; it features the language of the street; nudity is rampant and a problem; and, the most forceful point of all, students should be reading in the language arts classroom, not watching films. How do we answer such criticism?

THE POPULARITY OF POPULAR CULTURES

In the 5th century B.C., a man walked out on a stage with blood pouring from his eyes. He had discovered that, despite his struggle to the contrary, he had killed his father and married his mother. In the resulting anguish of this terrible recognition, he blinded himself. Even if your classical education is minimal, you will probably recognize the plot of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. Jump forward twenty-five hundred years.

Two brothers and a friend devise a plan to keep drug money discovered in a crashed airplane rather than turn it in to the authorities. From this simple, but far-reaching decision, a series of violent events begins to unfold in this powerful film with disastrous consequences for all involved.  (Right click to start and stop the film).

 

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What do these two dramas, separated by thousands of years, have in common? Aside from the fact that both are very violent and deal with the inevitability of life, both tell their story in the most popular culture of their day.

Oedipus the King was as popular and well known to the Greek audience as some films are with today’s audiences. The form and story were so familiar that the average Greek knew the inescapability of the plot and could recite the lines along with the actors. They knew that Oedipus was going to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Many other poets had tackled the same story, and the events were not changed. The audience spoke the lines along with Oedipus in his blindness.

In the film A Simple Plan, in order to keep the illegal money, an impulsive act of violence is committed. Although the initiating act is shown vividly on the screen, the remainder of the film deals with the consequences and ramifications of this terrible act as the characters spin out of control toward a Greek-like certainty.  (Right click to start and stop the film).

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Today, film is our most popular of all the popular culturesIt is so admired that we have characters from other media quoting from it. In the popular television series The Sopranos, characters in the drama were fond of quoting from the classic The Godfather Trilogy: “Just when I thought I was out, they drag me back in…” mimics one.  (Right click to start and stop the film).

The irony of a gangster quoting from a fictional gangster is not lost on the others or the audience (at another level of irony, we take pleasure in a fictional gangster quoting from another fictional gangster).   (Right click to start and stop the film).

 

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In an earlier period of time, the quote might have been from another popular hit: “O limed soul, that struggling to be free, /Art more engag’d!” (Act iii. Sc. 3) In Hamlet, the King is seeking forgiveness for killing Hamlet’s father, but becomes increasingly involved in the resulting intrigue. Serving as the popular entertainment of that day, most Elizabethans would have recognized the quotation and appreciated its irony.

In the classical Greek and Elizabethan periods, the audience found its popular culture on the stage. Today, it’s in the film. And like today, critics and academics of the Greek and Elizabethan periods found fault with their greatest playwrights: Sophocles for playing down to the level of the masses as he changed and popularized the legends; Shakespeare for not adhering to the classical theories of time and space.

RESPONSIBILITY IN THE LANGUAGE ARTS CLASSROOM

I’ve made the point that one generation’s popular culture can become another’s classical literature, but I have yet to answer the most condemning of all the criticisms for utilizing film in the language arts classroom: we should confine our curriculum to emphasizing reading and writing.

If we agree that our primary responsibility is to improve a student’s reading, writing, speaking and critical thinking skills in the language arts classroom, how then can I justify the use of film? Are we not talking about two different modes, the literary and the visual? How can a feature film fit within any kind of curriculum demanding reading and writing? As I write this, the most recent of the reform laws has come down strongly on the emphasis of improving literacy skills through the Federal government’s compact (or lack, thereof) in such laws as No Child Left Behind. Literacy is the number one emphasis. So how can film fit into a classroom when we are now emphasizing improving reading skills?

UTILIZING THE FILM AS LITERATURE

Research reported in recent educational literature suggests that using visuals in teaching results in a greater degree of learning. (Stokes, 1) How can we work then more visuals into a classroom emphasizing improving reading and literacy skills?

