Most of my students are visual learners; I’ve written before about the role Broadway musicals played in my classroom before I retired in June. Motion pictures played a strategic role as well. I wanted to make connections through film that would help students retain content knowledge in my Global History, U.S. History, African-American Studies and Latin & Caribbean Studies courses. However, I enjoyed much more success with this medium earlier in my career than in the more recent years. Let me explain.
The challenge with movies is distinguishing what to show to our students and how to show it. What holds the students’ interest and what might bore them to death? Do you present an entire film or clips from a motion picture? These are not easy questions to answer. Taking all of this into consideration, my goal was to select motion pictures that met the students where they were. In other words, I choose films that matched the students’ interests, deportment, curriculum, and scheduling.
Early on in my teaching career I was able to show my Global History students Apocalypto – the entire film. At the time they were with me daily for a double block class, meaning an hour and a half each day. This gave me opportunities I might not otherwise have had. Let me be clear, I am not a fan of the film’s director Mel Gibson – far from it, for reasons I will leave out of this post. Yet the film presents a vibrant interpretation of Pre-Columbian America. Students witness through the film Native American heritage, technology, family patterns, traditions, and belief systems. The thrill of the action experienced by the lead character Jaguar Paw in his quest for survival captures the students’ attention. They also see the upcoming disease and cultural disruption that erupted with the arrival of Europeans in The Americas.
Another film I’ve tried to use in my Global History class but with much less success was The Agony and the Ecstasy. This film is about the life of the artist and sculptor Michelangelo, as well as the Renaissance in general. Unfortunately, this 1965 film is a bit dated for today’s students. Making an adjustment on my part, I began to show select scenes from the movie, such as the painting of the ceiling of The Sistine Chapel, to beneficial effect.
Another film clip I would show to both my Global History and U.S. History students was the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan portraying the American landing at Normandy Beach in northern France during WWII. This visual experience strengthens the students’ understanding of the importance and sacrifice of the D-Day Invasion. The attendant bombs, bullets, and bloodshed in the episode didn’t hurt their retention either. Although more benign, from The History Channel’s America: The Story Of Us, I successfully presented clips about the Erie Canal, the Transcontinental Railroad, the development of monopolies, the Dust Bowl, and many other U.S. History topics.
I had great opportunities to show complete motion pictures in my African American Studies and Latin & Caribbean Studies courses like 12 Years a Slave, 42, and as I’ve written earlier, Memphis: A New Musical. Each of these pictures made a connection to a specific era, event or topic.
I should point out that as we watched a film over a series of days there was a worksheet that the students had to complete. In addition, we would watch the film in stages, pausing along the way in order to discuss events, themes, and characterization. Most importantly there was a culminating essay the students are required to write when we completed watching the motion picture. For example, the film 42 presents challenges faced by Jackie Robinson as he breaks the color barrier in baseball’s modern era. The students were tasked with identifying and writing about these challenges: racism and segregation, marriage and fatherhood, acceptance, pride, etc.
In my Latin & Caribbean American Studies class I typically began with The Motorcycle Diaries. This film is about Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s motorcycle journey throughout South America with a close friend in his pre-revolutionary days. From Argentina to Chile to Peru to Venezuela the students witness an aesthetic portrayal of South America. Students encounter vibrant and diverse people, music and dance, food and traditions.
To explore Latins Americans within the United States of America, I showed my students A Better Life. This film portrays the challenges faced by an illegal Mexican immigrant – a single father struggling to raise and support his American-born son. By the end of the film there is not a dry eye in the classroom (oops, spoiler alert).
Over the years I’ve shown my students Ken Burns’ Unforgivable Blackness (a documentary about the life of the boxer Jack Johnson); Searching for Sugarman (a documentary about the Latin American performer Sixto Rodriguez); Evita; Fruitvale Station; Selma; Moonlight; and 20 Feet From Stardom (a documentary celebrating the contribution to music of backup singers).
One of my favorite films for my students was Small Island. I read this novel one summer and it captured my spirit. PBS produced a two-part series based on the novel that was true to the book – very few if any liberties taken were for dramatic effect. The storyline shows Jamaican immigrants in pre- and post-WWII London and their homeland of Jamaica, presenting the intersection of race, marriage, friendship, and motherhood, not only as it relates to a mother and her child, but also between a mother country and her colony. Its portrayal of assimilation and rejection directly connects to the lives of many of my students who are either immigrants themselves, or the child or grandchild of immigrants.
One film I used with utter failure was West Side Story. This was a movie that I had high hopes for. It wasn’t just, for example, the ballet choreography with a basketball or the dated musical score; the storyline itself failed to connect with the students. The discussion after the film, especially from female students, would go along the lines of,
“Mr., are they serious?”
“What do you mean?”
“That chick’s brother took care of her and she turns on him for some boy she met just one day ago? Come one now.”
A point well taken. Going forward, I pivoted once more showing students the scene with the song America. This bouncy tune set on a rooftop juxtaposes the benefits and hardships faced by Puerto Rican immigrants (as a metaphor for all immigrants) coming to live in America.
As I mentioned earlier, showing complete movies over a series of days presented obstacles. As the years passed, students’ attention spans diminished – strikingly so. I partly associate this reduced ability to engage with an entire film with smartphones: Students have become conditioned to snippets of information. Sadly, this aspect plays out beyond films to learning in the classroom in general. It’s especially a negative consideration when learning history because history at its core is basically a storyline that unfolds over time.
So, always adapting, my goal consistently remained to try and meet our students where they were. Using the art form of film I wanted to gain positive energy, student engagement and experience beneficial results.