George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Reel Character: Using Film to Enhance Social and Emotional Learning

By viewing films through the filter of character development, students can understand how traits and mindsets so often influence the choices that people make.

April 23, 2015

The days of needing to enter a Cinemaplex to watch a movie are gone with the wind. All we need do is turn on our laptop computers or mobile devices and a world of streaming media awaits us. And out of the more than seven hours a day that the average youth spends using media, 50 percent is exclusively devoted to film and television.

Character Development by Example

Social studies professors and authors William Benedict Russell III and Stewart Waters note in their book Reel Character Education: A Cinematic Approach to Character Development that film plays a significant role in our lives and pop culture, often provoking meaningful inquiry regarding social issues, personal values, and moral dilemmas. Thus, film can serve as a powerful teaching tool to assist youth, in particular, in developing various character strengths and making positive decisions.

Exactly what power do these visual images possess?

In many instances, film can function like a mirror, reflecting society and showing life with more focus and clarity. The characters depicted help us to better understand what truly motivates us and what the results of our actions might be depending on the choices that we make. Films assist us in learning how to understand and critique our culture, asking questions about who we are, where we come from, and what we should do. And films can both incite discussion and create a social impact, sometimes giving us a specific call to action.

When approaching the use of film in the classroom to teach character traits, Russell and Waters present us with three models:

  1. The Traditional Model uses a film like a visual textbook with the curriculum plan often including specific discussion questions and culminating activities relating directly to the film.
  2. The Spring Board Model does the same. However, it utilizes only brief film clips instead of the entire film, depending on the teacher, the lesson objectives, and the students' individual needs.
  3. The Russell Model for Using Film adds the adherence of all legal requirements to the Traditional and Spring Board models, which includes obtaining permission from administration and students' parents or guardians to use film in the classroom.

Character Traits: To Practice or Not to Practice?

In my work as a film and social-emotional learning instructor, I have taken elements of each of these models and created a general outline that I follow when creating my lesson plans:


I begin by viewing the film ahead of time and noting specific questions (PDF) related to both the character virtue and the film.

Introducing the Character Virtue

I introduce the character virtue, and the students share their current understanding of what that virtue is, offer examples of how it can be practiced, and discuss its importance to their own lives and to the society in which we live.

Viewing the Film

My preference is to show students the entire film, as I think it's important for them to see the story arc of the characters. I want my students to see not only what choices the characters made, but also why they made them. If time restricts our ability to view the entire film, then I will use clips from the beginning, middle, and end of to illustrate the progression of the characters' journeys.

Reflection on the Character Virtue

After viewing the film, I have students reflect on what they learned about the character virtues through the characters' actions. This discussion connects easily to their ideas about how they might apply these lessons to their own life situations.

Dramatic Role-Playing

In an attempt to help my students literally put their feet in the shoes of the characters, I have them engage in dramatic role-playing skits:

  • The students begin by reenacting scenes from the movie -- twice. The first time, they show what choice the characters made and what the corresponding result was. The second time, they rewrite the story and show what might have happened had the characters made the opposite choice.
  • Next, the students brainstorm about real-life scenarios in which they might be faced with the choice to practice or not practice the character trait they've been discussing. Again, they will create and perform two skits, one demonstrating the choice to practice the character virtue, and the other not practicing it. Both skits should demonstrate the corresponding result of the choice made.

What are some good films to view? Check out my full list of suggested films by grade level. And in the comments section below, please tell us how you use film with your students, and the benefits you observe.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Arts Integration
  • Teaching Strategies
  • Arts

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