George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The high school social studies class has just gotten seated. The lights go out and a video projector immediately begins showing a scene from the film Boyz n the Hood. In the scene it's late at night and two black teenagers walking along a street, both nicely dressed, are stopped, thrown up against a wall and searched by two cops. One of the cops is black. The other is white. The teens are scared and angry. The black cop is physically aggressive and verbally hostile. Then the police just leave, one saying, "You have a good night."

The lights go on. The teacher asks the students to quickly write down a couple of sentences describing their thoughts and feelings while watching this. Students then share their thoughts in small groups.

A large group discussion focused on the race-related complexity of the interaction follows. The teacher then asks, "What does this have to do with the Trayvon Martin case?" The discussion continues. Finally, the teacher sums up the key issues explored in the lesson.

What Just Happened Here?

Notice the key features of this lesson:

  1. An emotionally charged scene from a film was used to immediately grab students' attention.
  2. Only a short scene was used, not a whole movie. That's all that was needed here.
  3. There is no narration in the film. The excerpt is totally open to student interpretation.
  4. There was no introduction by the teacher, no telling students what they were about to see, nor directions regarding how they should view it, or what they should think about or be looking for.
  5. The immediate follow-up included no teacher lecturing, initially focusing totally on the student thoughts and feelings.

The primary directives here are:

  1. If you want to effectively reach kids, grab them and hold their attention, you usually need to reach them emotionally.
  2. Commercial filmmakers have known this forever -- if they don't grab the audience, their film will fail -- while teachers, secondary school teachers especially, haven't fully accepted this.
  3. This generation of students is film and video oriented; we should use this, not bewail it.

Of course, film has been used in teaching for ages, but mostly in a very limited way. In social studies it's often been, "We've studied the '20's, now we'll see a movie about that period." And in English, "We’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, now for the next few days we’ll watch the movie." This is okay, but requires viewing the whole film, doesn't effectively integrate the visual into the body of the curriculum, and implicitly sends the invalid message that film isn't as legitimate a form of communication as the written words used in the rest of the lesson.

Emotional Connection

It’s also important to note that this same method can be used in other subject areas. In a science classroom, students have no sooner landed when the lights go out and the film Fire Mountain begins. They watch powerful visual images capturing the eruption of Mt. Kilauea, filled with close-ups of explosions and molten lava. There is no narration, just an engaging musical soundtrack. The lights go on and there is no immediate discussion. Instead students are asked to close their eyes and imagine how they would have responded if they'd been camping near the base when the mountain exploded. Their experiences are shared in small groups. Then the lesson moves into an introduction to the new unit on plate tectonics.

An algebra teacher I know began her unit on word problems with a brief excerpt from The Simpsons in which Bart has a hilarious meltdown when given a word problem to solve. She followed the laughter with a brief discussion about the anxiety some students have related to word problems. Her theory was that the comic video would help relax them and help many of them understand that they weren't alone in their anxiety. She told me this strategy worked so well that she has now incorporated it into that unit every semester.

The Power of Visual Media

This isn’t the only legitimate use of film in the classroom. Film can be used as a culminating experience to summarize a unit or lesson. It can be studied as an art form. Short films designed to teach a concept or skill, especially in a subject like physical education, can be very useful. Developing students' critical consciousness of visual media should be a major part of every school's curriculum and is important enough a subject to be the focus of a forthcoming column.

Once you become tuned into using film in the classroom in a multiplicity of ways, you'll find yourself frequently seeing scenes in films in theaters, on DVDs or in TV shows that will immediately register as ones you'd like to use. Keep a notebook or a computer file to jot down the reminders. Also, unlike the old days of videotape, the scenes or chapters on DVDs and Blu Ray discs make quick access easy.

One final word. The great film critic Pauline Kael, addressing a group of educators years ago, said, "If you don't think education can ruin film, you underestimate the power of education." She was referring to the fact that one of our pleasures in film is that it entertains us, and there is nothing more deadening to entertainment than either a dull film or a dull analytical discussion following a film. There is no contradiction between a film being entertaining and also educationally effective. So, as you know your audience, select films they'll enjoy.

