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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Teachers Get Flak for Showing Flicks

Want to use movies in your classroom? Better watch your step.
By James Daly

To a generation of kids weaned on movies, using film in the classroom may seem like a natural educational tool for smart teachers. But the move to use cinema to teach a whole range of subjects -- history, sociology, perspective, and visual literacy quickly spring to mind -- may be a lot trickier than it seems. It can also get downright explosive.

Earlier this year, for instance, in a suburban Seattle high school, the film An Inconvenient Truth got even more inconvenient when parents complained that the school didn't present a balanced perspective about the film's warning of global warming. School district policy states that films presented must be accompanied by a "credible, legitimate opposing view."

The Federal Way Public School District, in Federal Way, Washington, imposed a temporary moratorium on the film; after two weeks of criticism in the local and national scenes, the school board still insisted that opposing views be considered.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Board of Education was sued in May after a substitute teacher showed the R-rated (and Oscar-winning) film Brokeback Mountain to an eighth-grade class. The lawsuit claims student Jessica Turner suffered psychological distress after viewing the movie at Ashburn Community Elementary School. The film, according to the lawsuit filed in Cook County Circuit Court, was shown without permission from parents and guardians.

The twelve-year-old and her grandparents, Kenneth and LaVerne Richardson, seek more than $400,000 in damages. Turner's grandfather and guardian, Kenneth Richardson, explained, "It is very important to me that my children not be exposed to this."

Teachers have long known that community standards -- which vary widely around the country -- often dictate what they can (and can't) show in the classroom. Typically, parents are informed a few days before the showing of a film, allowing them a chance to have their child dismissed from the showing.

Still, controversies remain. Denise Harman, an instructor at the Dale Jackson Career Center, in Lewisville, Texas, recalls one teacher in her school getting an earful from a parent after showing The Graduate, director Mike Nichols's celebrated coming-of-age movie. "It's a great film for the students to watch and learn from, because it's got a wonderful script and great production," Harman says.

It also has a very brief showing of a woman's back after she undresses. "The teacher didn't realize that it would be controversial -- but they do now!" Harman says. Sometimes it's surprising where the line is drawn. The result, according to Harman: "We're more careful in what we show."

These concerns have some prominent filmmakers worried. "The one thing that each and every one of us uses every day is our creativity," says John Lasseter, an Academy Award-winning American animator and director of such films as Toy Story, A Bug's Life, and Cars. "Teaching film is not the issue; we're teaching creativity. We want to show kids how to imagine and create. We can use filmmaking to do that. We need to help kids nurture their creative side."

It's a particularly important issue to Lasseter, whose mother spent thirty-eight years as an art teacher at Bell Gardens Senior High School, in Los Angeles. "As a child, I saw the French film The Red Balloon in class. I still think about that afternoon to this day."

Francis Ford Coppola, another Oscar-winning director, whose work includes The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, has an idea: "Maybe we should trade the secretary of education position for a secretary of youth," he says. "We should be thinking not just about educating students, but about inspiring them."

James Daly is the former editorial director of Edutopia.

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MacHerb's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Not to defend the MMPA but there is a difference between "public performance" and classroom instruction. Unfortunately, many people connected to classroom instruction think that any use of copyright protected material is fair use but this is simply not the case. Over the years I been struggling to educate student activities leaders, and even student service offices that it is not legal to rent a video from the video store and play it in your lobby where students are waiting. Even in a class you cannot legally show a film as a "reward". The showing of the film has be tied to instruction and take place where instruction regularly occurs. In each of the cases above, I kept asking myself what was the educational intent? I use film all the time but I do have to question the purpose of using The Graduate for 8th graders or Brokeback Mountain in K-12 education at all. In both cases the films were intended for those 17 and over.

This just goes to show that as with all materials, we need to clear educational goals and be able to defend our use of them for educational purposes.

Peggy Bass's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There are magnificent examples of film out there that not only could, but also should be viewed in school to teach a variety of subjects. One outstanding example is "The Young Indiana Jones" series. These movies teach history in the most fascinating, inspiring, and creative ways than I could ever have imagined through the use of books alone. I only wish that they had existed when I was in school because I certainly would have learned and retained so much more about certain historical events.

mdh's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"...I do have to question the purpose of using The Graduate for 8th graders or Brokeback Mountain in K-12 education at all. "

The Graduate is rated PG, note R. In the incident cited by Denise Harman in the article, a few excerpts of the movie were shown to high school juniors and seniors (not 8th graders) who were studying media technology. The director's cut from the DVD was used giving these students an excellent idea of what Mike Nichols was trying to accomplish when he made this landmark film.

I do agree that the Chicago teacher used very poor judgement when showing Brokeback Mountain to 8th graders.

