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Teachers Get Flak for Showing Flicks

Want to use movies in your classroom? Better watch your step.
By James Daly
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To a generation of kids weaned on movies, using film in the classroom may seem like a natural educational tool for smart teachers. But the move to use cinema to teach a whole range of subjects -- history, sociology, perspective, and visual literacy quickly spring to mind -- may be a lot trickier than it seems. It can also get downright explosive.

Earlier this year, for instance, in a suburban Seattle high school, the film An Inconvenient Truth got even more inconvenient when parents complained that the school didn't present a balanced perspective about the film's warning of global warming. School district policy states that films presented must be accompanied by a "credible, legitimate opposing view."

The Federal Way Public School District, in Federal Way, Washington, imposed a temporary moratorium on the film; after two weeks of criticism in the local and national scenes, the school board still insisted that opposing views be considered.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Board of Education was sued in May after a substitute teacher showed the R-rated (and Oscar-winning) film Brokeback Mountain to an eighth-grade class. The lawsuit claims student Jessica Turner suffered psychological distress after viewing the movie at Ashburn Community Elementary School. The film, according to the lawsuit filed in Cook County Circuit Court, was shown without permission from parents and guardians.

The twelve-year-old and her grandparents, Kenneth and LaVerne 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 not be exposed to this."

Teachers have long known that community standards -- which vary widely around the country -- often dictate what they can (and can't) show in the classroom. Typically, parents are informed a few days before the showing of a film, allowing them 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 in her school getting an earful from a parent after showing The Graduate, director Mike Nichols's celebrated coming-of-age movie. "It's a great film for the students to watch and learn from, because it's got a wonderful script and great production," Harman says.

It also has a very brief showing of a woman's back after she undresses. "The teacher didn't realize that it would be controversial -- but they do now!" Harman says. Sometimes it's surprising where the line is drawn. The result, according to Harman: "We're more careful in what we show."

These concerns have some prominent filmmakers worried. "The one thing that each and every one of us uses every day is our creativity," says John Lasseter, an Academy Award-winning American animator and director of such films as Toy Story, A Bug's Life, and Cars. "Teaching film is not the issue; we're teaching creativity. We want to show kids how to imagine and create. We can use filmmaking to do that. We need to help kids nurture their creative side."

It's a particularly important issue to Lasseter, whose mother spent thirty-eight years as an art teacher at Bell Gardens Senior High School, in Los Angeles. "As a child, I saw the French film The Red Balloon in class. I still think about that afternoon to this day."

Francis Ford Coppola, another Oscar-winning director, whose work includes The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, has an idea: "Maybe we should trade the secretary of education position for a secretary of youth," he says. "We should be thinking not just about educating students, but about inspiring them."

James Daly is the former editorial director of Edutopia.

Comments (24) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

George Shimer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach high school Spanish. In the past, due to the lack of Spanish-speaking substitutes, I have shown different types of movies in Spanish and have assignments for the the students to do.

I am pleased that my administration is saying to cut out the movies and have the substitutes teach not just babysit. But what can they teach in Spanish. If I do give step by step instructions then I am killing myself to prepare a lesson in which they most likely will not be able to do anyway. As in today when they could not even find a sub for me my fellow collegues had to teach my class. Real fair for them to try to teach my subject. I am sure tomorrow I will have to either teach today's work and now we are behind or I will have to reteach what was messed up on.

I like my movie format when I am gone, due to the fact I can have the kids work on items that apply to what we are learning and I do not have to worry about the mess up that others do. Am I still behind, yes. But at least my students are continue to grow in what we are learning and use their Spanish.

tom pasinski's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a junior high teacher, and regularly use videos and movies to teach a particular topic. If the movie happens to have a rating higher than PG, and is still relevent to the topic, we must send home permission slips. Showing Brokeback Mountain and The Graduate, in my opinion, is ridiculous. What educational lesson is being taught with those movies that another, less adult, movie could not be substituted?
Movies and videos can be an important and useful tool to bring topics to life, but not if abused. And not if adult movies are shown without permission to students.

Thank you.

Dr. Katherine Sogolow's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Using film and various media, I have taught Theatre to students from Elementary age to College. When tied to instructional goals with supporting materials (source literature [books, articles, concepts]study guides, follow up projects etc.) using media (commercials, TV, and film --excerpts or full length) is an excellent way to teach almost anything from Language Arts to Science, to History, as well as the performing arts.

However, teachers need to learn how to teach effectively with these tools. Also, permission from parents (for students through 12th grade) MUST be obtained for student viewing: parents should be advised about the content and have the ability to voice their approval or disapproval (for example, if a parent does not wish a student to view a film such as "To Kill A Mockingbird", alternate activities in another class should be provided for that student on the day of the showing). Finally, material must be age-appropriate.

