Film Guides May Leave Students in the Dark
Using 'Amistad,' 'Star Trek' in lessons raises eyebrows
Gaynell Chiesa rarely gets to the movies. So the history teacher at Arcadia High School in Oak Hall, Va., was delighted when a study guide for "Amistad" prompted her to tell students to see the film and then discuss it in class.
"Students can't picture what happened," says the veteran teacher, who saw the film as a wonderful hook to teach about slavery. "But when they see a movie they have a vivid picture they remember."
Few teachers would disagree that a well-timed movie can be an energizing complement to a lecture or discussion. Study guides - provided free by film studios and educational companies - can help too, especially when teachers pick and choose the best elements, many say.
Yet Hollywood's inroads into the classrooms via their gatekeepers - the teachers - have many observers worried. For every "Schindler's List," "Nixon," or "Amistad" study guide, studios are pitching guides for far lighter fare like "The Jetsons" or "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home." And they know their product has a powerful allure.
"The power of Hollywood to stir adolescents into caring about history boggles my mind," says Derek Boles, head of English at Thornlea Secondary School in Thornhill, Ontario. "I've taught about the Titanic for more than 20 years and students have always been interested, but with the movie, they can't get enough."
But Mr. Boles is hardly sanguine about the phenomenon. He is troubled by teachers who show movies without any context. Movies' legitimacy as a teaching tool may be further undermined by what observers say is a proliferation of guides for films that have little to do with academics.
"For us it's about learning," says Elissa Greer, vice president of publicity for New Line Cinema, which has promoted "Gettysburg," "The War," "Now and Then," and others using well-regarded study guides. "That's the purpose of the guide. Of course, you hope it will send people to go buy a ticket. But even if it doesn't, we hope people will learn something."
New Line's latest guide: "Lost in Space."
Some baby boomers may remember TV's "Lost in Space" series as a camp sci-fi melodrama involving a family stranded on a planet. Now a feature film, the guide trumpets it as having scientific value.
The guide to "Lost in Space" involves a series of science exercises focusing on "Designing the Robinson Station Habitat:" "How big should your colony be ... if materials, air, and energy will be at a severe premium?" "How much room does a person need in order to be able to function - to live, work, sleep, and play?"
"Amistad," by contrast, was positioned as a serious historical film. Even so, the film provoked spirited debate over historical flaws.
The study guide refers frequently to Theodore Joadson, identified in the teacher's guide as "a composite of African-American abolitionist activity in the early 19th century." The character, played by Morgan Freeman, has fictional conversations with John Quincy Adams that are quoted in the guide. The conversations are not identified as hypothetical.
"I thought the marketing of 'Amistad' was a new low," says New York Post film critic Michael Medved in an interview. "They sent it out to schools because it was an international historical incident.... But in the study guide they made no distinction between fictional or real characters or between actual and invented dialogue."
Dominic Kinsley, editor-in-chief of Lifetime Learning Systems, Inc. (LLS) of Stamford, Conn., an educational-consulting firm that produced the guide, says claims made against the guide are exaggerated and that the fictional character, Joadson, is well identified as such.
The guides are a key way Hollywood promotes the legitimacy of movies as teaching tools. That in turn, leads teachers to promote movies to a key demographic group - teens with money, observers say. "What we send is free - so teachers are free to use it or not to," says Dr. Kinsley. But careful marketing lies behind these freebies. The "Amistad" guide was produced for director Stephen Spielberg's DreamWorks SKG. It and other educational companies blitz thousands of teachers with guides on behalf of movie studios.
"If teachers throw it away consistently then we're out of business," Dr. Kinsley, a former teacher, says. "We have to create something valuable to teachers."
Renee Hobs, a professor at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., who works with teachers integrating media and technology into the K-12 curriculum, says she detects a growing resistance to the study guides.
"This type of opposition is more common in wealthy communities that have lots of resources," she acknowledges. "It's less common to hear teachers in urban schools complain" about the influx of study guides.
She is concerned that educators may reject all materials concerning media if they are produced with industry support, instead of reviewing them, evaluating them, and judging them on the merits.
William Roesch, assistant principal at Somerville High School in Somerville, Mass., says the guides do prompt teachers to promote films to kids - but he screens them. He throws many in the trash.
"If you're promoting a movie in the class it does have an impact," he says. "But if kids want to see a movie they can go see it on their own time. I think there's more to teaching than seeing movies."
Jim Landureth, director of Instructional Media Services for the Houston Independent School District, says his district has simply offered a cautionary note. "Our school district has published a warning to teachers cautioning them on the use of entertainment movies. We think there's probably too much use of movies in class."
Anita Holmes is assistant director of education services at Consumers Union. "All sorts of people are trying to get their message to kids via the teacher," she says.
For Ms. Chiesa, the "Amistad" guide gave her a basis to carry on an intelligent conversation about the movie in class without actually having to see it herself.
Chiesa never saw Amistad. So without the guide she would not have been able to steer the discussion to the points she wanted. "It was a great help," she says.
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