Making the most of movies: there is more to be learned than just the plot

Film time! When students finish reading a book in English class or complete a unit in history, they look forward to watching a film interpretation of the material they just learned. In the students’ minds, watching the film offers a two to three-day sleep period in which they can pass notes to friends and finish homework for other classes. Movies, however, do not have to waste class time. If the teacher selects the right film—one that dovetails the subjects that are taught—students can actually learn from watching the movie.

A film on a historical topic offers a lesson in a more entertaining format. A Hollywood production will be more action-packed and thrilling—although, admittedly more exaggerated—than the primary and secondary sources students read about in their textbooks. In my history class, our teacher encouraged us to imagine being in the boots of the soldiers who attacked the strongly-defended beaches of Normandy on D-Day to try “walking a mile in their shoes,” as the idiom goes. The opening of Saving Private Ryan, set during World War II, took us back 72 years and showed us the hellish conditions of war. While increasing the students’ interest in the topic, films can mentally transport students to the period or place they are studying.

graphic by <span class="credit credit- "><a href="/credit/"Helen/" title="View all of this person's work">"Helen</a></span>

graphic by Helen Schrayer

Switching the education medium benefits students who struggled to understand the original text. For those who, for some reason, have fallen behind in their studies, the movie period offers them a brief grace period to better understand the subject. This will particularly benefit students who had difficulty adhering to traditional modes of learning and prefer a more visual or auditory learning style.

Watching films is not, contrary to speculation, solely a break for the teachers. They must first lead up to the film with a pre-viewing activity of some sort, create an activity to be completed during viewing, and follow up with a post-viewing activity. The teacher should have a definite purpose in using the film; otherwise, they have demoted themselves to glorified babysitters. Of course, teachers should not show too many films. If they do, the films become pedestrian and the students miss out on an opportunity to learn because they become distracted and do not take watching the movie seriously.

Some teachers might say that showing movies is a waste of time when students have such a reading deficit already, but with the right selection and a meaningful follow-up, students are drawn into the subject even more. Equally pertinent is that fact that most students just love and enjoy watching films. They provide a fun and well-deserved alternative from routine lectures and discussions. Films are not just the “reward” at the end of reading a book, but a legitimate way to enhance the student’s education.

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