Saturday, January 9, 2010

Turning Film into Film Study

Imagine my excitement when, as an incoming first year teaching, I looked at my curriculum guide and saw Braveheart listed as the film supplement to the junior year English course's heroic image unit. What an outstanding film! It will be so much better than those movies that went to the somnambulant school of film-making that I got to watch when I was in high school.

Now fast forward four years. I have "taught" Braveheart in my class each of the last four years. Each year I have tried to do something at least a little bit different. Each year, I have not been satisfied with the results. It turns out that teaching film, especially for those of us with little background in it, is extremely difficult. Because the films can be distracting for some students, as well (they think they don't have to do any "real" work on film days), you do not even have the crutch of a novel to use during these lessons. Something radical had to be done. This summer, I wrote that I would be transforming Braveheart into a true film study. I have done it and I'm quite proud of my accomplishments.

To make my Braveheart study more complete, exciting and valuable, I decided to enlist some help. One of my colleagues had written a comprehensive film study for The Shawshank Redemption, so I spent some time perusing her materials to get a feel for what I thought I wanted to do. Then, I asked a colleague of mine who is both media specialist and TV Production teacher if she would offer her opinions and commentary on the film. Wonderfully, she said yes. We spent about four afternoons sitting and watching Braveheart and making comments throughout the film about everything. She commented largely on camera angles and effects. I talked about themes and parallel structures. I wrote everything down. At the end of this process, I ended up with a massive list of points we had made about the film. I just had to do something positive with it.

I then broke the film down into each day's viewing. This gave me manageable chunks with which to work. I only had to look at a small portion of the notes I had amassed, instead of the entire gigantic document. I examined patterns in the notes and transformed those into expository questions about the film's themes. Best of all, I isolated scenes from the film that clearly presented answers to the questions I wanted to ask my students. Those would be the scenes that we would review (if necessary) to answer each day's viewing guide questions.

The end result of this process was overwhelmingly positive. My students were more involved in the film. They enjoyed it more. We had fascinating discussions about several elements of it. Finally, Braveheart became the film equivalent of teaching a novel in class.

Below, you can see all of my handouts for the new and improved Braveheart film study.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Twitter and Education

Every time a new technology comes along, the responses (in the education world) to it seem to fall into the following categories:

a). excitement
b). complaints about how the old way was "better"
c). avoidance of the technology and refusal to acknowledge its existence, in the hope it just goes away.

People in group A look for ways to incorporate this new technology into their classes as soon as possible, often to the trepidation of superiors and colleagues who may not fully understand this new advance. People in group B generally have little to add to the discussion about this technology; they usually just want to complain about how much things have changed and how teaching was better years ago, etc. People in group C are generally aware of the new technology, and may understand that it might have positive uses, but, primarily due to their own inability to understand how to use this technology, just want to hope it goes away.

The most obvious dividing example of new technology in the classroom is the cell phone/iPod category. These two devices have become so similar (or crossed over, in the case of the iPhone) that they can be merged into one category. Improper use of either of them is an obvious nuisance and constant source of disrespect. No teacher wants to see students texting while he or she is in the middle of a lesson. However, these devices to have educational value. In their ability to browse the web, cell phones are portable carriers of information. If you don't know something, you look it up. Why is this not more encouraged in secondary education? Employers rarely need workers to memorize everything; they just need their employees to be resourceful. If doctors do not understand your symptoms fully, they do research, they don't guess. Information sharing is happening all around us, we should not fight against it in schools.

The iPod also has immense educational value. Articles litter the web about colleges handing them out to incoming first year students. With their ability to run millions of applications and collect data and notes, iPhones and iPod Touches have nearly limitless potential as educational tools. But, we consign them to contraband items.

Part of the reason we do this is because we are firmly in Group B. The old way was better. We didn't have to worry about these items in classrooms ten years ago. Group B is an odd place to be, because the problems have always existed, the objects creating them were the only things that changed. Ten years ago, pagers went off during class instead of cell phones, and students walked around with Walkmen. They were the banes of our existence. All references to the "glory days" should be summarily dismissed. It won't happen, and even I will be hypocritical at times, but it should and we would do well to remember that we can't fight change.

