As a child, whenever I complained about being bored my mother would tell me to, “Go read a good book.” While studies show many children and teens still follow such sound advice, watching television and movies are still far more popular choices for recreational activities.
Nor is it any wonder in a world so saturated with visual and aural communications, that these mediums are finding their way into classrooms. Some educator’s have even taken to calling these forms of popular culture “texts,” just like those big books we used to lug to and from school.
In a similar fashion to Shakespeare’s plays, which moved from entertainment for the masses to a literary work worthy of study, so is the treatment of many of today’s feature films.
As media studies increasingly become a legitimate curriculum addition, parents who have seen the abuse of movies in the classroom, may feel some cause for alarm. However, in the right hands, the idea of studying film can have great educational merit.
Dom Saliani, a teacher and English department head at a large Canadian high school, has some excellent methods for making the most out of movies in the classroom and spends a great deal of time sharing these concepts with other teachers.
“The worst thing you can do,” says Dom, “is turn on a film and turn off the lights. The last thing students need is more passive viewing!”
Dom strongly recommends teachers show short pre-selected segments, instead of watching the entire film. “You ‘read’ a movie the same way you read a novel,” says Dom, who shows a few minutes, stops and discusses what has been seen, and then shows another few minutes, followed by more discussion. He feels this process will be far more likely to engage students, and it parallels what teachers have been doing with novels for years.
Just like we pull apart the classics line-by-line, children need to learn how to deconstruct visual texts frame-by-frame. (“Deconstruct” is the professional term for analyzing every aspect of a production—script, sound, visual elements, etc.).
With the limited amount of class time for such exercises, Dom assigns movies as homework. “You’ll watch a little in class, and then the kids will go home and watch the rest.” (To view at home, he suggests teachers can often purchase class sets of DVDs for about $10 a copy—comparable to the price of a novel, or kids can rent the film from a local video store.)
This approach offers great advantages for concerned families too. Parents have the opportunity to participate in this homework assignment and know exactly what is being presented to their children or teens.
Dom stresses films are a legitimate and necessary text for classroom study because young people need to learn not only how to use the many media sources around them, but also to understand how these products can convince, communicate, and, at times, manipulate our perspective of reality
If you have questions about the way media is used in your child’s classroom, Dom encourages parents to talk to their teachers. Ideally near the beginning of the school year you should ask how they plan to use audio/visual aids in the classroom. Will they use them for enrichment (for example, to enhance a printed text, or a movie based on a previously written novel), as an independent text for study, or for entertainment purposes?
If used as an independent text or enrichment, explore how they will choose a film. Do the students have any input into these selections? What deconstruction techniques do they use?
If movie watching opportunities are unplanned (for instance, as a reward, or to supplement lunch hour supervision), you can let the teacher know how much you would appreciate having a note sent home a few days prior to the showing. With advance notice you can handle any possible concerns and, if necessary, arrange for an alternative activity.
Personally, I have had many occasions to volunteer in classrooms and help educators teach deconstruction techniques. It is incredibly rewarding to see the excitement felt by students of all ages as they begin to decipher how a director uses music, camera angles, different forms of scriptwriting, and many other tools, to create a complex message. When taught these basic skills, your children can learn to read the secrets of media messages -- like a book.