High School Film Teachers Aim to Reel in Their Students ; Film Classes Are Offered in Universities. but They Are Often Shortchanged at the High School Level
Brian LibContributor to The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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 schools.
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 Odyssey."
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. …