Making Curriculum Pop

"Read the book, watch the movie?" Reflections on Catherine Gourley's Interdisciplinary Approach to Teaching Film

At the start of her lecture “Teaching Through Film,” Catherine Gourley urged us to look at film as a something that “culturally documents” and does not simply tell a story. Her articulate idea immediately resonated with me. I try to incorporate film into my literature curriculum for high school seniors, but whenever I shut the lights to start a film I struggle against my students’ impulse to put down their pens and wait to be entertained. I agree with Gourley’s premise that film is itself language, and I think that approaching its study from that angle will help enable me to use it more effectively in my classroom.

Gourley’s lecture, which she delivered with infectious enthusiasm and energy, addressed the central question of why study film in a classroom. After a discussion of the language of film, she provided a series of engaging clips from To Kill A Mockingbird and then showed the short film Duck and Cover to illustrate how film can both be successfully taught and used to teach. I found her breakdown of literary vs. cinematic techniques particularly useful, and I intend to incorporate these ideas when I introduce the study of film to my students. I also liked how Gourley analyzed two different approaches to studying film; the “read the book, watch the movie,” approach and the “multi-disciplinary connections” approach which uses film as a text in different thematically organized units. The resources she pointed us to are free and available online through the Film Foundation website.

I am not entirely sure what it is about the “read the book, see the movie” approach that makes me cringe, but every time Gourley said it, I did. I recognize that there is a value in helping students decode the plotlines of a story, but there is something about that technique that genuinely bothers me. Perhaps it is because one of my lazier colleagues faithfully shows a film version for every novel she teaches, or perhaps it is because my own students invariably ask to see the movie after they read the book (and then always look very disappointed when I say no). After listening to Grouley’s lecture, however, I think what irks me most about that approach is that is does a disservice to film as a genre. Watching a film only for plot seems to me akin to beach-reading, and while there is a place for that, I don’t believe that the classroom is necessarily the right space. Gourley’s Venn diagram comparing the different approaches to teaching film underscores the limitations of the “read the book, see the movie” philosophy, which, I believe, ultimately sells short the value of film in an English classroom.

In contrast, the multi-disciplinary connections approach offers a dynamic way of using film to teach and teaching film. This approach, as Gourley explained it, emphasizes the narrative structure of film as well as the historical, cultural and aesthetic significance of the work. Gourley reviewed a sample unit on the Cold War, which incorporated a variety of different texts and primary source documents. The unit plan is comprehensive and creative, and I also greatly appreciated a comment she made regarding historical resources; “ primary sources can be real but not necessarily true.” Within this approach, students are taught to “watch” vs. “see” a film – they learn to decode and synthesize. I think these techniques are exactly the antidote I need to the ‘eat popcorn and snuggle in the dark’ reaction my students have to film.

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Hi Alicia!
Interesting post. I always thought about who came up with the read the book, watch the movie thing. In middle school and high school i always felt the teachers made it seem that the reward for reading the book would be a week of watching the movie. I loved reading the book while my classmates just wanted to see the movie! The multi-disciplinary approach Gourley discussed and showed through her presentation is definitely the more effective way to go about this. It allows the students to gain so much more from movies. I teach the little ones, so i don't know what its like to show To Kill A Mockingbird in class but i can imagine the frustration that must occur if students aren't entertained but your movie choice. I think using Gourley's approach will make most students entertained while learning a range of important aspects from the film.
The Film Foundation curriculum can be found at The Story Of Movies website and the free DVDs for teaching (along with many other programs) can ordered through Video Placement Worldwide.
I cringed as well whenever Gourley talked about the "read the book, watch the movie" approach. I have issues with this approach because most of the time the movie does the book an injustice. Parts are added on for entertainment value and can completely ruin the message and/or plot of the story. A good example of this is the movie "Troy". They completely ruined the story and anybody who only watches the movie will think that is the actual story. I agree with you and Blair that the "multi-disciplinary" approach is the best way to go. Students can learn about the time period, social issues, classes, etc, all while enjoying a movie. Best of luck incorporating this into your curriculum!!
It was such an enlightening lecture I must say- What she shared was all new to me. I don't think I ever thought about point of view through camera positions or of film structure. I think a lot of people accept films as an art, a language...I hope more educators will be comfortable teaching about/with moving images.
I really enjoyed your post! I thought it was extremely insightful about all the different options to teaching film. I must agree with you that that idea of "reading the book, watching the movie" seems a bit overdone in education. I can see the benefit students could get from seeing some books "come to life" like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings perhaps, but I do not think that it is necessary for all books ever made into a movie. I also think that "rewarding" students for finishing a book by watching a movie might send the wrong message to them; that watching a movie is so much better then simply reading a book and enjoying the value it can bring to their lives. I do think that the multi-disciplinary approach is a great way to approach using film in the classroom!

I think your enthusiasm for incorporating film into your classroom is really inspiring. I was especially impressed by your description of your History of War in Literature class that you spoke of on the last day of the workshop. I think you have really great, creative ideas for using film in the classroom and I hope you are able to encourage other teachers at your school to do the same. I certainly remember multimodal lessons from middle and high school better than dry discussions of books and history.

Hey Alicia,
Great post! I could definitely relate to the “read the book and watch the movie” experience. I felt like in high school the teachers would plan to check out for last few weeks and pop in a movie. There were so many missed opportunities where media could have enhanced the learning process. I also liked Gourley’s idea of the multi-disciplinary approach to teaching film. I think this method encourages students to be active participants in which they are accumulating a text, constructing meaning, and critically analyzing a film.

A lot of the reservations you have about the "read the book, watch the movie" approach brought to mind some of Alan Teasley's thoughts in his book, Reel Conversations. I love that you've pinpointed the possibility of students being able to ask themselves, what does this movie tell about the people who made it? Even beyond exploring the film as a cultural/historal artifact, students can also try to see each of the director's choice as deliberate, with an intended affect on the audience. I am remembering my first viewing of The Battleship Potemkin, tears streaming from my eyes before I had time to try to stop them; it was as if the tears were happening "to" me.



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