Megan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been "spoken to" (not reprimanded) for showing the 1996 version (PG13) of Romeo & Juliet because it shows Claire Daines's naked back (not rear end). I teach freshmen English, and I don't dare show the lower rated 1960s version of the film - more nudity in that. I'm not sure what to do this year. One teacher in my building also got in trouble for showing an Oprah episode about how women in Illinois can legally leave newborns at hospitals if they don't want them (in a health class). This is a small, rural midwestern town.

Matt Merrill's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We have a responsibility to those we teach. Just what that responsibility is has a broad definition in the education community. I am a History teacher, a member of a group in our community that is particularly prone to showing movies in the name of education. As I see the issue, responsibility tends to be interpreted in two ways:
I've got the answers, or I've got the method.
In the "I've got the answer" category, you have teachers that believe they are the sage on the stage. Their beliefs, their data base, and their interpretation is the answer. They tend to use movies and stories and sources that back their answer, in a "see I told you so" fashion. In that case, the student is a mere juror, making rulings based on the perspective of the presenter.
When it comes to movies, in dealing with children so influenced by media, this is often the coup'd grace. It appeals to the idea "well, if it's on film, it must be true". In many of our eras it was the same of the written word. It is dangerous and limiting to put students in that position. First-time learning is an awesome thing, and if that learning is reinforced by the power of media, it is a hard bond to break. I think some of the great propagandist of our time know that secret. After all, Mussolini was an elementary school teacher.
"I have the answer" people normally have a high sense of responsibility to get the message out.
The other side is "I've got the method". In that, the teacher has the responsibility of showing students how to responsibly navigate our media rich society. Sifting through fact and fiction, identifying point of view, and creatively constructing their own conclusions are a few skills to be learned. Those skills are based on methods. It is a scary thing, I know, for content-driven people to comprehend. The idea of giving up content for the ability of the student to explore and learn, but the implications are great. Getting students to buy into taking control of their own learning is also challenging. This way tends to anticipate the fact that the student will be a life-long learner, and that eventually he or she will make his or her own choices on what to watch or read. In that case movies may be used in a very different way, if at all. As a historian I know that no movie is historically accurate, but many speak volumes about how a moment-in-time is interpreted by some in society. That can be very interesting in analyzing a group or society's values and bias.
I found it interesting in the article that a plea was made for creativity by the directors. I am sure they fear censorship. It is, however, a plea made in self-interest.
No art is created for art's sake. We all know these are rich and influential individuals who seek power, fame and reward. That should in itself give us pause to reflect on showing movies in class.

LW's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a parent and an elementary school teacher, I have seen many, many Disney movies in my day. Several of these creations tie in so well as reinforcers of concepts we are trying to teach. Finding Nemo, for example, contains so much enrichment when discussing ocean life, habitats and ocean zones. However, we have been warned at our school that Disney does not approve of our using their wonderful films to enrich our curriculum. Even to the point of major lawsuits that no one on an educator's budget could ever hope to fight. Does anyone else face this dilemma?

David Phillips's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

So what, exactly is wrong with a "credible, legitimate opposing view?" If Mr. Gore's film can't stand up to opposition, then it's not much of an argument. As teachers, we dare not be threatened by students who want to think, school boards who require us to be politically balanced or parents who wish to question what we teach. If you are right, logical argument is no threat. If you are only biased, argument may threaten you, but only if you have a weak position.

I've been questioned before by parents and administrators, and I've welcomed their questions and even their objections every time. It makes me a better teacher.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I use film in the classroom so I'm not against it per se, but I know teachers who totally abuse the use of film in the classroom. It is a way for them to not teach, to grade papers, to sleep. I know of one teacher who averages three days a week showing films.

Sorry, but I'm not buying his rationale for showing this much film ("These are kids of the film generation. They won't read.")

I know an excuse when I hear one.

EB's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Teachers should encourage discussion of different viewpoints and help students learn to research information to support those viewpoints. This article flippantly implies that two weeks of criticism of teachers showing "Inconvenient Truth" in the national press somehow proves that there are no legitimate opposing viewpoints or that anyone who doesn't believe Gore's Chicken Little predictions can be summarily dismissed. There are numerous articles from legitimate sources available on the Internet and quotes from respected scientists that argue against the purported "truths" highlighted in this movie.

Some films are not appropriate unless discussions of issues of morality are included. Objections about showing "The Graduate" clearly aren't just about showing a woman's back; the issue is the immorality of an extramarital affair. Just because the film is a classic doesn't mean it is appropriate for the classroom.

Chris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There's a line between "fair use" and copyright infringement as well - I'm hoping that these teachers showed excerpts from these films - appropriate in content or not.

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