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Voices: Film Shaping Minds

Educator and filmmaker Laurie Chin Sayres argues that media literacy is an essential but often under-taught skill.

Courtesy Laurie Chin Sayres.
Courtesy Laurie Chin Sayres.
Patrick Wall

In many years of teaching students at multiple levels, one truth has become clear to me: students, even those having the benefit of strong curricula and innovative teaching methods, often lack the ability to effectively understand how images shape their understanding of events and how they view the world.

Therefore, it is critical that we bring film and media literacy into our classrooms to:

1) equip students with critical thinking skills;

2) engage students with the educational process; and

3) provide students with the skills necessary to be capable citizens.

We often downplay or even ignore the influence moving images have on our understanding of the world because we consider movies and TV to be entertainment only. Although I agree that film and television primarily serve as entertainment in our society, making the assumption that movies and TV do not shape the way see the world simply because these moving images may not influence our factual reality is dangerous. This dismissive perspective prevents us from bringing film into our educational system in any meaningful capacity.

Our understanding of the world is formed by personal interaction with people, places, and things, and in large part, by movie and TV images. Once we see something it becomes a visual reality—even if not a factual reality. For example, we know that Jaws is not a real shark, yet the moving images of the animatronic shark have clearly shaped our collective image of great white sharks and our behaviors towards the ocean and beach culture.

Similar to reading illiteracy, students who cannot decode or think critically about moving images are at a disadvantage because they do not have the ability to navigate a world saturated with moving images. To help students become media literate and understand the role of images in shaping the way they see the world, it is important to shift from talking about thematic content to analyzing moving images from a visual and technical perspective.

Helping students read and decode moving images includes teaching them about the components of images, from camera framing to lighting to editing. With this knowledge, students will be able to see and discuss the ways images convey certain ideas and attitudes. An effective hands-on vehicle to teach these lessons is film production. This tactile approach adds an important dimension to students’ understanding of film literacy.

Armed with film literacy skills, students will then be able to engage in critical thinking conversations about how moving images shape our ideas and perspectives, providing students with valuable education and life skills. For example, students will be able to discuss the ways extreme close-up (XCU) shots have the ability to convey more intimate emotion and the ways lighting can shape the attitude we have toward the subjects in the image.

It is no secret that once we leave the classroom we find ourselves in a world where its understanding of history is largely shaped by media images, not academic study. So, let’s bring film into social studies classrooms to help students navigate both the academic study of history and also our collective popular culture image of the past—the version of history our society uses to make many of its decisions.

A discussion example can be found in Glory. This 1989 film ends with the camera first zooming into a close-up of several dead African-American Civil War soldiers, then the camera moves in even closer to see the one white officer who agreed to lead this regiment, dead in the trenches. Would the idea of the past have been different if the film ended a few scenes earlier with a medium shot of soldiers both charging their enemies and also falling to the bayonet? Both scenes can be construed as “factually accurate,” yet visually each scene leaves audiences with a very different picture of the past.

Once students recognize that film images have influence on the ways we think they respond with enthusiasm. For they are now able to think critically about the moving images that surround them in the classroom and as they move throughout their lives.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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