Integrating Film into Classroom Lessons: Three Teachers

8:00 AM in a Northern California charter school.

I am observing Mr. Lesser (pseudonym), a U.S. history teacher for the past four years at the school. Students sit in six rows of six movable desks facing the front of the room.  Teacher settles the students down and begins a review from the text (Bower and Hart, History Alive!) of what happened in U.S. after World War I. In rapid fire fashion, the teacher asks a series of questions to the entire class:

“What was the ‘Red Scare?

“What were the Palmer Raids?

“Who were Sacco and Vanzetti? Why do we study them?”

Students yelled out different answers; noise level rose to the point that the teacher hushed the class. On the Sacco and Vanzetti question, he called on a student by name and built on the student’s answer to make a link to immigration.

After five minutes of Q & A, Lesser tells class that they will be watching a documentary film of life in the U.S. after World War I taken from the “History Channel.”  The 23 mostly Latino and African American students begin watching the film.

One student asks the teacher: “Why don’t we see real movies?”

The teacher responds: “They are not accurate.”

Teacher goes to desk in corner of room and does paperwork  as students watch the documentary. All of the students appear attentive toward film except for one student applying make-up to her face, and two students quietly chatting. Another student goes to teacher and asks for pass to bathroom. After 15 minutes, Henry Ford and automobile assembly lines appear on-screen. Teacher leaves desk and goes to front of room and pauses the film, He begins asking a series of questions directed at entire class:

“Where was the car invented?” Students give diverse answers.

Teacher says: “America.”

“Where was telephone invented?” Students give diverse answers.

Teacher says: “America.”

“Where was Internet invented?” Students yell out different answers.

Teacher says: “America.”

Student says loudly: “OK, we get it.”

Teacher clicks “play” and DVD continues. He returns to desk.

More students not watching documentary except when images of Chicago race riot and advent of Prohibition appear. Teacher returns to front of room, pauses the film, and talks about rum running in the 1920s, late-night car and truck deliveries of bootleg whiskey and the invention of NASCAR. His explanation is interspersed with rhetorical questions that a few students try to answer. Teacher clicks “play” and DVD continues until it ends.

With a few minutes left, students begin to pack up to leave class. Teacher says: “Tomorrow, we will begin the Great Depression.”

Later in the day, at the same school, I stop in Ms. Munoz’s 10th grade English class with 21 students sitting at clusters of four desks spotted across the room. The lesson is on the film “Hotel Rwanda” which students had been watching the past two days.

Students had been given a packet of purple sheets with questions about imperialism in Africa, the history of genocide in the world, a
“pyramid of hate” graphic that shows different behaviors leading to genocide, and specific questions on the film itself. One sheet identifies characters in the film and the actors’ names. Munoz (pseudonym) expects students to answer questions as they watch the movie.

I look around the room and students are intently watching the film and writing on their purple sheets. I see one student sleeping. The teacher moves around the room and answers questions quietly and individually of those students who have raised their hands. When the film gets to parts where Hutus are killing Tutsis, the entire class–the sleeping student wakes up–watches intently.

The teacher stops the film a few minutes later. Students raise hands to ask questions. Teacher listens to questions, throws some back to students to answer continuing for five minutes in this fashion. She then directs students to the purple sheet listing questions on the film. She tells the class to start with question 11, calling on students by name to answer. Without evaluating answer as correct or incorrect, teacher bounces back student responses to other students: how did you answer that question? Do you agree with Raphael’s answer? Why? She presses students for evidence from film to support their responses. This continues for ten minutes. The bell is about to ring and students start to pack up.

Finally, there is a third lesson using a film. I did not observe this social studies teacher in Mission high school in San Francisco (CA) but a journalist, Kristina Rizga, did. Here is her account:

 It was eight in the morning, and the lights were off in Mr. Roth’s history class….

 On the TV, Paula Crisostomo was waving a protest sign in the face of a police officer and arguing with her father, a Filipino immigrant wearing a blue work shirt. “I told you to stay away from these agitators!” he yelled at Paula. Based on a true story, Walkout captures the 1968 school protests in East Los Angeles. About 22,000 Latino students participated, inspired by a teacher named Sal Castro. (One of them—Antonio Villaraigosa, né Antonio Villar—is now mayor of LA.) Back then, most Latinos were forbidden from speaking Spanish in class. Curricula largely ignored Mexican American history, and Latinos were steered toward menial labor.

