As an English teacher, I am always looking for new ways to engage students in the writing process. I am continually trying to find and create interesting writing prompts that engage and challenge my students. Two years ago when I was asked to teach a film elective, I was provided with a wonderful opportunity to develop a course that would encourage students to write in new and exciting ways.
Since most teens love going to the movies, the engagement part of the course was easy. In fact, attendance in my film class was almost always 100%. Squeals of protest rose up each time I pushed the STOP button on the DVD player because the bell was going to ring. I actually had to make a rule that students could not go online when they got home to watch the rest of a movie we were watching in class.
While the course does address elements of film discourse including color, framing, lighting, motion, transitions, acting, and sound, my main purpose in designing this class was to provide students with compelling and interesting topics to write about. I wanted students to be able to describe, argue, persuade, compare, contrast, explain, and analyze what they were viewing on the screen. And it worked. The film course has become extremely popular, and I truly believe that the students have become better writers as a result of being part of it.
In designing the curriculum for the course, I wanted to be sure to focus on the great film classics. The class begins, of course, with the movie that set the bar for all films, Citizen Kane. Citizen Kane is a tough movie for most high school students. It was made many years ago, and it is filmed in black and white. A deeper examination of the film can open up a great deal of discussion on topics ranging from blatant materialism, political downfall, and privacy rights. In fact, students quickly see that Kane's own ambition mirrors that of several literary characters and real life public figures, including Macbeth and Bill Clinton. It wasn't hard to come up with thought-provoking essays for the film, and the resulting writing was some of the best I've seen in over sixteen years of teaching. Other classics such as Casablanca, The Graduate, Schindler's List, The Shawshank Redemption, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest were all great springboards to refreshing writing. Stephen King's Different Seasons short story collection includes both "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" (The Shawshank Redemption) and "The Body" (Stand by Me), and comparing and contrasting the literature with the films can be an excellent exercise.
Some of the most exhilarating essays from this class, however, resulted from viewing movies that may not have made most film critics' top ten lists. My favorite section of the film course focused on coming-of-age movies, including Breaking Away, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Stand by Me. For Breaking Away, the essay focused on examining each boy's journey from teen to adult. The Breakfast Club's essay asked, "How representative of high school students are the teens in the movie? Do those representations hold up today? What new teen characterizations would be added (or subtracted) to fit today's world?" For Sixteen Candles, students could choose from the following essays:
1. John Hughes was applauded for going against the way most filmmakers were portraying teens (as vapid, horny, pimply caricatures) and portraying the teenage experience with pain, seriousness, and melodrama. How accurate is this assessment? Give evidence from the movie to support your claim.
2. John Hughes was accused of portraying damaging ethnic stereotypes (with the character Long Duk Dong specifically) in his movie Sixteen Candles. In an essay, discuss whether you agree or disagree with this view.
3. This movie was made in the '80s. How has teenage life changed since this time? What new forces are at work, and what older ones have disappeared?
Students usually have difficulty in settling on one of these essays because they want to discuss each and every one of them, and after writing, we do. Even a supposedly lightweight movie like Dirty Dancing, which my students had never seen and absolutely ADORED (both boys and girls) prompted exciting discourse and forceful writing. For that movie, students were asked whether a movie that is a huge commercial success is necessarily a good movie. Further, I asked students to evaluate the remarks critics made about the movie. For example, Roger Ebert said of Dirty Dancing:
The movie makes some kind of a half-hearted attempt to rip off West Side Story by making the girl Jewish and the boy Italian — or Irish, I forget. It doesn't matter since the movie itself never uses the word "Jewish" or says out loud what obviously is the main point of the plot: the family's opposition to a Gentile boyfriend of low social status. I guess people who care about such things are supposed to be able to read between the lines, and the great unwashed masses of American moviegoers are condemned to think the old man doesn't like Swayze's dirty dancing.
This prompt also provoked extremely well thought-out and insightful essays, as did the one for Pretty Woman that examined how women's clothing is so instrumental to their transformations — both cinematic and real-life.
A movie like Sling Blade, loved by some students and hated by others, was the perfect vehicle for teaching students the process of writing a movie review. The classic '70s movie The Warriors allowed students to explore what makes a cult classic and why a movie endures and becomes part of the pop culture lexicon.
Since skills related to media (both the critical analysis and production of media) are integrated throughout the Common Core Standards, I know that the film curriculum is in alignment with the competencies that today's students need. Using films to provide students with a variety of writing experiences is a great way to engage students in curriculum that is both engaging and effective.
For other films to use in the classroom, check out American Films by Paul Willetts Kramer.