Great tips on innovative ways to teach film

Nic Ponsford

Nicole is the digital leader of @WomenEd, leader of @WomenEd_Tech and founder of @gendercharter. Previously, she was an award-winning AST in Media and New Technologies. Nicole is passionate about gender equality being the ‘new normal’.

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Given that most people enjoy watching movies, it’s often tempting to just ‘put on’ a film. However, while the age of pupils will restrict screening opportunities (Junior schools will likely continue to miss out on Goodfellas), there are still a huge amount of films that students can really sink their teeth into. What is the moral subtext of The Iron Giant? What can Casablanca tell us about narrative? Trained cineaste Nicole Ponsford gives her advice on how to make the most of a flick in the classroom.

Are you one of those teachers who “puts” on a film on the last day of term? Are you? Well if you are, I am afraid you will not be getting a Christmas card from me. As a film teacher, I like to teach film. I think one issue that causes film to have a bad name in education is that many adults see film as escapism and therefore do not know how or why it needs teaching. They associate it with their childhood and they do not see that moving image / film/ the movies are an art form.

What is film? Film can refer to any piece of moving image – a YouTube clip or a three hour period drama (you can also include television to moving image if you will. It is interesting to use the term ‘moving image’ as it allows you to open up the genre). Films represent artistic visions, themes of humanity and help us to learn more about ourselves. Why is that comedy funny to one person and not another? Why was that theme important to the audience at that time? Yes, you can escape within them – but these concepts need to be acknowledged as an element you can draw from film – something you can learn.

Students need to learn how to interpret film, just as they need to know that representation in the media is something that is constructed. To make this point, I always used to call it REpresentation. To illustrate the fact that the presentation has gone through a process – it is re + presentation. As digital learners, today’s students need to be confident in deconstructing the world around them to have a better sense of whom they are. Today there is still far too much emphasis on celebrity and Hollywood, in terms of poor female representation and size ‘zero’. If we can teach our students that it is NOT real, it is constructed and they can construct it too, I am sure they will move away from material aspirations and put more worth themselves. Film teacher rant over.

So, back to the point. How are films used in schools? Often in teaching to ‘engage’ that noisy Year 10 group, or hold a large year group’s attention in an assembly. In English lessons (and I have done it too) they can illustrate what that non-English speaker or Elizabethan playwright meant in the book. But films are more than that. Most teachers grew up with film. We love the blockbusters and the classics. But when we ‘screen’ (if you take anything from this article, I would like you to now use this word, please reader!) an extract or an entire film, the very fact that it is in a classroom means that this should be a learning experience that engages and challenges simultaneously.

Moving image can be used in a number of ways in school. You can screen (yes!) short sections to illustrate a point or event, you can screen(too much?) an entire film to explore artistic interpretations, or you can play around with its form. Students love getting involved in film, watching it and making it. Even if you are not an expert with a camcorder and have no idea what a steadicam is, there are quick and easy ways you can engage with film in different ways. Here are some examples:

It’s a Whole New World

Using either the internet, a globe or blow up globe (much more fun!) ask students to choose a country to research: Cinema, a decade in time, a director, actor/ess or a film theory

Radio Gaga

Ask students to research how moving image is presented and discussed online. Ask them to look at the BBC iPlayer and iTunes, for example. Where can they hear about film? One of my favourites is the Radio 5 Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode’s podcast (live at 2pm on a Friday if you are teaching!).

Foley Time!

Foley artists create the sound when there is none. They are incredibly important in the world of CGI and animation. You can place a number of common objects around (shoes, umbrella, bubble wrap for example) and organise the students into groups. They will need a director and foley artist at least. Give them one object and ask them to bring this ‘sound’ into a scene or use it to inspire one.

The Greats / Oscar Time

This can run as a series of starters or over a few lessons. Ask the students to choose a director (they do not need to be English-speaking). Note: You may feel this is a chance for students to find out more about ‘classic’ directors through time. Give them time to research online and then create a presentation (see above) to do in class. The rest of the class will take notes. They will really enjoy this, and will learn more about the history of film as a result!

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Play an extract of music (Note: Classical or film scores work best here). I would suggest you allow around 3-4 minutes minimum to allow them to really listen. Students then ‘interpret’ the tone and create a narrative / storyboard around this. To help focus the students, you (or they) can choose some aspects to scaffold their learning: character, location or genre.

What’s the Big Idea?

Create examples of contemporary and historical film theories to explore. Examples include Post Colonialism, Marxism and Surrealism. You can share these out amongst the group, or get them to focus on one a lesson so you can discuss it later.

Back to the Future

Using IMBD or a similar site, ask them to research the most popular films of different decades. I would suggest that you start with (early cinema) 1890s until today. They can then create presentation (digital or otherwise) for the class (If you do go for paper, this is a great plan for that blank wall display!). Encourage pupils to be innovative with their responses - either a SKY news report or a radio show. You could use one of these sites to really bring in the new techs: Glogster, Vimeo, YouTube, Flickr, Prezi, Scribd, Slideshare, Slide Rocket , SlideBoom, BUBBL, or Wordle.

What’s That Noise?

Screen an extract of moving image - this could be as an introduction to a topic or text – BUT turn the sound off. Get students to predict what diegetic (“in the frame”) and non-diegetic sound (off set) they would hear. Then compare. What did they notice? Why did the director choose these elements?

Now you can walk the walk, can you talk the talk? If you do use film, or need it to teach, there is a wealth of film language that English, Media and Film teachers would LOVE you to use across the curriculum and across the ages. This is the language of digital literacy and I would love to see it consistently used across more schools. Here are some key terms for moving image analysis:

  1. Camerawork: This includes the type of camera shot, the angle and the movement
  2. Editing: audio and transitions, subtitles and use of computer generated imagery
  3. Sound: non-diegetic (outside of the ‘frame’ – the soundtrack) and diegetic (what is inside the ‘frame’ = the actors’ dialogue, a car tyre screeching)
  4. Mise en Scene: ‘Inside the frame’ – my way of dissecting this is using the acronym SCALS:
  • Setting 
  • Costume and makeup
  • Actors (casting and star image)
  • Location (time and place) 
  • Special Effects: either practical (stunts, pyrotechnics) or CGI

Even if you are putting on screening a film, so you can start packing up early or do 1:1 discussions with students, a film can be analysed in these terms (with this language).

If you are a Film Studies teacher, you know your work starts early. Looking at students in the younger classes and ensuring they have a love of film. Giving students opportunities to fall in love with the classics and discuss it with their peers. Looking for national competitions for scriptwriting and direction. The other aspect of film that a FS teacher would suggest sometimes gets over-looked are the ‘soft skills’ learnt in the filmmaking process. These include teamwork (try creating a film as a ‘group’ of individuals!), the decision making and selection process (that each moving image production demands) and the concentration needed for editing the final piece together.

Think you know film? Think again. Hopefully you’ll never “put on” a film again.

How do you go about utilising film in the classroom? What adventures can be had. Let us know in the comments.

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