Critical Thinking

Using Film to Teach Analysis Skills

An illustration of a movie projector inside a magnifying glass.

Growing up, my family's Sunday night ritual was always the single word, dinner-and-a-movie. We were passionate about cinema, and a post-movie debate was always included in the evening's entertainment. In fact, one of the most memorable fights with my dad was over his inability to delay his analysis of Hoosiers before the end credits had even rolled.

Needless to say, it wasn't just the movies themselves that became like a different food group to me; it was the enthusiastic post-movie analysis that also gave me sustenance. During these talks, my sister and I brought in our prior knowledge from other books, from other movies, and from what few experiences we already had.

Movie Criticism in the Classroom

For this reason, as a teacher, I now leverage movie criticism into my classroom as a means to bring real-world authenticity to my literacy analysis unit. After all, analysis and criticism (not catty criticism for the sake of being cruel, but well-argued criticism) both require the deconstruction of a piece of work and the synthesis of one's thoughts into a kind of tapestry of textual evidence and commentary. And that is why I look to the work of Roger Ebert to show my students the way.

In my upcoming book, DIY Project-Based Learning for ELA and History (Routledge, 2015), I go into more detail about my movie critic unit, but in honor of the Oscars (a sacred holiday in my home), I wanted to share just a few ways that I incorporate Roger Ebert, the man who honored movies through analysis, into my classroom.

1. Show an excerpt from the television show, At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert.

When I teach A Midsummer Night's Dream to my eighth graders, I show a segment of the two critics debating about the Best Picture Oscar-winning movie from 1998, Shakespeare in Love. It's a wonderful, lively analysis from two men who really have respect for the writer of the movie as well as for the overall production. After students see them go at it, they understand that they, too, can analyze text. (Use a movie adaptation of the book you are reading or a film that relates to the current content in your classroom.)

2. Dive into one of Ebert's well-written blog posts that review a movie.

If you're looking for students to interact with more traditional text-driven models over visual ones, look at something like this beautifully written review of the animated movie, Spirited Away. Even though it was released a while ago, you'll find that many students have seen the movie, and if not, they can still appreciate a good analysis when they see one, especially with your guidance. To introduce this lesson, I say something like the following:

When you analyze an art form, like theater, music, books, or movies, you are actually acting as a critic of sorts. You aren't a critic that takes joy in tearing apart something that someone has worked on and denigrating it. No. You are a critic because you like to tease something apart and appreciate its components.

I then ask reading comprehension questions that require students to analyze the analysis. I ask them to identify the thesis statement, the textual evidence, and the types of commentary that appear in the review.

3. Study the man himself.

As I wrote in my book, "Roger Ebert was a great critic, in part, because of his brain but also because of his heart. That's what made so many actually listen to him, even as he criticized their work." Along those lines, the students and I also look at his biography. This year I may also weave in an excerpt or two from the recent documentary about Ebert's life and work.

4. Tweet an analysis like Ebert did.

Ebert was a master tweeter. I show students past examples of how he would concisely capture a description of a character or theme in 140 characters or less. I then use Todaysmeet to tweet their criticisms of a classroom text as it's read aloud or during a scene study.

In the past, when I've had students perform scenes from Midsummer Night's Dream, I've had their classmates tweet their thoughts in a backchannel. I say the following:

Using the standard tweet structure of 140 characters or less, you will analyze the scenes as they are being performed. Each critic is being asked to contribute at least one constructive observation to the online conversation.

Make sure that your tweet has an element of analysis within its 140 characters. Show off your knowledge of narrative, format, character, conflict, director's choices, and visual choices, and keep it professional. You may also add external links as you feel they are needed.

Here are some examples from that activity. These are transcribed from the Todaysmeet feed itself:

"Love Helena! She uses her height so well to make her point! Frenemies until the very end!"

"Leo makes a great Demetrius. He and Kevin really worked on the Nerf sword fighting choreography! #TOLO (thou only livest once!)"

"I wish Hermia & Helena were more choreographed. By standing separated on two sides of the room, the audience didn't get the tension as much."

5. Students produce and transcribe their own At the Movies segments.

Pair up the students. Give them some kind of a recording device as well, something that will capture their voices (faces aren't necessary for this activity unless they want to further the role-play). Have them simply discuss the book that they will be analyzing, trading off time to speak so that it isn't an argument as much as a discussion that mimics the At The Movies format. From there, have the students build their formal essays using transcriptions of their discussions.

Cinema in the Classroom

There's so much more you can do to bring the influence of cinema into the classroom. Look at the AFI 100 Greatest Movies of all time and have them develop a list of books that all kids must read.

Have students create movie posters of their books or book trailers encouraging others to read a particular text. After all, analysis need not only be in essay format. Find authentic analysis all around you, and make Roger Ebert's respectful voice of analysis one that echoes in your students' work.

How do you incorporate the movie medium into your classroom? Please share in the comments section below.