High school film teachers aim to reel in their students

Film classes are offered in universities. But they are often shortchanged at the high school level.

When Gwen Bailey began teaching film last year at Richard Lindblom High School on Chicago's south side, she noticed that several of her students were barely passing their other classes.

To Ms. Bailey's surprise, however, many not only earned an 'A' in film, but went on to improve their other grades, too. "It's because film is an excellent way to examine life," says Bailey, who shows films like "Citizen Kane" and "Rashomon."

Despite movies' dual role as a popular art form and a useful tool for academic study at colleges and universities, such educational opportunities remain rare in high schools. For example, Bailey estimates only about one or two of Chicago's more than 50 public high schools offer film study courses.

"I had to work for a couple years to get our English department to let me do it," Bailey recalls, "because they thought, 'We don't know if this is substantive enough.' "

Part of the problem is perception. Not only is film often not taken as seriously as literature, but in schools there is frequently a perception that showing movies amounts to lazy teaching, allowing instructors to read a newspaper in the back of the class while the VCR does his or her job.

"It is definitely an uphill battle for teachers to get their principals to acknowledge that film is a good educational tool," says Naomi Walker of Cinema/Chicago, a branch of the Chicago International Film Festival that offers screenings to public high schools.

While film classes remain the exception to the rule, organizations like Cinema/Chicago reflect a growing number of partnerships between high schools and arts organizations that give students more opportunity to see classic films and to use film as an educational tool in other courses.

In Los Angeles, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences works with the nonprofit Urban Education Partnership in Los Angeles to provide educators with tools for teaching students how to evaluate media. In Seattle and Portland, like Chicago, those cities' international film festivals offer opportunities for youth to see classic films such as "Citizen Kane," "8 1/2," and "2001: A Space Odyssey."

James Gleason, who teaches film at Cleveland High School in Reseda, Calif., near Los Angeles, says teens yearn for better movies, even if they don't know it. Although students are initially resistant to older films, particularly ones filmed in black and white or in a foreign language with subtitles, Gleason is encouraged to see that good movies still captivate.

"After 20 minutes of watching 'It Happened One Night' or 'Citizen Kane,' they're totally into it," he says. "It takes them a while to get up to that new level of watching and understanding movies, but then you really begin to see a change in film literacy."

Yet those who advocate for film study face a difficult task because high school students already face a challenge learning the basics. In the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) for example, US high school seniors ranked below students from Canada and most of Europe. If students can't master established fields of study, ask some, how can we devote any of the school day to teaching them about movies?

Meanwhile, the federal No Child Left Behind education act has required greater emphasis on testing. This, in turn, makes the value of learning film literacy harder to quantify. "How can we argue that film is good for them?" asks Walker. "Is this preparing them for a test? No. It's a tough argument."

At the same time, the very nations that America is trying to catch up to in achievement are less likely to discount film studies. "Elsewhere in the developed world, media and film are considered very important texts for students to be able to comprehend and critique," explains Dennis Palmer Wolf, director of Rethinking Accountability Initiative at Brown University's Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

"Almost any European nation either has explicit courses in those topics or makes them an integral part of the language-learning courses."

Wolf points out that film classes not only teach students about cinema itself, but also give them skills for critiquing media images.

"Take political ads, for example, the ways in which a cameraman chooses to frame and block the speakers in a political debate," says Wolf. "All of those are ways of controlling information."

The hope, then, is that these critical skills will be carried on beyond classroom screenings of "Rashomon" or "Vertigo" into the real world - making kids more savvy observers.

At Catlin Gabel school in Portland, Ore., for example, teacher Tony Stocks assigns his students to review a movie in theaters or on video using the critical tools they've been taught. Some recent films include "Catch Me if you Can," "Whale Rider," "Matchstick Men," "Adaptation," and "Once Upon a Time in Mexico."

"It sometimes proves a real revelation to them," he says. "They realize how much is happening on the screen, or in some cases, how little."

"I want them to be demanding about something that's going to take two and a half hours of their lives to look at," agrees Bailey. "I want them to be discriminating when they sit down in front of the screen."

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