“Because we cannot separate our words from images without wrenching away meaning and meaningfulness, we need to open the door to imagery.” …By doing so, we can better understand and teach the difficulties and exhilarations of writing, reading, and literature. By focusing on the play of language and image, we can help our students resonate to, rather than resist, language arts… (Calendrillo, Fleckenstein, Worley, 4)

We must help our students “resonate to, rather than resist, language arts” by opening the door to imagery. What better way to do this than with the film? But we do not have to do it by emphasizing imagery to the disadvantage of language. It is not an either or proposition:

"Such an endeavor does not require that we attend to imagery to the detriment of language. Rather, such an endeavor requires that we nuance our sense of meaning by welcoming into our classrooms the necessary transaction between imagery and language." (Calendrillo, Fleckenstein, Worley, 4-5)

“…nuancing our sense of meaning…” suggests that we properly utilize such visual literacies as film. I am speaking of using it in a process that will result in students developing thinking skills to be both analytical and creative, thus leading to an increase in reading skills. In order to do this, we must begin by focusing on that play of language and image mentioned above.

One way of utilizing the play of language and image is to utilize film as literature. By that I mean, a serious continuation of the form of expression that began when the primitive hunters gathered around the fire to act out and express their struggle and adventures in killing and bringing home the game. At that time, literature found its form in an oral tradition, passed down and preserved in the memory of master storytellers. At a later time, it was recorded in ink and pressed on parchment and then printed on a printing press for the educated to read. Today, it is moving from being recorded on celluloid to being processed digitally in and Os.

Five of the seven ways in which we form the world are lodged in some form of imagery: spatial, auditory, kinesthetic, emotional, and enactive. Hence, opening the door to imagery allows us to tap the multiple ways of knowing that our students carry with them into our classrooms rather than privileging a mode that only a few may excel at using. (Calendrillo, Fleckenstein, and Worley, 22)

Because our literature’s roots are in an oral tradition, there is a connection in imagery between the earlier forms and our modern written literature.

Imagery is the bridge joining orality and literacy. Thus, the intellectual sophistication ascribed to the shift into written language is presaged and reflected back to us in our oral traditions where images dominate (Calendrillo, Fleckenstein, and Worley, 4)

 It is this reflected back familiarity with imagery that drives us to utilize film as literature in our classroom.  I am using the term literature now in the sense defined by Edward Sapir in his chapter on Language and Literature. He said that languages “…are invisible garments that drape themselves about our spirit and give a predetermined form to all its symbolic expression. When the expression is of unusual significance, we call it literature…” (Sapir, chapter 11) These significant garments that drape themselves about our spirit today are more likely to be found by our students in imagery, the primary language of the cinema. We need to understand and appreciate that in order to bring about an improvement in literacy skills.

We must utilize these significant garments that drape themselves about our spirit in order to connect our students to a dynamic environment that stimulates them to think and urges them to communicate. By choosing the film, we acknowledge the role that imagery plays in literacy and attempt to use imagery in the form of the film as other literature has been used and is presently being used: a basis for anchoring most writing and critical thinking activities.

THE IMPORTANT ROLE OF FILM IN THE CLASSROOM

Over a decade ago, the National Council of Teachers of English recognized that film and the visual arts had an important role in the classroom. The NCTE, however, choose to redefine or enlarge the concept of literacy. In a 1991 Report on Trends and Issues, it said: “Definitions of contemporary literacy must recognize that an understanding of visual, as well as verbal, texts is essential in today’s world…Inclusion of the study of media certainly should no longer be optional in our schools…we must send students the message that critical thinking extends beyond print.” (Suhor)

Other educators have suggested that we must classify viewing as the “fifth language art” and include critical viewing skills across the curriculum in much the same way we use content-area reading and writing activities in all subjects. (Teasley and Wilder)

My suggestion for the use of film in the classroom is not to create a new and contemporary literacy or a fifth language art, although I am not opposed to such concepts. I have found in my own classroom that the use of film for my students far surpasses literature as facilitation for increasing the literacy and critical thinking skills of my students, and that includes, surprisingly enough, their reading and writing skills.

