Monday, March 17, 2014

Film School: Why "We watched a movie" Is A-OK

I've been out of the blogosphere for the past month because of a work project that is taking over my life, but I told myself that, if I received a holy sign like a snow day, I would blog again. Happy Snowy St. Patrick's Day!

Instructional dogma: we all have some. Old school types want to see quiet children in orderly desks working on extended compositions with texts by Hawthorne or Yeats. New school types want to see chatty children in clustered desks looking happy and engaged with Kingsolver or an audio file from NPR. All of us want to see outcomes posted on the board--hall pass paperwork neat and orderly--grades in Powerschool on time.

Hard-and-fast rules are comforting. They give us structure and order. They give us predictability. They give us accountability. They help us to feel like we are keeping chaos at bay. What a shame that they do not help us to do a better job. One topic that is often a hard-and-fast rule in schools is a maxim that constitutes one of my greatest pet peeves: No Showing Films in Class. Film is literature. Film is art. Film is culture. Film is, yes, fun, and we need to stop holding that against it. For all of these reasons, film should play a significant role in literacy instruction.

Rules about not using film in class typically originate (as do most rules) from the bad behavior of the slackers. The slacker has no lesson plan? Show a movie. It’s the day before Christmas break? Show a movie. It’s the day before summer break? Show a movie. The slacker gave up on his professional life twenty years ago but still wants to collect a paycheck? Show a movie. As Jimmy Fallon jokes, “Thank you, watching-a-movie-in-class for being teacher code for ‘Miss Gallagher has a hangover.’” The slackers (whose numbers are few) cause administrators to make pronouncements like, “No films on the day before a break!” “No films on Fridays!” “No films, I said! No films!” These rules do not make slackers behave (and, honestly, they are rarely enforced). They give a false sense of order in a chaotic world, and they certainly punish English teachers whose content includes film because it should.

To get this argumentative ball rolling, let’s take documentaries off the table. Documentaries are visual representations of nonfiction text, and just about everyone on the planet values them as long as they are tied to the content of the unit under study. As long as a lesson with a documentary follows educational use laws involving copyright regulations, it gets a free pass, a free pass we need to extend to films with fictional narratives.

Film is a medium for literature, just as paper, live performance, and music are media for literature. It is simply a medium. Because it is a popular medium and a modern medium, we do not give it the literary street cred that we give, say, theatrical productions. You want to take students to see a mediocre stage production of anything at a local theater, a play that will remove students from all of their classes for the entire day? No problem. But you want to use clips of one of the greatest films ever made, To Kill a Mockingbird, in class to examine how the filmmaker’s use of light and shadow reinforces the issue of racial discrimination in the South during the Depression in your English 9 block? You better have your ducks in a row if an administrator walks in because an interrogation is likely.

Film is rich for literacy instruction because it gives students an intuitively engaging way to enter text, to delve deeply in text, and to extend their understanding of text. Allow me to use a recent unit I taught to make the case, a unit focused on The Great Gatsby for my 11th graders as we awaited the release of the latest film adaptation of that novel.

Recently, Australian director Baz Luhrmann did his second favor-to-English-teachers-that-we-can-never-repay by remaking The Great Gatsby and casting Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. The Baz/Leo duo already did more for Shakespeare instruction than anyone could have ever asked by teaming up for their version of Romeo + Juliet back in 1996. Teachers are divided about whether they love the 1968 Zeffirelli version of the play more than the Luhrmann one, but anyone who has used the Luhrmann version instructionally knows the debt we owe those men. Guns? Cross-dressing? Leo with his shirt open? America’s freshmen are on board. Imagine my delight when I learned that the two were tackling Gatsby, a book I had always liked but never loved to teach…until King Baz and Prince Leo came along.

The Great Gatsby novel itself has much to commend it for classroom use: its thematic focus on the American Dream makes it blend well with many issues in American history and American literature both old and new, it is a text that students are expected to know when they get to college and such, and it is short. It is very, very short, and that makes reluctant readers more willing to tackle it. Once I knew a new film version was coming, I knew this was my chance to up my Gatsby game. In those three instructional areas I mentioned above, this new Gatsby was a gift to both me and my students.

Enter Text
I believe in giving students choice in what they read within parameters. I wanted my students to read Gatsby so that I could experiment with what I knew would be some great film tools via Leo, but I also wanted them to have the option to kick it to the curb if they truly were not interested. I gave book chats for three different books (as I usually do) and let them vote, but when I presented the Gatsby option, I used the first gift that Luhrmann gave me, the original movie trailer he released for the film: “By the way, kids, this is coming soon to a theater near you.” We discussed the elements that the director was able to include that I had not mentioned in my book chat, everything from the costumes to the violence to the music to Leo—oh, beautiful, beautiful Leo. They were in, unanimously ALL IN.

