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 an engrossment expiration of about 45 minutes 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…