How To Teach with Movies

It can be tempting to pop a movie in the VCR or DVD player when it's the day before spring break, or when you're simply worn out from a marathon night of grading papers. The students would love a free day, right? But with more required curriculum to cover every year, can you really spare an hour for mindless entertainment? If you change your perception of movies from baby-sitters to powerful teaching devices, you'll no longer lose precious teaching time when you turn on the television in your classroom.

  1. Use movies to teach a concept. Sometimes new ideas are absorbed better when they're told in an entertaining and visually stimulating manner. Documentaries offer an enriching educational experience with interviews and other first-hand accounts. Many a complex scientific concept has been grasped through the fun presentation of Bill Nye the Science Guy episodes. Check you local PBS listings, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and similar stations for ideas, and ask you media specialist for available informational videos and DVDs.

  • Talk about the movie as you would about literature. Examining the storytelling devices and concepts of a movie can be just as rewarding as doing so for a novel. You can use a film as part of a thematic unit or a stand-alone lesson that takes much less time than reading an entire novel. The best movies touch upon timeless themes and raise important issues that can lead to informative class discussions and inspired writing assignments. However, even a fun comedy could be used for a lesson on simple concepts like plot, setting and character.

  • Discuss cinematic aspects of the movie. You don't have to be a film studies major to help your students become more savvy movie-watchers. Ask them to consider casting, costuming, setting, sound, musical score, elements within a scene, and other directorial choices. Why does the camera zoom in at a particular moment? Why does an important scene take place off-camera? These kinds of exercises can be performed with entire videos or select scenes carefully chosen to highlight specific techniques. If you're unsure about these topics yourself, look to a basic film reference for ideas.

  • Compare the book to the movie. This is an old stand-by, but just because it's a traditional idea doesn't mean it isn't useful. Choose an especially memorable scene, and ask the students how they would have filmed it themselves. Create comparison charts, or simply ask the students to take notes on the similarities and differences. If you wish, notes and charts can lead to longer assignments that ask students to provide in-depth analysis.

  • Visit new lands. Whether you're teaching social studies or a foreign language, film is a valuable tool. When you can't travel around the world with your students, you can do the next best thing by showing them films of locations you're studying. Students can take notes or answer a set list of questions about the movie.

  • Provide foreign language listening practice. There are dozens of international films that can provide your students with an authentic language listening experience. You can choose to show a movie with subtitles if you feel the language is too advanced for your students. They'll still gain valuable experience in listening for familiar words and hearing native accents.

    There are also films produced especially for beginning language students. For instance, many Disney movies are available dubbed in French, German and Spanish. Since the vocabulary of these movies is aimed at a younger audience and the original English-language versions will be familiar to students, these can provide a less-daunting immersion experience.

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