As I saw new trailers released that were specific to particular cable channels with specific audiences (Spike TV, Lifetime, MTV), I used those clips as warm-ups before reading tasks as well to delve into the issue of audience appeal: the plot elements selected, the soundtrack selections used, the pacing, the focus. Which one is for which audience and why? Can you determine which one played on which channel?

When beginning a new text, an English teacher’s greatest reading challenge is getting students into it and willing to stick with it. With reluctant and struggling readers, this task can be enormous, but even with strong readers, the challenge is real. In the earliest days of reading a new work, the dividing line between those who will continue to read and those who will check out (as any secondary reading specialist will tell you)  is this: Can they visualize it? 

Lurhmann is an auteur, which means that he is a director who makes films with a distinctive creative vision that shows itself in every element of his films. With Gatsby, I saw that his vision extends to his promotional materials as well, materials that helped my struggling readers get that visual handle on the characters and thus the book. Modern English instruction involves not only print text but also visual images as well. Examine how the movie posters for each character reinforce important elements of characterization in the book and also use light, shadow, and color to convey subtle messages to the reader/viewer:

Why does Tom (a wealthy, WASP-y jock in Fitzgerald’s estimation) look like a gangster? Why is Myrtle in red? Whose face is in partial shadow, and what does that imply? This activity is not just fun (and it is fun); it is close reading. Students learn to take apart details in a larger text and analyze how those details serve the overall text. That is reading. It is a reading task that helps them to understand what strong analytical readers do before they apply that same skill to the print text, and it is also a skill that they need to navigate their overwhelmingly visual world.

Delve Deeply Into Text
The concept of film adaptation is an incredibly interesting one to students. When they read the book first, they develop that world in their heads, and typically no film version can stack up. Students who view the film first can engage with the text more readily, but they typically do not develop the emotional attachment to the text that they do with the film. What I have learned about teaching these pieces of the film while reading the text is that students no longer feel like they must devote themselves emotionally to one or the other: they become better critical thinkers about both.

I was fortunate to have a responsive principal last year who allowed me to make my case about film analysis and then approved a field trip to see the film. When we returned from that viewing, students were eager to discuss elements of the adaptation that they loved: the costume design, the soundtrack in particular scenes, Myrtle’s death scene, Leo—oh, beautiful, beautiful Leo…. They were likewise eager to discuss elements of the adaptation that horrified them: the narrative add-on of Nick-as-mental-patient (“What the whaaaat, Ms. Thomas?”), the soundtrack in particular scenes. They wanted to know: Where was Pammy? And what about Tom’s line about Pammy during the conflict in the hotel room? Why did they put that in Daisy’s mouth near the beginning instead? That line is supposed to show that she and Tom loved each other, not serve as more evidence that Tom is a pig! They cared about those changes, those seemingly small changes with ripples of consequence in overall effect. I had them write essays on those issues of adaptation, and I read some of the more evidence-based responses that I have ever had from juniors.

Extend Understanding
One of the best parts of teaching film as a narrative art is that it changes forever the way that students watch films. After they have examined clips for shadow vs. light, mise en scene vs. montage, close up vs. wide shot, and so forth, they cannot help but see those elements in everything they watch. This alertness to detail makes them not only better at discriminating visual details; it gives them that sense of “I get it!” that encourages academic pursuits and artistic sensibility. 

Baz Luhrmann’s wife, Catherine Martin, is an Academy Award-winning costume and production designer. I made sure to review set and costume design before we went to see the film so that they were ready for whatever she might offer them cinematically. Students’ ability to connect thematic elements of the book to pieces such as 

this dress

and this dress

and this contrast in male apparel (poor Tobey)

made students feel like film critics, and what are film critics anyway but very close readers, the very thing I want students to be.

As a final closure for the unit, I showed them the photo array below from the British tabloid The Daily Mail. In it, the stars of the movie arrive for the Cannes Film Festival. When students saw what the actors were wearing, they literally screamed. They saw immediately that those garments were not just whatever fancy designer garb the actors had chosen at Armani; those pieces all reinforce the characterization of the parts they played, and they suspected that Catherine Martin was behind all of it. (The classic Gatsby tux! Tom looks like a thug! Myrtle is back in red! Daisy is a pastel princess!) Was the discussion silly and fun? Yes. Was it also a sign that they were pulling together the thematic and critical elements of the unit? Yes. It was beautiful. (Speaking of beautiful, the shot of Carey Mulligan and the umbrella? Oh, beautiful, beautiful Carey.…)

My Gatsby lessons are not the be-all/end-all of teaching students about film, but they make the point that these highly engaging, artistically rendered tools are at our disposal to support instruction in important ways. Telling teachers that we can’t use them on Fridays or on the day before a break or at all because a first-year teacher showed his students Batman once he decided to quit teaching is not OK. Fire that kid, and give me my movies back.

Film is a medium. Film is literature. Film is a narrative art. Leo and I say this with love, hard-and-fast rulers: Give us (film) liberty, or give us (instructional) death!

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