Movies in the Classroom – 5 Things

It is easy to dismiss movies as a way teachers build in breaks for themselves. But, when used correctly and carefully, showing a Hollywood movie to your students can be a great way to underscore learning and to provoke interest and discussions. But, to ensure instruction is the focus and not just entertainment, here are the steps I take before, during and after we watch a movie in my class.

1. Watch the movie. Before showing a movie, actually watch the movie. The WHOLE movie. Make sure it is appropriate for your students. If you don’t have the time to sit through an entire movie, there are websites out there that will give you warnings of inappropriate content. For example, will provide you with a summary of the plot and rates the film on profanity, violence and sex/nudity. But, even if a website gives you the okay, you really should watch a movie to make absolutely sure. Nothing will make you more nervous than showing a film you haven’t previewed to a class and having an administrator decide to pop in.

If you have any kind of doubt about a film, be proactive and talk to your administrator. Be open to a permission slip from parents and, if worse comes to worse, be ready to go forward without a movie. These days, with all the media options available online, you may not even need to screen a movie for your students. You could have them watch it at home as homework and have them return the next day ready for a discussion or activity.

2. Be prepared. Before the movie, I create a worksheet for students to complete during the movie. Hand the worksheet out before hitting the play button. You want the class to know that what’s about to take place is work and not play time. Watching a movie in the classroom is different than watching it at home. I want it to be an active process, not a passive one. I expect students to be mentally engaged and thinking while the movie plays in front of them.

There are different kinds of worksheets to create depending on your objectives:

a)  Simple attention device – you could use a Q&A sheet that includes basic comprehension questions to simply ensure students are watching and paying attention. Sample questions might include – Who is the main character? At the 2:45:00 point of the film, what event happens and how does the main character react to it?

b) Metacognitive look at the movie – look at the movie with a critical eye. For instance, in my US History course we often compare events as presented in a movie to events as we know them from our own research. Disney’s Pocahontas vs the real story of Pocahontas is always startling for students (“Wait, how old was Pocahontas?” or “Yikes, is that what the real John Smith looks like??!”). Another metacognitive discussion I like to have with students during and after a movie centers around how Hollywood tends to tell the stories of other cultures through the lens of white males. For instance, the Japanese-themed film The Last Samurai is told through the perspective of Tom Cruise. I challenge students to find other films that highlight the stories of other cultures, but replace characters or POVs with those of white, American males. This will spark animated debates!

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c) Movie as an information source – here I might create a series of deep questions about a movie and the story told within it. Students watch the movie to gather information that they will use later to answer these questions. For instance, my students recently watched the film Glory, about the events surrounding an African American regiment during the Civil War. I would ask students to watch for interactions between the African American soldiers and other white Union troops or white Union officers. Then, after the movie I would ask the students to answer a question about why African American citizens would even join, or remain in, the Union army.

3. Have the students research the film. Before watching the movie, I sometimes have the students go to the site for the movie. We look at when it was made and discuss the point-of-view of filmmakers and audiences at that point in time. We look to see who wrote and directed the movie to see if there is any POV concerns there. IMDB also has fun Goofs and Trivia pages that you can explore with your students prior to the movie to generate more interest and engagement while watching it.

Then, have “the talk”. The first time I show a movie to a group students, I give them my theory about movies, how they employ words, sound effects, images and music to create a kind of magic. To fully appreciate and experience this magic, students need to watch – quietly and with focus. This is especially important if, like me, you work in an international school and it is part of the students’ culture to be vocally involved in a movie. This is not to say that I discourage honest reactions – sometimes shocking situations occur in movies and reacting is natural. But, talking during a movie or playing with cell phones (just like in an actual cinema) is strongly discouraged.

4. Stop and discuss. During the movie, I am notorious for stopping at particular scenes. I use these breaks to focus on scenes that tie to the film worksheets. “Listen carefully here – it ties to question 4 in your handout.” Or, I might stop to explain a situation or a piece of dialogue that might be confusing.

5. Edit the film where necessary. Students will complain and insist they are old enough to handle anything out there and that they have seen/heard worse. That’s probably true. But, what they see at home is the parent’s responsibility. What they see in your class is your responsibility.

Hollywood films often get bashed for their accuracy – and for good reason. Hollywood’s goal, after all, is to make money, not to educate. Having said that, a well-chosen and researched film can be helpful in the classroom. They can present stories in an engaging and creative way. And, film special effects are far better than anything you will find in a documentary.

Just make sure you are organized and prepared before you say “action”!

Ed X!

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