6 Tips for Teaching Film Studies to High Schoolers
Essentially, show what students WANT to watch, not what you think they SHOULD watch.
I have been teaching film studies courses at a private high school for five years now, and I have never, not once, screened Citizen Kane for my students. I have shown Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil before, but my students’ interest began to wane in the back half, once the sheen of that opening long take began to wear off. From that experience and a few others, I’ve learned that the novelty of an early classic has about a 45-minute shelf life for a group of high schoolers. So, unless it’s Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin shorts, I use clips only, just enough to whet their appetites without overstuffing them.
I think the focus on classic film in a typical Introduction to Film Studies course is the wrong approach to take with high school students. They already love movies. Teenagers engage with movies regularly of their own accord. My hope is to use that affection as a springboard into learning, to reveal to them the craft behind the thing they already know and love. To do so, I primarily screen popular, contemporary films. The first step to educating my high school students is entertaining them.
So how do I balance entertainment value with educational value in my high school film studies courses? Here is a snapshot of my considerations when putting together my curriculum for the semester.
Keep it interesting…for me
It’s not selfish; it’s necessary. Enthusiasm is contagious. I want that frisson of excitement to animate my classroom, to keep me alert to possibility and eager to explore just as I want my students to be.
I often watch a film I am teaching two or three times in a single week. It’s a high bar for a film to still be able to win my attention on that third watch. I’m looking for films where there is so much intention and merit in each and every aspect of the filmmaking that I can always find something new to savor. I give myself the extra challenge of not screening the same film two years in a row. Sometimes I allow myself to show a couple films again after three years, but I even try to avoid that. For one, I don’t want my teaching to become stale and rote, so I try not to rely on the familiarity of habit. Secondly, there is such a vast catalogue of worthwhile cinema out there, I want my students to be able to take my course multiple times and always walk away with something new. There’s no shortage of content. I just need to be willing to go out and find it.
Appeal to my audience
If students watch a film in English or History class, it’s always a treat, no matter what the film is. Not so in my class. Watching movies is the baseline; it’s not special. The students enter my class with the same discrimination they apply to their own film selection: they are allergic to being bored. If I bore my students, I lose them for that whole week. Not only is the viewing itself dull, but so are the discussions and analyses that follow.
The movie can’t drag. It can’t be something they’ve already seen a hundred times. It can’t do things they’ve already seen done a hundred times. It needs to not only entertain them; it needs to surprise them and demand something of them. I have the privilege of having them in an environment where they expect to expend mental energy. They expect to decipher and problem-solve. The films I choose must be formally demanding enough to meet that expectation…
Blow their minds
…And then exceed it. Every filmmaker or professional critic can tell you about that one movie they saw, usually around adolescence, that completely blew their minds, where they left the theater or ejected the VHS or DVD and said, “Wow, I didn’t know you could do that in a movie.”
Those are the kinds of experiences I’m hoping to provide for my students. Again and again. If I don’t get them with this film, I try to get them with the next one. If one film shows the many ways you can bend and break narrative, another shows the many ways you can move and shift the camera.
One difficulty occurs, though, as we embark into this more rarified field of legibility: MPAA ratings. As we approach films that demand more from their audience, the intended audience for the films gets narrower. If a filmmaker believes their films demand a certain level of sophistication already from the audience, they are not going to be too worried about a few f-bombs muddying the waters. That is not to say there are not technically impressive and intellectually stimulating PG-13 and even PG films. There are (I include quite a few in the Appendix). But you would be hard pressed to find enough to fill out multiple semesters.
MPAA R-ratings can denote gratuitous violence or crude sexuality. They can also denote three or more uses of the f-word. From the MPAA’s perspective three uses of that word are categorically more “mature” than a hundred uses of the other four-letter words. That is perhaps a category that could stand some redefining.
As a teacher, I am the adult guardian in the room and, thus, per MPAA standards, am allowed to accompany my students under the age of 17 during the showing of a rated-R film. I send out an email to parents each year informing them that some rated-R content will be shown in the class, usually with a list of the prospective films. From there, it is an operation of discernment, taking into consideration what the mature content in each film is, who my students are, and what the educational value is of the film in question.
