Making Curriculum Pop

I found one of the most compelling presentations during the two days of the TTP09 conference that I attended to be the Media That Matters presentation and the discussion with documentary film maker, Ambika Samarthya. Arts Engine, Inc. the group behind Media That Matters solicits documentaries each year for its film festival of documentaries that can be shown in schools, community groups, after school programs etc. to encourage people young and old to discuss issues of the day and more importantly to take action. Their philosophy can be summed up as “An image captures a feeling, a story shares a message, a movie becomes a movement.”

To that end, in addition to providing the films in the festival online free of charge, they also provide Discussion Guides, Take Action Guides, and other resources to facilitate screenings of their films.

I think the use of documentary film in the classroom whether it be an English class, history class or humanities class raises many interesting issues for discussion with students: is documentary film narrative or truth, how does point of view reveal itself in documentaries, what other film techniques are utilized that are similar to narrative film? The use and analysis of documentary film in the classroom encourages information and technology and media literacy. As Alan Teasley noted in his presentation, the core concepts of media literacy are that 1) all media are constructions, 2) the media (filmmakers) construct reality, 3) audiences negotiate meaning in media, 4) media have commercial implications, 5) media contain ideological and value messages, 6) media have social and political implications, 7) form and content are closely related in the media and 8) each medium has a unique aesthetic form. Analysis of documentary film is relevant in all of these contexts. First, because as they NCTE points out “We must … challenge students to analyze critically the texts they view and to integrate visual knowledge with their knowledge of other forms of language.” Students may come at documentaries believing they are fact or truth as opposed to narrative film, which they believe is fiction. The fallacy in that simple notion was observed both by filmmaker Ambika Samarthya when she acknowledged the amount of narrative that goes into documentary film making and by Catherine Gouley of The Film Foundation when she commented that “a primary source may be real but it is not necessarily true.” Teaching our students to separate these concepts is a crucial part of developing their media literacy.

Of particular interest to me is using film as an oral history tool, having students view video oral histories, discuss what is and is not oral history (types) and creating their own video oral histories and contrasting them with other documentary type films. These projects are rich in skill building from researching the background of the person and time period they are interviewing about, drafting interview questions, actual interviewing and filming skills, editing skills etc. For more information on oral history projects, tools, and archives checkout and the Vietnam project. An interesting film to discuss with students about the differences between oral history, narrative film and documentary is the Laramie Project, an HBO film of the play written by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project following the murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming in 1998.

A recent use of a combination of documentary and narrative filmmaking that could be good source material for classroom use, particularly in the social studies context is the 2009 PBS program We Shall Remain which chronicles five important events in Native American history from the perspective of the Native Americans.

In addition to the five installments PBS has requested and posted on their website independent videos from Native Americans about their life experiences called Reel Native These can be viewed online and could be integrated into a unit on oral history or in an English class “I am….” Video project. Has anyone done any lessons on how to look at documentaries critically or even more interestingly on how to look at news broadcasts over time to decipher truth from editorializing or different coverage of the same event to identify “different truths?”

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Maia - make sure you announce this in the NY teacher group:



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