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Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

rachel's picture you have any sources for using more cinema in the classroom for Nursing students?

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist

Not exactly my specialty Rachel, but...
If it was my class I'd start by viewing some of the old episodes of ER, particularly the period with George Clooney and Julianna Margulies, since the two of them are guaranteed to grab attention. I bet you'd find scenes to use. Try the first and second seasons. Your public library may even have them.

Here are two other possible sources:

Good luck.
If you come up with some scenes to use, please think about sharing them here.


chailleb's picture
8th Grade SpEd

Mark, I am entering my 10 year of teaching and am constantly researching for motivational material but become frustrated because the information is dry, it hasn't worked in the past, or it is for elementary ages. It has been my experience that middle school students need more motivation than elementary. Perhaps I'm partial. At any rate, I am excited to see this simple idea, and frankly am a little embarrassed that I did not think of it myself. You are correct that teachers usually throw out the busy work then show the entire movie at the end. My experience has not found this to be beneficial as it seems to be better served as a babysitter. This idea re-energizes me and I am very excited to try this in my classroom. Do you by chance have any other resources you would be willing to share?

chailleb's picture
8th Grade SpEd

As it turns out I have recently relocated and will begin school at a new location (new state), still teaching 8th SpEd. So, at this point I'm not sure how the teaching will look as they are still working on the details of co-teaching, self-contained, etc. I can tell you that I will be focusing mostly on Language Arts. Once we get the details ironed out I will let you know and we can move forward from there.

Ernestine Heldring's picture
Ernestine Heldring
Director of Education and Outreach at Scenarios USA

Hi Mark,

I was thrilled to read your blog post and would like to cross post on our Educators Blog if that's OK? I used film clips all the time as a Humanities teacher at international schools, now I create interdisciplinary lesson plans around these awesome films that my org creates and that are shown on Showtime etc: Our Educators Blog lives here: I hope we can connect! Warmly, Ernestine

Samantha Carr's picture

I have been using snippets of film for years now, and have adapted music videos as well. For film, I show a short scene without sound or subtitles. The students discuss what they think is happening, or they write down their impressions. Next, the film is shown with sound but in the target language only, no subtitles again. Students then adjust some of their impressions about the scene (or not) and discuss in groups of four. Lastly, if needed, subtitles are added but again only in the target language. It is great to see their faces light up when they realize that they really understood the scene!

Renee Hobbs's picture

I like the spirit of this post, Mark, because you lay out a careful focus on tuning in to the emotional responses of the learner. This is a common pedagogy in American K-12 and college environments.

But there are some real limitations and dangers to this instructional strategy and it can easily be misused. It's a topic that I write about in my scholarly article, "Non-optimal uses of video in the classroom" (Learning, Media & Technology, 2006). Here's a link:

You frame this instructional technique as inspiring learner motivation-- which it certainly can do. But I have also observed in many K-12 and college classrooms that this technique serves as mere "bait" without much "hook." Using video as attentional bait may perpetuate the status quo function of media in American society--as a tool which delivers eyeballs to the screen. This method of using video accepts a problematic premise: that viewers are passive, bored, easily led and driven by their impulses to seek visual pleasure. If a teacher has such expectations about students, she or he may develop curriculum that is essentially persuasive or propagandistic, selling ideas, but not seeking to engage students in wrestling with problems or ideas and not encouraging critical analysis and inquiry.

That's why this pedagogy of using film as a motivator MUST be followed-up with the use of critical questions about film and video to promote media literacy competencies. Learners need to analyze "how" the filmmaker activated their feelings by asking (1) what was the purpose of this message? (2) what techniques were used to attract and hold attention? (3) what values are represented? (4) how might different people interpret this message? and (5) what is omitted?

Good teachers channel learners' attention towards the development of building new knowledge and critical thinking skills. The skillful use of film and video in the classroom should provide an explicit, carefully-modelled link between viewing and our learning goals. That's the missing link in your blog post. I hope you will write more about what you do after the lights go on to link the film viewing experience to your instructional goals.

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