It’s been repeatedly stated that the ELA curriculum of today has its roots in the literature of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. During that time, the stories that captivated young people were told in words on a printed page. Today’s youth, however, relate to stories told dramatically on screens, be they in movies, television programs, or video games. Just as the education of past centuries gave students the tools with which to analyze the literature they loved, so modern education needs to teach students how to analyze screened stories.
How to adapt the ELA curriculum to modern conditions is an ongoing discussion; no single answer has emerged. However, it seems clear that given the dominance of screened media in today’s culture, students will benefit from being given the tools to understand what they watch. Thus, in every ELA course, from the 6th grade through the 12th, a substantial part of the term should be devoted to the analysis of screened stories and documentary film.
Movies employ three types of artistic devices the first of which relate to the events of the story. These are some of the devices of written fiction currently taught by ELA teachers. Examples are: protagonist, antagonist, prologue, expository phase, voice, symbol, foreshadowing, flashback, imagery, irony, foil, archetype, motif, characterization, conflict, climax, denouement and epilogue. These are all found in movies and on television, as well as in the printed media of short stories and novels.
The second set of artistic devices employed in movies are the traditional devices of the stage: sets, simple lighting, costumes, props, sound effects, acting choice, and choreography of movement. For musicals, add music and dance choreography.
Screened presentations supplement these artistic devices, with yet a third layer of artistic expression. These are the cinematic methods of shot angle, camera movement within the shot, editing, music, color scheme, and many more lighting possibilities than can be achieved on stage.
All of the reasons to teach students about literary analysis, especially the exposition of theme, apply to film, but with much more force because students watch screened presentations more often than they read written stories. An excellent example of this is the analysis of literature for archetypal characters and stories repeated over the ages but with different circumstances, settings, and characters. Students will benefit by knowing that the characters populating their real and fantasy worlds are basic human types that people have been talking about from time immemorial. Students will benefit from an understanding that the plots of many movies and their favorite video games often follow archetypal patterns that have a special relationship to the human condition. The story and archetypes of the hero’s journey are perhaps the most central of these. Finally, students will benefit from understanding that screened presentations have themes that can be positive life lessons but also can lead in directions students may not want to go.
Lessons in how to evaluate documentaries are also important. While they are not as popular as fiction, documentaries frequently have an impact on society. Movies like Super Size Me, An Inconvenient Truth, and Bowling for Columbine are examples. Students need to understand that documentary filmmakers cannot help but have a point of view and that they use the devices of drama and film to influence the viewer in subtle ways.
Does this mean that class time will be wasted while the students are entertained by a movie and the teacher grades papers or reads a newspaper? Not for classes with good teachers. Moviemakers are in the business of engaging the audience. When their interest is piqued, students will pay attention and are likely to give their best in response to assignments. A good movie that expands student horizons, that is properly introduced, and that is accompanied by a film study worksheet which students must read before the film is shown, can be the beginning of an excellent educational experience. After the movie is over, the lesson is not done. Answering the questions on the film study worksheet, participating in class discussions, and completing assignments designed to get students to exercise the skills required by the ELA curriculum will make the unit an active educational experience. In this way, teachers will meets curriculum goals and, in a few instances, change lives. Moreover, just as students are assigned to read books at home, assignments can be designed in which students are required to watch movies at home, with their families or in groups.
TeachWithMovies.com gives ELA teachers numerous tools with which to teach about screened stories. In addition to 350 Movie Learning Guides and Lesson Plans, TWM offers various handouts and articles including the following:
Keeping ELA classes relevant to students in the modern era requires that additional class time and teaching resources be devoted to screened presentations of stories.
James Frieden, August, 2011
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