Those previous paragraphs seem to have taken me a bit off course. I just wanted to write about another dividing technology, Twitter. The point of the previous paragraphs was to provide some introduction and guide me right into a discussion on one specific technology. I'm not sure I've succeeded, however, and I think I ended up in a different place than I intended. But, to save face, and reroute this essay, let's place Twitter in the "scary new technology" category with the iPods and cell phones.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Twitter is set up as a social networking site, in which users post tweets (of 140 characters of less) about what they are up to at any given moment. The concept sounds both simple and incredibly stupid. Who cares what you are doing? If people follow your twitter feed, apparently someone does. If this is the point of Twitter, then certainly it has no educational value, and is merely another diversion for students to pursue, when they should be applying themselves to their diligent studies.

But, I want to be in group A, always. I want to stay excited about my job and my career and my potential by trying to be at the forefront of something new and exciting and, dare I say, revolutionary. Twitter does have uses. Anyone can receive tweets, all they have to do is sign up. It's free. As long as you have a Twitter client on your computer, cell phone, and/or iPod, you can follow what anyone writes. Think of the potential. Parents complain that they do not know their students' homework. So, I could type the homework into Twitter. Automatically, all of my students' parents know what to discuss with their children that evening. Even the students could subscribe, which would be very handy for those kids who can't seem to bring home their notebooks but wouldn't dare lose their cell phones. And, everything would be written in real-time, as it was happening, with time and date stamps. It would help to create a culture of accountability.

But, let's get even more radical, shall we? Imagine that you set up a student as a designated note-taker during a class discussion. You let him use his cell phone (gasp! sacrilege! please stop!) and tell him he will tweet everything of value said in class. First of all, that student gets to play with technology. Secondly, he is forced to pay attention, because he has a job to do. Finally, he is simultaneously learning important summarizing skills, as tweets are limited to 140 characters. As an added benefit, the rest of the class can simply participate in the discussion, without the need to take notes. The Twitter feed will exist in perpetuity, available for all to relive later. Even the absent students would get a good sense of what happened in class that day.

Group A is like the front of the bus. You have the best view of what's ahead.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Greatness of Google Documents

Google Documents is one of the greatest locations for teachers on the world wide web. I type all of my lesson and unit plans into Google docs and I immediately gain two benefits. One, my materials are safely and securely stored somewhere that is not my computer, greatly reducing the possibility of catastrophic data loss. Two, I can then share my documents with other people (send lesson plans to a supervisor, for example) or post them to web pages. It is all free. And, on top of all of this, I found another excellent use for Google Documents: a digital (and permanent) blackboard.

In late March of this year (2008-2009 school year), my supervisor was coming in to observe one of my classes. I was teaching a lesson on Ray Bradbury's short story "The Veldt" (one of my all time favorites). The general thesis or objective for the lesson had to do with pitfalls of too much technology. I don't remember it exactly (although all of the class notes will be available to read at the end of this post), but the way I taught that lesson forever changed how I run my class.

About a week before fate made me a more competent teacher, our department received some LCD projectors for our laptops. My room (which I share with a colleague) became one of the lucky housings for a projector. Armed with this outstanding piece of technology (while simultaneously preaching about its limitations, the irony is not lost), I put it to full use during the lesson.

I set up the projector and my laptop on a spare desk at the front of the room, and wheeled my desk chair around so I could sit at the laptop while it projected on the pull down screen. This set up allowed me to access various technological functions of my laptop, such as collaborative web sites or iTunes song previews. Yes, I had to give up the power induced by standing in front of the class, but I did not miss it. Nor did my class suffer, either. They were so interested in what I would do next that there would be no behavioral issues. As an added bonus, I did my fair share of standing up to talk to the students, then sitting back down to play with technology, and all of this movement also helped to maintain the energy level.

This set up created one major disadvantage for me. I could not access the blackboard, as it was hidden away behind the screen. I needed to take notes. I needed my students to take notes. What options did I have? The laptop, of course. And Google Documents. I opened a new Google doc and began typing out the day's notes (in large font for the benefit of all). Students had no trouble reading what I was writing, I could go back to previous material for slower note-takers, and I can type much faster than I could write. Plus, I never once had to turn my back to the students to create notes. I cannot think of a single negative to using Google Documents in this fashion. The web site also automatically saved all drafts (and even revisions) of my notes.

Now, several months later, I can publish those notes right here on this site, for all to see. Please click here.

I have not written so much as a single letter on the blackboard since.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


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