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.