There is another more subtle discernment at work, as well: Does this film reflect my students’ concerns? This question goes beyond whether or not teenagers and youth culture are represented in the film, although that can be an important indicator. It hinges on the specific anxieties of the characters. Take two Wes Anderson films for example, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel, both rated R and with about equivalent mature content in terms of language, violence, and sexuality. Tenenbaums primarily concerns parenting, grief, and regret. Not topics my students are particularly inclined to identify with. Grand Budapest, on the other hand, is more or less a chase film, including stolen artwork, a jailbreak, and a toboggan race. Those are universal story elements that will appeal to all ages.
Locate the educational value
But the educational value must go beyond the story elements. Film Studies is not English class. We can’t neglect the storytelling obviously, but the main emphasis of the class needs to be on the filmmaking. When we look at the toboggan race in Grand Budapest, we’re looking at Anderson’s technical use of miniatures and stop-motion animation in that sequence.
We are fortunate these days to have widely available video essays, analyzing and breaking down how certain films create their desired effect, whether through storytelling, composition, editing, or special effects. I used to have to scour Youtube looking for videos on specific films, hoping they existed. It seems other people were doing the same thing because last year the 8hours.com site emerged, gathering all those materials into one easily searchable space.
The availability of these supplemental resources implies a kind of litmus test in quality. The film has to be of a certain caliber in order to inspire a community of critics and artists to treat it as an object worthy of analysis. Part of my job is then to survey the critical material available and situate the lessons into a coherent curriculum. Are we focusing on story structure here? Composition? Editing? An auteur’s signature style? How does this film connect to the one we watched before and the one we will watch after?
What’s happening right now?
As I mentioned above, I believe in the power of being alert to possibility and try to avoid the dulling effect of habituation. I want my curriculum responding to what is happening in the moment.
What’s in the headlines? Political unrest? Police brutality? Recent events, especially coupled with the burgeoning activism of young people, has made this a particularly potent time to discuss systemic racism and police brutality with students (although honestly, and unfortunately, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing has never gone out of style). But while these issues already have my students’ attention, now would be an excellent time to screen If Beale Street Could Talk or Blindspotting (for a stark illustration of the difference in formal inventiveness between an R film and a PG-13 film dealing with similar themes, compare Blindspotting with its young adult counterpart from the same year, The Hate U Give).
Parallel to what’s dominating the 24-hour news cycle, film is part of an industry that has its own news and headlines. It’s an ever-evolving and always changing medium, with techniques that go in and out of style, artists and stars who rise and fall. There are new releases and awards seasons. Constantly shifting cultural narratives exist around the artworks themselves, and I try to use my course to plug my students into those narratives. When I foresaw that Parasite would be a significant Oscar contender, I screened two of Bong Joon-ho’s earlier films for my students. When I head about 1917’s long-take aesthetic, I exposed them to the work of Alfonso Cuaron and Emanuel Lubezki. I want to make my students aware of the discourses happening around them and give them the context necessary so that they can participate knowledgeably.
But most of all, the teacher needs to be responsive to what’s happening in the room. My film selection for a semester is always provisional. A certain kind of film is going to land with one group better than another. One film may be too mature for one group; one film may be too immature for another. A particular lesson might pique an outsized amount of interest from the class, so I want to be able to ride that wave of curiosity, not take a hard left turn just because I planned to do so six weeks prior when it was just me, my imagination, and a blank piece of paper that would become my curriculum.
Below are a list of some of the films that have worked in my classes, which is not to say every class. The teacher needs to use their discretion, take into account who their students are, and determine what films are going to be the best ambassadors for cinema for their own unique classroom experience.
Appendix: Select Contemporary Films
(500) Days of Summer (2009)
Baby Driver (2017)
Children of Men (2006)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
The Dark Knight (2008)
Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020)
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
The Host (2006)
Homecoming- Season 1 (2018)
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Jurassic Park (1993)
Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
La La Land (2016)
Little Women (2019)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
The Matrix (1999)
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Paddington 2 (2017)
A Quiet Place (2018)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The Rider (2018)
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010)
The Social Network (2010)
Spider-man into the Spiderverse (2018)
They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
The Truman Show (1998)
Watchmen- Episodes 1 & 6 (2019)
Winter’s Bone (2010)