When students utilize film as literature, their reading scores improve radically. I believe this is connected to the interelatedness of the literacy skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing. (Stanchfield) Reading cannot be taught in isolation. Students who can listen, discuss and think are going to learn to read more effectively.

Add the skills associated with visual literacy and you have the complete package, a totality of the learning experience, all carefully joined together like an intricate web, and all beginning very early in the lives of our students. As Lori Phillips, inLook and See: Using the Visual Environment as Access to Literacy, notes:

As children build their image base, both their language and art making skills are enhanced. Young children also build their allusionary base by interacting with objects from the environment. Looking closely at, touching, and talking about their visual world not only prepares the child for the process of drawing, sculpting, and painting, but also for visual and verbal literacy. Vocabulary is not just knowing individual words, but knowing the array of associations surrounding them. By having children talk about what they see, you are helping them make deeper connections. You are also helping them build their verbal associations, so when they encounter words in reading, they will have a fuller understanding, leading to better comprehension. (Phillips, 2)

Since five of the seven ways in which we form the world are lodged in some form of imagery: spatial, auditory, kinesthetic, emotional, and enactive, Gardner (1998) noted that…

…education can no longer conduct business as usual. It must be business as unusual. (Calendrillo, Fleckenstein, and Worley p.3)

In over 20 years of teaching the film as literature, students who gain experience in listening, speaking and writing through interaction with the visual aspects of the film begin to radically improve their reading and writing proficiency.

POPULARITY OF THE FILM

There is little doubt that the feature film is very popular with our students. While The Matrix was in the theaters, a favorite line was, “Never send a human to do a machine’s job.” Even though Scarface premiered before most of my students were born, they love to quote the lines of Tony Montana: “I always tell the truth. Even when I lie…” I usually respond with one of my favorite lines to students leaving the classroom by reminding them, “We’ll always have Paris.” Whenever we talk about violence, they quote Clint Eastwood: “Hell of a thing, killin’ a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have. …” (William Munny; Unforgiven) Are we to despair because our students choose not to remember lines from characters in Shakespeare or Sophocles or modern classics such as The Grapes of Wrath or Catcher in the Rye? Of course. But the wise educator does not ignore the popularity of film. We must learn how to use it.

If we can agree that there is a place for popular culture in the language arts classroom (Rap music, for example, as poetry), finding a place for the feature film is the more problematic. After all, don’t we partly blame the emphasis on imagery for the low literacy levels in our society? And haven’t teachers over the years misused film in almost every classroom, even when using the film as a documentary?

I’m referring to the habit of turning films into a visual aid—turning on the projector or VCR and letting the film do the teaching with little comment or questions. Teachers sometimes use the film as a relief or a non-teaching break. The worst application of all is to use a feature film as an entertaining reward between the conclusion of a teaching unit and a holiday, a practice that is unethical as well as illegal. (If you show a film you have rented or bought as a component of a lesson plan, it is fair use, but that is another discussion.)

Almost never do teachers provide students with simple interactive activities like the double entry journal while they are viewing the film (See following figure in the hdml or pdf version of this chapter.).

log

Seldom do they ask challenging questions (the higher levels of Blooms’ Taxonomy) to check for understanding or interpretation of the film.

Blooms

And rarely do the teachers have students react to the cinematic techniques used to convey information by comparing and contrasting those techniques with similar techniques used in print literature. The following diagram on conflict has been adapted from literature and can be used to contrast the same movements in film.

Lit

(There are many other ways to use the film to compare and contrast cinematic and literary techniques, as you will discover in the section Using Film Clips as Journal Starters and Lead-ins to Literature.)

With such misuse of film in classrooms, is it a surprise that some educators are disbelieving when I claim that the feature film can have such an important role in teaching our students to write and read?

