Professional Learning

Teachers Get Flak for Showing Flicks

Want to use movies in your classroom? Better watch your step.

August 28, 2007

To a generation of kids weaned on movies, using filmin the classroom may seem like a natural educationaltool for smart teachers. But the move to use cinemato teach a whole range of subjects -- history,sociology, perspective, and visual literacy quicklyspring to mind -- may be a lot trickier than it seems. Itcan also get downright explosive.

Earlier this year, for instance, in a suburban Seattlehigh school, the film An Inconvenient Truth got evenmore inconvenient when parents complained that theschool didn't present a balanced perspective aboutthe film's warning of global warming. School districtpolicy states that films presented must be accompaniedby a "credible, legitimate opposing view."

The Federal Way Public School District, in FederalWay, Washington, imposed a temporary moratorium onthe film; after two weeks of criticism in the local andnational scenes, the school board still insisted thatopposing views be considered.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Board of Education wassued in May after a substitute teacher showed theR-rated (and Oscar-winning) film BrokebackMountain to an eighth-grade class. The lawsuit claimsstudent Jessica Turner suffered psychological distressafter viewing the movie at Ashburn CommunityElementary School. The film, according to the lawsuitfiled in Cook County Circuit Court, was shown withoutpermission from parents and guardians.

The twelve-year-old and her grandparents, Kenneth andLaVerne Richardson, seek more than $400,000 in damages.Turner's grandfather and guardian, Kenneth Richardson,explained, "It is very important to me that my children notbe exposed to this."

Teachers have long known that community standards -- which vary widely around the country -- often dictate whatthey can (and can't) show in the classroom. Typically, parentsare informed a few days before the showing of a film, allowingthem a chance to have their child dismissed from the showing.

Still, controversies remain. Denise Harman, an instructor at the Dale Jackson Career Center, in Lewisville, Texas, recalls one teacher inher school getting an earful from a parentafter showing The Graduate, director MikeNichols's celebrated coming-of-agemovie. "It's a great film for the studentsto watch and learn from, because it's gota wonderful script and great production,"Harman says.

It also has a very brief showing of awoman's back after she undresses. "Theteacher didn't realize that it would be controversial -- but they do now!"Harman says. Sometimes it's surprisingwhere the line is drawn. Theresult, according to Harman: "We'remore careful in what we show."

These concerns have someprominent filmmakers worried. "Theone thing that each and every one ofus uses every day is our creativity,"says John Lasseter, an AcademyAward-winning American animatorand director of such films as ToyStory, A Bug's Life, and Cars."Teaching film is not the issue;we're teaching creativity. We wantto show kids how to imagine andcreate. We can use filmmaking to dothat. We need to help kids nurturetheir creative side."

It's a particularly important issueto Lasseter, whose mother spentthirty-eight years as an art teacher atBell Gardens Senior High School, inLos Angeles. "As a child, I saw theFrench film The Red Balloon in class. Istill think about that afternoon to this day."

Francis Ford Coppola, another Oscar-winningdirector, whose work includesThe Godfather and Apocalypse Now, hasan idea: "Maybe we should trade the secretaryof education position for a secretaryof youth," he says. "We should bethinking not just about educating students,but about inspiring them."

Roll 'Em

For ways to integrate cinema into your lessons, visit these Web sites and pages.

American Film Institute: Education
How To: Use Digital Storytelling in Your Classroom
Online Opportunity: Documentaries and the Power of the Image
Martin Scorsese: Teaching Visual Literacy
The Story of Movies
Teach with Movies

James Daly is the former editorial director ofEdutopia.

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