Showing Movies in Class: It’s Not Just for Subs
A MiddleWeb Blog
It’s always easy for me to justify showing students short bits of documentaries to support a topic, such as the PBS American Experience episode about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire or the History Channel’s “Modern Marvels” show about the Manhattan Project.
Yet when it comes to showing entire movies in class, sometimes I feel guilty. If middle schoolers are watching a film for the whole week, what am I doing? Is this really the best use of students’ time, or should they be doing something more rigorous, such as writing an analytical paper or reading primary source documents?
This spring I ended up showing more movies than usual – three films in short succession, during third and fourth quarters – because they fit with the themes I wanted to teach, in addition to building empathy for how hard it can be to institute change.
Each took a week of class time. And, though I made jokes in front of my students about all the minutes spent watching a screen and also asked them to write down brief quotes or images from each day’s viewing, I still felt slightly remiss as a teacher…until I realized the immersive understanding that came from watching the films together.
For any film, I make sure the students have background before they see it, whether from a unit we’ve already finished or from background information they have read beforehand. Iron Jawed Angels fits with our unit on reformers and women’s history, Glory stands as the centerpiece for our unit on civil rights during the Civil War, and All the President’s Men connects with the spirit of our reformers unit in addition to showing students how investigative political reporters do their jobs, then and now.
Understanding the challenges of women winning the vote
In the past, I had showed students Iron Jawed Angels (similar in theme and content to the more recent Suffragette) with a substitute teacher while I was attending a conference. This year I was able to be in class for all of it.
Sitting in the room allowed me to pause to explain important moments, such as when Ida Wells-Barnett said that African-American suffragists would not march at the back of the a women’s rights parade. I was also able to connect then to now, mentioning the concept of intersectionality and reminding students that some women of color had wanted to sit out the January 2017 women’s march for similar reasons.
Iron Jawed Angels gives a sense of just how difficult and thankless it can be to fight for an unpopular reform movement. It also emphasizes the repeated compromises that can arise when the response to a request is “not now” – a response that women ended up having to accept in 1870, when the Fifteenth Amendment applied only to men, but that they did not brook with the same equanimity in the 1910s.
To read about the hardships inherent in the suffragist and anti-suffragist movements in the early part of the twentieth century is one thing; to watch Hilary Swank be force-fed raw eggs in solitary confinement in prison is entirely another. Students’ visceral understanding of the barriers to change became a touchstone we could refer to throughout the semester, as well as an image they could remember if they ever wanted to enact difficult reforms.
Learning the links of the Civil War to civil rights
Similarly, showing the classic film Glory (1989) as part of a unit on civil rights during the Civil War has yielded benefits far beyond what I expected when I incorporated it into class four years ago. After reading excerpts from Robert Gould Shaw’s letters and seeing images of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ memorial to Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, students recognize the dynamic evolution the commander underwent, from a reluctant abolitionist to a committed leader of African-American soldiers. Through the detailed and accurate battle scenes, they also understand that war is not all glamorous.
As Audrey wrote in her reflection after the film: “I never imagined that so many people would have fallen on the battlefield, and that after seeing such things, that people could go back to the camps and sing and play. It humanized war for me.”
And Melanie focused on the discrimination African-Americans faced in the military at that time: “They could march well, they could shoot with precision, and they went down fighting. The thing that made them different from white soldiers was the way they were treated.”
One additional benefit came because an eighth-grade English teacher and I share all the same students. We were able to connect the timing of Glory even more precisely this past year with her teaching Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. My students already understood the history, context and dangers of the n-word (which appears in both the book and the film) from an excellent overview of usage that she gives. As I used to say when I taught the novel in English class, “Harper Lee uses the word in the mouths of people she intends you to find despicable, such as Bob Ewell, or occasionally on the tongues of people who don’t yet know any better, such as children.”
Beyond the thematic and linguistic overlaps, however, both she and I were delighted when students made many connections on their own, such as applying the idea of “code-switching” to the film after they learned what the phrase meant in English class.
Understanding investigative journalism
The third film, All the President’s Men, was one I had initially wondered if eighth graders would be as mesmerized by as I was. The detective story of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein staking out sources takes a good 138 minutes to spool out, and I thought students might not stay attuned to the whole thing.
But with a little background on the key terms and people in the film, as well as a few pauses to explain now-obscurities such as Ed Muskie’s 1972 primary run for president, the eighth graders stayed committed during the entire movie and even groaned a bit some days when we needed to stop.
At the end of each day’s viewing I asked what they had learned about investigative journalism from All the President’s Men. It takes a lot of time, they said. There are a lot of dead ends. There’s no guarantee that you will find anything important. You have to be a people person. In an era when finding credible news sources is more important than ever, it heartens me that they now have such entrenched knowledge of how journalism works.
Evaluating movie ratings
Of course, all three of these films contain intense images and language. All the President’s Men is rated PG, and Iron Jawed Angels (a TV movie) is not rated, but Glory has an R rating.
As the teaching site Interact: Learn Through Experience notes, however, in an introduction to an excellent viewing guide for the film: “Though rated R, Glory only has a few scenes with potentially objectionable material—mostly brief instances of language and a couple of bloody battle scenes. There are no scenes that involve nudity or sexual situations, and none of the violence is sadistic or sensationalized.”
As many middle and high school history teachers do, with a film that is R-rated or that I think could be controversial, I will usually send home a letter to parents explaining how the movie fits into our curriculum and giving students the chance to opt out, though they almost never choose to do so.
I also tell students, as gross or gory images play across the screen, that they should feel free to close their eyes. At the same time, I remind them why it’s important to know that such images exist – for instance, to fully understand the horrors of war or to realize how much jail conditions have improved in some ways from a century ago.
And I definitely keep in mind that the typical sixth grader’s tolerance for such intensity is very different from a seventh or eighth grader’s ability to assimilate it, because the development from year to year in middle school is so vast. I choose the films carefully precisely because their impact can be so enduring, creating images of powerful role models that students could someday emulate.