In any case, the misuse and abuse of film by teachers is not the primary objection most administrators and educational boards have against applying it in the classroom. They are quite willing to acknowledge the persuasiveness of my case that utilizing film in the proper manner can lead to film becoming an asset in engaging students. It is the films’ preoccupation with violence and profane language, especially American films, that makes their eyes cloud over every time a teacher wishes to utilize film in the classroom.

At different educational conferences in California where I have presented a workshop on cinema, I have talked with teachers who described how their school districts will not allow them to show any feature film in the classroom with a PG, must less a R-rating. Their greatest nightmare is to have a teacher show a film that might offend the parents with sexually explicit materials or realistic language from the street. Evidently, the parents have never heard their students talk like they do to each other at our schools. Some of these districts attempt to protect themselves by requiring their teachers to obtain prior approval of an administrator before showing any film but the more liberal districts in the larger cities (including my district, The Los Angeles Unified School District) require parent signatures on individual releases each time an R-rated film is shown. Some districts solve the problem by not permitting the showing of any full-length film, (Burbank Unified School District, California, for example, at the time of this writing).

The language of R-rated films

The language of R-rated films is the language that my students use to express themselves in today’s world. The literature they find appropriate and engaging is full of violent words about a world that is threatening and dangerous, a violent R-rated world consistent with their own personal experiences. I try to avoid R-rated films whenever I can, but if I omitted a film from my class just because it is R rated, I would not be able to give my students the experience of a Schindler’s ListThe Pianist, A Bronx Tale or Glory, to name only a very few.

The irony of all this is that my students see the very worst of the exploitive R-rated films at the movie theatres without any problems but they do not go to the theatre to see Schindler’s List. And without our showing these special, although R-rated, films in the classroom (I took my students to a special screening of Schindler’s List underwritten by Spielberg himself), our students would miss these wonderfully awe-inspiring experiences and I would miss the opportunity of using them to engage our students in literature.

In order to show R-rated films in my school district, I am required to have the parents of every student in my film class sign a waiver that gives me permission. My parents have always signed the waiver. It is a matter of trust that the parents of my students know that I will not show an R-rated film that is inappropriate and that level of trust is the way it should be for all teachers.

The Greeks recognized that violence was a popular subject for the stage because it was a common occurrence in their lives. And today, it is a popular subject for film for the same reason. The Greeks didn’t ignore violence, but embraced it and focused on the effects on the lives of their characters (on the effect, not the action), and thereby turned it into a moral force. The better films that feature violence, those that are sometimes the most engaging to my students, are the ones, like the Greeks dramas, that do not romanticize nor glamorize it. They focus on the effects of violence on the lives of the characters.

We must remember that our purpose in bringing the film into the classroom is to utilize it as literature—good literature. Sometimes, like the Greeks, we cannot always keep the violence off stage (or off the screen). When we are forced to choose a film that features violence (like Schindler’s List), we must deal realistically with it, focusing our discussion and writing prompts on the awful consequences of the violent acts. When we do this while in the process of challenging students to improve their literacy skills, we can at the same time teach a critical awareness of the impact of violence in our popular culture.

I have found in my own classroom that when my students are engaged by a film, especially an R-rated film that corresponds more closely, more realistically, to their world view, they respond at the dramatic moments with reactions and interactions, and appear to be more successful with their writing and discussion prompts. They write more and express themselves better. The discussions are heated and intense. All I have to do then is focus this urge or need to communicate by carefully guiding them into the proper writing and discussion prompts. What exactly am I doing?

By focusing on the play of language and image, we can help our students resonate to, rather than resist, language arts. Such an endeavor does not require that we attend to imagery to the detriment of language. Rather, such an endeavor requires that we nuance our sense of meaning by welcoming into our classrooms the necessary transaction between imagery and language. (Calendrillo, p. 4-5)

It is through the subtly of film as literature that we make the transaction between imagery and language.

