When Gwen Bailey began teaching film last year at Richard
Lindblom High School on Chicago's south side, she noticed that
several of her students were barely passing their other classes.
To Ms. Bailey's surprise, however, many not only earned an 'A' in
film, but went on to improve their other grades, too. "It's because
film is an excellent way to examine life," says Bailey, who shows
films like "Citizen Kane" and "Rashomon."
Despite movies' dual role as a popular art form and a useful tool
for academic study at colleges and universities, such educational
opportunities remain rare in high schools. For example, Bailey
estimates only about one or two of Chicago's more than 50 public
high schools offer film study courses.
"I had to work for a couple years to get our English department
to let me do it," Bailey recalls, "because they thought, 'We don't
know if this is substantive enough.' "
Part of the problem is perception. Not only is film often not
taken as seriously as literature, but in schools there is frequently
a perception that showing movies amounts to lazy teaching, allowing
instructors to read a newspaper in the back of the class while the
VCR does his or her job.
"It is definitely an uphill battle for teachers to get their
principals to acknowledge that film is a good educational tool,"
says Naomi Walker of Cinema/Chicago, a branch of the Chicago
International Film Festival that offers screenings to public high
While film classes remain the exception to the rule,
organizations like Cinema/Chicago reflect a growing number of
partnerships between high schools and arts organizations that give
students more opportunity to see classic films and to use film as an
educational tool in other courses.
In Los Angeles, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
works with the nonprofit Urban Education Partnership in Los Angeles
to provide educators with tools for teaching students how to
evaluate media. In Seattle and Portland, like Chicago, those cities'
international film festivals offer opportunities for youth to see
classic films such as "Citizen Kane," "8 1/2," and "2001: A Space
James Gleason, who teaches film at Cleveland High School in
Reseda, Calif., near Los Angeles, says teens yearn for better
movies, even if they don't know it. Although students are initially
resistant to older films, particularly ones filmed in black and
white or in a foreign language with subtitles, Gleason is encouraged
to see that good movies still captivate.
"After 20 minutes of watching 'It Happened One Night' or 'Citizen
Kane,' they're totally into it," he says. "It takes them a while to
get up to that new level of watching and understanding movies, but
then you really begin to see a change in film literacy. …