There are two assumptions underlying this post. First, teaching visual literacy, including film literacy, should be a priority in all high schools. Second, it is a myth that there is no room in school curricula to include this. So please join me in exploring just one example of how it can be done.
The scene: an American Studies course in a high school classroom in the late '60s. Students in Gatsby attire discuss Fitzgerald's book, view slides of the art of George Bellows and Joseph Stella, listen to the music of Bix Beiderbecke, and then role-play a group of business leaders meeting with Calvin Coolidge to make decisions that could lead to the Great Depression or help avoid it.
The unit was part of a curriculum that replaced the traditional chronological approach to teaching history, best represented by the cliché, "If we don't get to the Civil War by Xmas, we'll never make it to World War II." This is called "post-holing," an approach characterized by an in-depth look at a few periods or themes. This scene was one day in an extended unit on the 1920s, the student favorite of all that we did that year. All that was missing was the film literacy component.
A Pilot Program Integrating Film and History
I recently heard from teacher colleagues in the alternative Team program at Marin, California's Tamalpais High School District. They invited me to integrate the art of the film into their American Studies course. Remembering what a grabber my 1920s unit was all those years ago, I thought that, for the current generation, the 1960s offered the same potential -- this time with film.
Think about it: the Beatles, Vietnam, the Kennedys, Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, Woodstock and the flower children of the Haight, Berkeley, Wisconsin, and other protests of the war in Vietnam. And this just scratches the surface.
The challenge is to design a unit on that period which also integrates film literacy. While we believe that teaching film literacy is essential, given all the other curricula demands, it can't be a separate course. Our hope is that this pilot unit, which we'll implement for five weeks next spring, will provide a blueprint for what could be done with other units in social studies and English.
Grabbing Attention and Provoking Thought
Our plan is to open the unit with The Sixties, a film gem by Charles Braverman. It's a 15-minute collage of news images, sounds, and music that convey the spirit and key moments of the period. Each scene lasts 10-15 seconds or less. Students will recognize familiar faces (like John Kennedy and the Beatles) and some of the events, but many (like Stokely Carmichael) will be unknown to them. That's one of the purposes of showing the film. It's a guaranteed attention getter that will also whet their interest in finding out who these people are and what some of the events are. It's also a good introduction to students of the art of a compilation film.
After discussing this art, we'll have students work in small teams to produce and then show their own brief compilation videos capturing America in 2014.
Then, a few days will be spent on readings and discussion exploring some of the other events represented in the film, perhaps an introduction to the Vietnam War and the role of Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael in the civil rights movement. The plan is to have students read Tim O'Brien’s great book on the war, The Things They Carried, and we'll also consider using excerpts from Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, another excellent novel based on first-hand experience of the war.
The Beatles, Film Editing, and Student Filmmaking
We plan to follow this with a film that should maintain the momentum of student engagement, Richard Lester's classic Beatles film, A Hard Day's Night. The film provides an excellent opportunity to examine creative film editing and screenwriting, particularly since the Criterion edition also provides supplementary materials that examine these aspects of the film. Remember that one of our goals is for students to also have fun!
The Lester film had a great influence on music videos. As a follow-up, we plan to have students create and present their own music videos in the spirit of this 1964 film or, at the very least, create a storyboard or script for a music video.
The film also provides an opportunity to look at the role that music and pop culture played in that period as an integral part of the counterculture movement. We may also show excerpts from Woodstock: Three Days of Peace and Music. We will look at connections between music and social protest today, possibly with a special look at hip-hop music.
An alternative choice would be to use the classic documentary about Bob Dylan, D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, a portrait of an iconic figure of the period, but also an opportunity to examine cinema verité, observational film-making with no voice over, by a master of that style.
Two Films About Vietnam and Student Protest
My personal choice for the next film is the PBS documentary Two Days in October, and/or the Academy Award nominated film by Mark Kitchell, Berkeley in the Sixties. The former contrasts an in-depth look at student protests at the University of Wisconsin with the lives of American and Vietnamese soldiers involved in a critical and costly battle in Vietnam during those same two days. Apart from exploring the content related to both the war and the student protests, the film demonstrates how a filmmaker can effectively provide a balanced and provocative piece of film journalism.
Kitchell's film, although centered on Berkeley, effectively captures the birth of the Free Speech Movement, civil rights marches, anti-Vietnam War protests, the counterculture, the women's rights movement, and the rise of the Black Panthers. It also weaves in the music of the period with songs from Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, Jefferson Airplane, and others. One film focuses narrowly in depth. The other provides greater breadth in looking at the zeitgeist of ferment during the period.
Students will then be assigned to work in small teams to come up with a film prospectus that explores emotionally heated issues of the present era -- for example the pro-choice and right-to-life movements, although there are clearly other possibilities.
Cinematography, Docudramas, and the Cinema of Political Protest
Finally, we tentatively plan to use the classic docudrama Medium Cool as the culminating film for the unit. Directed by Haskell Wexler, one of our most renowned cinematographers, the film mixes fictional storytelling, including a relational drama, with documentary technique. The main character is a television cameraman, and the story climaxes with an extended sequence filmed in the middle of the ferment surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. In addition to providing an excellent opportunity to look at the role of cinematography in filmmaking, it's a perfect stimulus for an extended look at the politics of the era and the connection between politics and protest.
There are many other films that might work equally well in stimulating both an exploration of the '60s and an introduction to film literacy. Easy Rider is one of the most prominent that comes to mind.
And of course there will be other readings, both articles and books. Two books that are worth considering are Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, an account of life on the bus with Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters; and Fugitive Days, a powerful and very open memoir by Bill Ayers, a radical activist during that period.
Help Us Shape This Unit
Our priorities are to use films to help bring history alive, while simultaneously providing an opportunity to increase student film literacy, and for students to be alive, engaged in the process, and have fun. Since the unit is planned for the spring of 2015, possibly as the final unit to keep students engaged during the pre-summer slump, we'll undoubtedly make other changes between now and then. We welcome your ideas for other films, readings, or activities that you think would strengthen the unit.