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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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