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October 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 2

Trends: Language Arts / Using Film in Today's Schools

Instructional StrategiesInstructional Strategies
Today's teachers know that the media influence students' lives more than almost anything else, except the family. A recent survey of college freshmen found that on average, each had watched 22 films in the preceding month. Similar surveys in the popular press report that the average high school student views up to six hours of television a day.
Though films have been used in schools since the 1920s to supplement the curriculum, only the advent of videocassettes and laser disks has made it feasible for many schools to build substantial film libraries and to teach films in sophisticated ways. Teachers in many fields, particularly English teachers, have become increasingly savvy about how films can be used as a literary medium, rather than as supplemental material. It's also clear that young people deserve instruction in viewing that will help them become critical, sophisticated audiences. As film programs become more comprehensive, such instruction can also move into such areas as film writing, film making, directing, and acting.

Establishing a Program

School administrators can do three things to assure the success of film programs in their schools.
First, they can hire faculty with some training in film, or they can encourage current faculty to learn something about teaching it. College, university, and community college courses in film abound, enabling teachers who do not know much about the medium from a technical standpoint to learn more about the effective teaching of film and about the other areas into which such teaching might lead them.
Second, much of the technology for achieving these ends—television sets, VCRs, film libraries, editing equipment, and camcorders—is already available in most schools. Or, if such equipment is lacking, an administrator might allocate funds for the purchase of needed equipment and materials. Most are available at reasonable prices.
Finally, it is imperative that administrators implement flexible scheduling to give teachers the occasional two-hour teaching blocks they require to show films in their entirety and immediately discuss them. Subsequent classroom discussions of films, narrower and more technical, can be accommodated in a typical classroom period of 45 to 55 minutes.

Teacher Resources

Books that focus on areas related to film are in most public libraries.Reading the Movies by William Costanzo is especially useful. Costanzo provides a theoretical base for instituting film programs in schools. Always keeping in mind the school audience to whom his suggestions apply, he provides specific teaching strategies (and lesson plans) for 12 films central to the history of the motion picture. All of these films are widely and inexpensively available for rental or purchase: Citizen Kane, On the Waterfront, Rebel Without a Cause, The Graduate, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Grapes of Wrath, Modern Times, The Birds, Singin' in the Rain, Sugar Cane Alley, Do the Right Thing, and Awakenings.
Costanzo provides a useful bibliography pertinent to each film, and he shows how teachers can help students develop an awareness of film as a symbol system closely related to those found in other forms of literature. Besides such literary considerations as plot, character, and theme, Costanzo addresses the necessary cinematographic considerations of lighting, framing, camera angles, editing, and sound.

New Uses

Films no longer need to be incidental supplements to substantive instruction in such areas as social studies, English, and science, as they once were. They now provide an excellent focus for instruction in the very skills of literary criticism and interpretation that English teachers have long striven to teach. They also lend themselves to such recent movements in literary interpretation as semiotics, feminist theory, deconstruction, and close reading, as Costanzo amply demonstrates.
A strong film program can lead students to develop an enthusiasm for reading that they might not have had before. Students who see a film may want to read the book. When they view something like Citizen Kane or Do the Right Thing, they will begin to see the connections between it and material they are addressing in their social studies classes and in other contexts. The beauty of developing a film program is that it can be started with minimal expenditure and with little disruption to school routine, yet its dividends are far reaching and substantial.
End Notes

1 W. Costanzo, (1992), Reading the Movies: Twelve Great Films on Video and How to Teach Them (Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English).

2 Good initial readings for teachers are S. Chatman, (1978), Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press); J. Boyum, (1985), Double Exposure: Fiction Into Film (New York: New American Library); G. Mast and M. Cohen, eds., (1985), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (New York: Oxford University Press); and R. Carringer, (1985), The Making of Citizen Kane (Berkeley: University of California Press).

3 Good initial readings for teachers are S. Chatman, (1978), Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press); J. Boyum, (1985), Double Exposure: Fiction Into Film (New York: New American Library); G. Mast and M. Cohen, eds., (1985), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (New York: Oxford University Press); and R. Carringer, (1985), The Making of Citizen Kane (Berkeley: University of California Press).

R. Baird Shuman has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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