(pdf version)



UTILIZING THE FILM TO CONNECT,INVOLVE AND EXTEND THE STUDENT'S LITERARY JOURNEY



Chapter Two...

Teaching the Film as Literature: Using the film to Connect, Involve and Extend the Student's Literary Journey


(pdf version)

 

WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM FILMS ABOUT TEACHERS IN THE CLASSROOM?

There have been many American films about teachers. We could begin with the most famous to come out of the 1950s, The Blackboard Jungle and end with a recent film, Freedom Writers. We might include other such films (in alphabetical order) as Coach Carter, Conrack, The Corn is Green, Dangerous Minds, Dead Poets Society, The Emperor’s Club, Finding Forrester, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Lean On Me, Mona Lisa Smile, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Music of the Heart, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Renaissance Man, School of Rock, Stand and Deliver, Teachers, To Sir, With Love, and Up the Down Staircase, to name just a few. This is quite a list; some are exceptional films, others only mediocre. Can these films do more than just entertain us, however? Can we learn anything about what to do in the classroom in order to make us more effective teachers? Check the following chapter...

WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM FILMS ABOUT TEACHERS IN THE CLASSROOM?

(pdf version)

 

UNDERSTANDING WHAT KIND OF LITERATURE ENGAGES STUDENTS

There are many ways to discover clues about that inter-attitudinal life that exists in all our students. For example, how do they dress? What kind of music do they listen to? I’ve already suggested a technique to survey their favorite films, but what about their favorite television shows? Is American Idol a favorite show? If so, what would this tell you about your students? Check the next chapter for the answer...


Understanding what kind of Literature engages students...

(pdf version)



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...

SOME THOUGHTS ON HOW TO SHOW THE FULL-LENGTH FEATURE FILM


(pdf version)


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Scenes to be used as Journal Starters Or Lead-ins to Essay or Literacy Concepts

After leading my students through the writing and discussion prompts of the films that I have outlined above, I like to pause and take time to try to have my student fully comprehend the complexities of the metaphor. Whenever I can, I try to utilize the film to do so.

First of all, what is a metaphor? Since a film has a built-in, high-interest appeal, rather than trying to define it for my students, why not let a great poet define metaphor while he is teaching a simple postman to understand the concept? Find out what happens in the following chapter...

Using the film as a Journal Starter


(pdf version)

 

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Using the film A Bronx Tale to Illustrate the use of the Film Clip
Part 1-pdf version

Using the film A Bronx Tale to Illustrate the use of the Film Clip
Part 2-pdf version

Using the film The Godfather to Illustrate the use of the Film Clip
Part 1-pdf version

Using the film The Godfather to Illustrate the use of the Film Clip
Part 2-pdf version

Using the film The Godfather to Illustrate the use of the Film Clip
Part 3-pdf version

 


Film Study Guides

Teachers—The following film guides are provided free for you to download and use in your classroom.

A Bronxtale—pdf

The Godfather—pdf

The Hurricane—pdf

Amistad—pdf

To Kill a Mockingbird—pdf

To Kill a Mockingbird Previewing Exercises (DR/TA)—pd


films

Michael Vetrie

mvetrie00@att.net

 


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Vogler, Christopher, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters, Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 1992.

Winkler, Martin M., Classical Myths and Culture in the Cinema, London: Oxford University Press, 2001, p.7

Winkler, Martin M., Classical Myth & Culture in the Cinema, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Coming Soon: Ten film study guides of recent films popular with students.

 

 

 

 

Filmas4.gifThe following is a list of all available guides:

All Available Guides

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Film Study Guides

The following are graphic organizers adapted for the film from the Reciprocal Teaching concept.

An Example of the Reading Tree

The Reading Tree with on and under the surface defined

Film Visual Questioning

Film Predicting with Evidence

The Word Concept