A movie a week

jason-and-the-argonauts-poster.jpg

We'll be enacting a lot of oddball ideas at our school. One of the simpler ones — and yet one I'm most excited about! — is to watch a movie together each week. What, you ask? With droves of subjects to be explored, with scads of skills to be mastered, why would we frivol away precious class time passively staring at a (gulp) screen? Can't kids do that at home? Isn't this too easy? Doesn't this go against the whole idea of the school?!

Nope! Let's explore this.

When I was in school, I often saw teachers use movies foolishly: as "treats" (they rarely were), as history lessons (they're typically terrible history!), and as (it seemed) excuses for the teachers to take breaks.

We'll use 'em much better.

Movies provoke moral questions.

Should we root against King Kong, or for him? Are the Greeks adventurers in the 1963 Jason and the Argonauts actually heroes, or are they villains? What's up with the weird xenophobia of the sheep in 1995's Babe? Should Charlie really have refused to give the Everlasting Gobstopper to Mr. Slugworth? (I mean, come on! Wonka was being a jerk!) When Indiana Jones shoots that amazing swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and you laughed, were you being a horrible human being?

Movies make it natural to probe the questions that matter.

Not that we can't do the same thing for books: we will! (Later I'll post on our reading curriculum.) But movies are wonderful fodder for this, too.

Movies allow for intergenerational conversations.

Modern media profits from splitting up the generations: making new movies and new games for each age cohort. This can make it hard to find common cultural touchstones. By bringing classic movies into the school, we can make it easier for kids to have meaningful discussions with their parents and grandparents — who have seen Mary Poppins, and Snow White, and so on.

Maybe we could even invite parents and grandparents in to join us!

Movies saturate us in foreign cultures.

French films aren't American films. Japanese films aren't French films. And Indian films are different still!

Without actually living in another country, it's hard to get a taste of a different national culture. We'll be trying to do just that in a few ways: books, food, music, art…

But film might be the most useful of these. No other media combines stories with visuals with sounds so well — no other media offers up such quantities of sheer information in such a short time.

Movies support reading comprehension.

As Daniel Willingham — the greatest educational psychologist on the scene today — writes:

You need to know more than vocabulary to read with understanding: you need knowledge of the world.

(That comes from a YouTube video he posted about reading comprehension. It's good — if you want more, check out his wondrous book, Why Don't Students Like School?)

Well: movies give knowledge of the world!

Good movies (like good books) are revelatory: they give us a peek inside the heads of other people. They show us what other lives are like — around the world, or in the past, or in our own towns.

Willingham, again from the video:

So who are "good readers"? People who know a little bit of everything, so they know something about whatever comes up on a reading test! General cultural knowledge correlates about .50 with reading comprehension test scores!!!!

(Those excessive exclamation points, incidentally, are from the distinguished professor himself. I only would've used three.)

Films give general cultural knowledge.

Movies beg for criticism.

Was a movie enjoyable, or not? Believable, or not? Biased, or not?

How did it depict men? Women? Rich people? The poor? Blacks, and Whites, and Asians, and so on? Urbanites, and country life? Religiosity? Traditional values?

What's the tacit worldview of the movie? What sort of person does the filmmaker want you to become?

We don't want our students to be mere consumers of culture: we want to help cultivate wise users. They need to get smart about the values (explicit and implicit) that they're being fed.

Finally:

Movies are terribly enjoyable.

I've been sneaking around this point so far. I've talked about how movie-watching can help develop wisdom (they can communicate other cultures, and be fodder for critical reflection). And I've talked about how movie-watching can help develop mastery (in reading).

But at their heart good movies bring love. Movies — and I say this as a person who reads more books than he watches films — are some of our civilization's best story-telling. They tap into our emotions so perfectly to communicate a different vision of reality. They can help students (and faculty) fall more deeply in love with the world.

It's a crying shame that schools don't make greater use of film.

Well: ours will!

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA