As an English teacher, one of my first go-to processes when watching a film, even at home for recreation, is digging into the mise-en-scène, or the arrangement of objects and elements onscreen. While considering films this way helps my reader’s brain build analysis, I’m always thinking about steps that help link the processes of reading, writing, and creating. Implementing these steps with my students helps me to know how they think about texts and is also a way for me to learn more about them.
This use of mise-en-scène as a close “reading” step is one way to remind students that everything that appears in a shot for a film or television series (or even TikTok video) is likely there for some purpose. This is true even of still images. By showcasing intentional author and director choices, teachers can activate the writing mind in a variety of ways, which I’ll explain.
Change the Format for Responses to Readings
Rather than write the second or third essay, sometimes I like to let students choose different ways to engage with a reading. This was a practice I used with reading The Catcher in the Rye, in which students responded to the book in groups based on a rubric I shared. When faced with the blank page, sometimes students experience anxiety, but having the opportunity to get up, plan a scene, and talk with peers can help break the ice and inspire thinking processes.
With the design of the rubric, I’m still asking students to create a product that examines the content I’m after, with the additional benefit of the skill building that digital creation allows.
Whether it’s through reenacting a scene somewhere at school or planning a response to sum up thinking about a class reading or concept, film can offer some variety in the ways that students share and present projects. Using film in this way also meets secondary English language arts standards for collaborating and composing using digital and electronic tools—social media apps, YouTube, and laptop cameras. I recommend WeVideo and Adobe tools, which are helpful and specific tools for creating both videos and podcasts.
Students also employ traditional writing methods for scripting what will occur in the videoed exchange. This rough sketch is turned in as part of the process and product. In the past, I’ve also used storyboarding as a method for envisioning written and filmed stories (Canva has useful resources for this).
Try Zeitgeist Poems
As a reader who appreciates poetry and visual forms, I’m often drawn to the ways that YouTube creators share readings of poems paired with images. In some cases, authors share videos of their own poems. In my class, zeitgeist poems are another Catcher-related activity, resulting in brief, two-to-three-minute recorded responses. This has served as a prereading exercise to think about the idea of a zeitgeist, expanding vocabulary instruction and setting an initial purpose and interest in reading.
The process began with an invitation to write on the page, which then became a multimodal exercise in locating images that paired with and emphasized the words that students chose and arranged to convey the feelings of time, especially related to my students’ experience of the world in 2022. Given their life during the pandemic, there was much to unpack.
As with other video products, students collaborated and explored tools based in social media to create reenactments and do voice-overs for still images. These elements were then combined through the video-editing methods within the platforms the students used. When video is used with the poetic form, imagery is arguably emphasized all the more—an important step for students who may have trouble with visualizing.
Assign Community Video Essays
Finally, I’ve used videos to help students think about poetry and culture, including filmed walk-throughs of projects that they’ve created and written about in response to units of study. Sometimes, students are hesitant to present to a class in real time, but the opportunity to record themselves individually or collaboratively (expanding on learning and presenting about a product they’ve created) can be a more invitational method. This approach also gives students added practice in film editing and media recording techniques that move beyond the slide creation that is common in many of my presentation assignments.
In partnership with fellow teachers, we developed a series of lesson steps that drew upon a unit of study in multicultural literature to help students explore community ideals and engage in problem-solving. This series of lesson steps involved groups deciding how to form a community charter, design their government, and deal with issues that arose within a hypothetical community. Students designed their communities on paper and then used found materials to compose elements of these plans.
Creating physical objects was an engaging exercise in engineering and creativity, giving my students the chance to use spare objects around the classroom space to create three-dimensional blueprints for community models. Students also drafted their initial ideas for the communities on paper and talked through them in small groups with teacher guidance.
The film they created served as a final reflection and presentation step, as students gave guided tours of their communities. They discussed the values that they wanted to emphasize, their decision-making process when faced with issues, and how they redesigned elements of their communities in response to those challenges. I discovered that students who might have shied away from a presentation at the front of the room in traditional speech format were often more comfortable with the take/retake nature of the short film.
Embrace Usefulness, Novelty, and Accessibility
Although I include writing in class daily, it’s sometimes a nice change of pace and a chance for novelty to invite students to film responses, rather than always jotting ideas in the same modes. Additionally, and perhaps more important, utilizing media this way allows me to reach standards and teach aspects of the composing process that would otherwise be difficult to address. As a teacher who is occasionally cast in student-created TikTok videos, I also understand the pull of media and the accessibility that students enjoy for creating short films.