By Mark Clayton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
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. …