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,"
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