The Truth About High School Students

Pattie Sloan and Joan Flora: two teachers challenging classroom status quo.

In our past posts we have examined creating a link from novels in the core English classes to current global issues, but in this post we want to examine using an elective class, such as Film as Literature to foster current global awareness.

Creating inquisitive students who demonstrate  understanding and compassion for other cultures is a daunting task.  However, the last two years, this task is more manageable through an elective class,  Film as Literature, that Pattie inherited.  As she morphed the curriculum from a “historical walk through American cinema” to  foreign and independent films that focus on the lives and problems of people in cultures foreign to most American students, students have developed a curiosity and a compassion that opened doors for questioning and acceptance, which we consider the rich rewards of teaching.

Students developed new and deeper perspectives that stretched beyond our classroom walls.

The Truth About Students:

  • Students want to know what has occurred and what is currently occurring in their world.  It is a fallacy to believe that students are apathetic.  Rather, we suspect that most students haven’t had curated exposure to global perspectives, which is exactly what effective teachers offer students.  Film becomes a medium where we can actively and effectively engage young people.
  • Students want connections to the world.   Students want to make connections to the unfamiliar, but they have few resources to accomplish that.    Using film media as the messenger allows characters and conflicts to share the story of world problems so students can make meaning and build connections.
  • Students want the truth.   When we do not tell the truth of the world about its people and its problems, we allow students to believe that the world they are experiencing is the life all people experience.  We allow them to believe that their cultural norms are the norms for everyone, which is a very limited and limiting truth.
  • Students want critical thinking.  They like wrestling with essential questions with no right or wrong answers because it allows them to think beyond the world constructed for them by media, school, and family.  They become explorers of truth and critical thinkers.

Norms for Teaching Film as Literature:

  • Every film begins with a study of a map.  We believe Ambrose Bierce best said it: “War is God’s way of making Americans learn geography.”   Most students are woefully ignorant of other cultures and their countries.   They have been taught the person, place or thing concept of global studies, but they never connected to the people in their studies.  The map allows us to see  how the location is important to the story.
  • Every film begins with a background of the country.  Without that back-story, the students are thrown into a conflict without any points of reference.  Background information always  includes items such as the result of colonialism, tribal groups, languages,  gender issues, and religion.  Students begin to understand the complexity of conflict, which isn’t created by one issue,  but small issues alchemizing to create sometimes tragic circumstances.
  • Essential questions  (see our Eight Essential Questions post from the Oregon Reading Association’s Winter Institute) are used throughout the films.  Essential questions allow us to think like the people in the movie and closely consider their actions from their point of view.  Rather than choosing the best character or the best scene, we concentrate on the difficult decisions our characters are forced to make, and then we consider what we would do and why.  Forced to stand in their shoes, we develop empathy for the characters and their plights.
  • Character traits of key players are discussed as we examine the choices required of the characters in the movies.  Using the KIPP character traits (see KIPP character report card on prezi presentation), students examine not just the actions, but the shallowness or  nobility of character that creates those actions and implications in characters’ lives and the lives of others.

Films  that Connect and Teach Students:

Genocide:  Hotel Rwanda, God Grew Tired of Us,  and The Lost Boys of Darfur

Middle East:  Paradise Now, Lemon Tree and The Band’s Visit

Norms in Marriage:  The Arrangement and  Monsoon Wedding

Geriatrics: Young @ Heart

Personal Growth:  The Way and  Salmon Fishing in Yemen

Racism:  Hotel Rwanda, Mississippi Burning, The Help,  and The Kite Runner

Immigration:  Amreeka and Under the Same Moon

To lighten the mood, Pattie ends the study with What’s Up, Doc?–a screwball comedy to keep us saneSeven Brides for Seven Brothers–a musical that starts with groans and ends in applause; and The Odd Couple, a little Neil Simon for balance.

Students Reflect on Their Learning:

…I learned more about issues in the world in this class than in my history classes.  It really made me want to get involved in my community and help people who were struggling.

-Onie O’Keeley

….I saw that there was more out there than just me and my culture.  I found a part of myself while viewing these movies.  I realized how much compassion I have for others and just how many heroes are out there.  I also learned for every hero, there is a bad guy.

-Andrew Alderman

I did not get what I expected.  I was expecting a series of boring movies I just had to watch. …I learned how to cry without being afraid of other people’s opinions.  I learned a lot, and I would take it again in a heartbeat.

-Hector Alcantara

Rigor and relevance is essential for every class.  Granted, students are connected to the  world through the Internet, which is wonderful, but  students still choose to connect with the familiar.  While we applaud the Internet’s brilliance and promise, it is not always expanding students’ worlds.  In fact, we fear without curated learning experiences that the Internet may work to confine students’ worlds because they are not experiencing the rigor or the relevance that will change their lives.  Using films as literature, we’ve witnessed students merging into worlds they never knew existed and examining issues they learned to care about.  It’s not beyond our students to develop awareness and compassion that changes their outlooks, making them empathetic, global citizens.

About Teaching it Forward

We are high school language arts teachers in Oregon.
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