With effective integration of media and film into the classroom teaching environment, students can connect immediately to the learning concept, broaden their point of view, entertain new ideas and possibilities, see other cultures, hear other voices, gain inspiration and new approaches, become more thoughtful, resourceful, and tolerant human beings, and increase critical thinking and dialogue about myriad issues. Discovery of self and the world about us is a key benefit to such instruction.

It takes time to create substantive lesson plans that achieve these goals, and this is where training is helpful. There are many more resources available now than ever before for creating effective plans, and PLC's can help teachers work in groups to refine their teaching approaches and skills.

Often, just showing a clip is the best option to achieve the learning objective. However, it takes time for the teacher to view a complete film and make the critical choices to show certain clips. If the teacher cannot take the time to inform parents or make fundamental critical choices about targeted instruction, perhaps it is best not to use the proposed media.

kristy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It's funny because I teach Romeo and Juliet in English class, 9th grade in Upstate Ny. I too recently showed the '96 version with Leonardo. I received all the permission slips back, but one; a board of ed's daughter. By the way, last year, his son wasn't able to watch the '68 version either.

He handed me a letter the day of showing the film, 5 days after I handed out the permission slip. It was a 2 paged typed letter stating how I was "irresponsible" and "negligent" as an educator for showing this film. Of course he had never seen the film himself, but in his letter he was opposed to much of the plot of Romeo and Juliet, forget the 96 version of the film! Specifically, he was upset with the topics of teenage suicide and the hasty decisions reguarding Romeo and Juliet's love affair.

It appeared that he was requesting that I not show any version of the play, that he was somewhat okay with the children reading it, but not viewing it! I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next since I am in a very small community and I have some influence within my school community. I am preparing to fight this.

I don't care about which version I show, but I do care that some form of staged presentation is shown to culminate my Romeo and Juliet unit. How did things work out for you? Anyone have any suggestions?

Rene's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Inglish is my second lenguage, so, you have to excuse me for my spelling.
I DO NOT AGREE with movies in the classrooms.
Have anybody seen the polls about how many hours kids wacht tv and go to movies this days?How do you think our ancestors learned back in the days where movies did not exist? All this coments I have read supporting movies in classrooms are garbage.
I take my kids to school to get educated by a competitive teacher NOT BY HOLLYWOOD. If I need to give my kids entertaiment, thats my job, not the teachers.


Carol's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Fair use says that in educational settings, if the topic is relevant to what you are learning, you can show the whole movie -- you're not limited to excerpts. But it has to actually be relevant and educational. For example, if an English class is studying "Death of a Salesman," it is perfectly legal to show the entire movie for comparison with the novel. Or a science teacher can show all of "An Inconvenient Truth" when teaching about global warming. However, I find it hard to believe that "Brokeback Mountain" is really relevant to any middle or high school curriculum, so that probably was a fair use / copyright infringement situation.

Josh M's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

With due respect, it was pretty irresponsible of you to show the 1996 Romeo & Juliet film to 9th graders if most students had already seen the 1968 version as 8th graders. Does the world not contain enough good books that kids have to study Romeo & Juliet twice?

That said, anyone opposed to plays from Elizabethan England has really got to get over themselves. The Bible contains a lot more negative stories and questionable themes than does Romeo & Juliet.

jane doe's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Films, esp. Disney, are already seen by parents, probably more than once. The fact that teachers are a big role model for students can not be dismissed. I do not get paid to show films daily or weekly. My own children read at home, and were limited to TV much more than the average child. That explains why they were the top of the top students through high school and college. I expect big things from my students, and it is not going to happen if I merely show films. Nor can you usually interrupt a film to ask critical thinking questions.
I get annoyed when I see films shown so often! No wonder our kids have such trouble with reading and thinking!

CP's picture

I use Disney films to highlight or emphasize an educational objective. Doesn't Disney realize that if we show a good movie that is also educational the parents may be willing to buy the movie for use at home. I personally have not gotten in trouble, but will not show Disney movies anymore. I don't understand why educational catalogs advertise they sell the videos when they know it could get the teachers in trouble. Is there a way to get "permission" from Disney to show movies that tie in with curriculum?

Sean's picture

[quote]How can there be any sort of balanced side to a debate about Global warming? There is the scientific and measured side which clearly indicates that there is something drastically changing, and then there is the corporate side which is funded by oil companies that denies that they are causing a problem, because they don't want to pay to clean up their mess.
There are no credible films to provide the other, wrong, point of view.[/quote]

So Dennis, how's that argument holding up for you? Is there a movie now advocating 'global change'? It seems rather inappropriate to post something like this, anywhere, for any reason...there's always two sides to every debate, and it seems highly prejudicial to make such an unfounded claim. Did oil companies create global warming back in the 1300's, too? Because "global warming" happened, then, too. Check your facts before trying to push your political opinions when not warranted.

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