Teaching Memo: How to Use Film [effectively] in the Classroom

In class this week, my students and I watched and discussed The Biggest Little Farm – an ingenious movie that I fully expected to be intensely boring but that I’ve now seen four times and absolutely adore. (Aside: When I first saw the film advertised at Sundance last year, I specifically avoided it because I didn’t want to watch a movie about a farm. I am so glad my family and I wound up seeing it in theaters in August. I was then planning the current unit on Economics/Ecology, and this movie was an absolutely perfect fit for the content and skills we were going to be developing through the unit. I immediately began working on a way to teach the lessons with an assist from the movie.)

Last year, I used the following in my Cold War class: Thirteen DaysBridge of Spies, Hunt for Red OctoberThe Twilight Zone “The Monsters on Maple Street”, footage of HUAC committee meetings, and the Daisy commercial. This year, we’ve used a bit of Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old in my World War 1 elective course as well as a History Oversimplified video or two, and, now, The Biggest Little Farm in my main Integrative Studies / History course. So I’m no stranger to using film in the classroom. Kids like watching stuff. Let’s take advantage of that inclination where appropriate.

I’ve heard stories about teachers using film in the classroom to avoid teaching. Apparently, they’d put the movie on, sit aside, and allow the movie to do the teaching for them. Although I’ve seen my share of bad teaching practices, this is one of which I can honestly say I’ve never been a victim.

I figure that most of us who see opportunities in the classroom to use films do our best to make them useful. Typically, we make a handout, put the movie on, and hope for the best. If we’re conscious of good teaching practices, we do a sort of reflection afterward – maybe a conversation, or perhaps a written response. We might wonder, “Was that a good use of film? of class time?”

A few points I’ve been thinking about lately – and I should say, though I’ve been planning the current unit’s film use in class for several months, I’ve recently heard some of these points highlighted in the Visions of Education podcast, episode 12 (some of the points I make here are discussed on that episode). Here are some key considerations for using film effectively in the classroom:

  • Don’t let the film stand in for actual teaching; the film is not a teacher – there may be lessons in the film, but it doesn’t do the teaching for you.
  • As with teaching any class at all, don’t bury the lead – know what the point is of showing the film, and make that clear to the students. Tell them the point before you begin watching.
  • If you provide a handout – and a graphic organizer is not a bad idea, here – make it useful by giving students a few categories of information for which they might be searching rather than specific questions requiring them to pay more attention to the handout than to the film. If we are asking a student to read and interpret what we ask while simultaneously distinguishing important from unimportant information/messaging in the movie, we may well be setting up our students for failure. (Here’s my handout for The Biggest Little Farm as it applied to our unit.)
  • A really important thing I’ve done over the years (and the folks at @visionsofeducation mention this as well) is to pause the film, run it back at times, and discuss what’s going on or what the students are getting out of the movie at the pauses. When I hand them a graphic organizer, I don’t just put it in their hands and let a rip on the movie without any pauses. I check in with them, ask them what they’ve added so far to the graphic organizer, and help to steer them in the right direction as we go.

 

What’s your experience with using film in class? Do you have other suggestions for effective use of movies in our classrooms?

 

Thanks, as always, for visiting.

 

About Steve Capone

Interested in Domestic and Foreign Policy, Ethics, and Political Thought. One-time adjunct instructor and current full-time educator of small humans. Europhile, historophile, & bibliophile. M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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