 In the film, students could be seen shaking the metal gate of their school, locked shut by officials to prevent them from walking out. The students rattled the bars chanting “Viva la Raza!” while police stood on the other side. The gate broke. [The] entire class erupted in applause as the teens flooded into the street.

After the film ended, Robert Roth switched on the lights and turned to a class sitting in motionless silence.

“Any thoughts, anyone?”

“It’s incredible to see how courageous Paula was,” said a student from Nicaragua named Catharine. “She lost confidence so many times, but whenever she lost it, her friends were there to support her.”

“In middle school I was told to speak only English at home,” Maria said next. “I think that’s wrong. I already do at school. They shouldn’t tell me how to live my life.”

“I can relate to Paula, how people don’t believe Latinos are smart enough for college,” Yessenia added. “These stereotypes make me want to prove them wrong.”

“Speaking of stereotypes,” Brianna said, “I was in the bathroom with five other black girls, and we were fixing our hair. Two Asian American girls come in and they run out right away, thinking that we are going to bully them. I want to fix that. I’m a nice person!”

 Roth jumped in, “Rebecca, you were talking to me about this kind of stereotype the other day. Do you mind sharing what you said?”

 “When we moved to St. Louis from China,” Rebecca said, “we went to an all African American school. My parents were telling me to stay away from black students. They said don’t trust them, run away. But they were all really nice to us. A lot of times it’s coming from parents, but they just don’t know.”

 At the end of class, Brianna and her friend Destiny came up to Maria. “What’s ‘Viva la Raza’?”

“It kind of means being proud to be Latino,” Maria explained.

 “How do you say it?” Brianna asked, and Maria told them. “Viva la Raza! Viva la Raza! Viva la Raza!” the three chanted out loud, fists in the air, laughing.

As students shuffled out, Roth reminded them, “A short reflection on this film is due next time. And please! Don’t summarize, analyze. Why is this important? How does it connect to other things we learned?”

Three teachers in social studies and English using films as a technological tool to help students learn. Each teacher had “integrated” an entire film into the lesson they taught. Yet how differently they used that technology.

What students learned, I cannot say. What I can say is that film use, like use of computer software, requires teacher planning, a conceptual framework for the content they are teaching, alert improvisation during the lesson, and thoughtful questioning of and listening to students. No easy task. None of the three teachers, however, delved into the assumptions and biases of the filmmaker, the language used in the film, the differences in genres, etc. I offer this less of a criticism and more of an observation of how media and technology are used in many classrooms.

For those who promote media literacy and the critical thinking skills associated with that literacy as even more important in this cyber-age, these three lessons, I believe, might disappoint.   I take up these issues of teacher use of technologies and media literacy in the next post.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

6 responses to “Integrating Film into Classroom Lessons: Three Teachers

  1. Your posts rarely depress me Larry but this one did. As good an indication of how accepted it’s become to substitute politics for education as I have ever heard. I think at least two of the teachers mentioned should try this mind experiment.

    Imagine your own child is being taught by a teacher who believes their job not only allows them to discuss politics with the pupils they teach, but to actively influence their nascent political thinking. Imagine then that same teacher espouses an extreme political viewpoint you utterly reject. Then contrast that with another teacher who resists every attempt by pupils to elicit their personal (never mind political) views… but instead teaches your child to think for themselves.

  2. larrycuban

    Your point is well taken for two of the three teachers. I pursue another point, however, in the next post.

  3. I found the description of the 3 teachers interesting. There is no doubt that using film or some other medium can be engaging for the students. However, true media literacy is about “how” and “why”. Students need to be taught how a film, for example, is constructed in order to analyze the filmmaker’s bias. If the film is a product of some production company like Disney, then the corporation’s influence has to also be acknowledged. The 3 teachers were using the film to build knowledge or spark debate ( I’m not saying this is wrong) but it is not media literacy.
    I think watching full length films is a bit of a waste of time unless you are watching something like Shakespeare which is meant to be seen and not read.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you for making an important point in media literacy–asking the “how” and “why” questions, particularly how films are put together and how biases inevitably enter the editing and directing process.

  4. These teachers all fit into the conceptual categories I describe in my 2006 article, “Non-optimal uses of film in the classroom,” in Learning, Media and Technology Journal. It is so challenging to create authentic discourse around the practices that history teachers have relied on when using film. When they use media literacy pedagogy well, it can be beautiful, as I show in the teachers I profile in my book, Digital and Media Literacy. But when it’s bad, it can be scary awful bad, as you reveal. Thanks for exploring this important area of inquiry, Larry.

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