Watch and learn, kids

Why are Hollywood films taking over high school math, history, even geography class?

Rick Eglinton/ Toronto Star

Struggling to decipher a Shakespeare play has been a long-standing rite of passage for students in high school. Today that chore has been eased somewhat. Rather than plod through the text, Grade 9 students at some Canadian schools instead watch a movie in class. Romeo + Juliet, with Leonardo di Caprio and Claire Danes, is a popular choice.

It’s certainly easier on the eyes. But not everyone is happier. “When I found out my son was watching a movie rather than actually opening a book and reading the words on paper, I was shocked,” says Karen Huff, the mother of a Grade 9 student at a high school in Waterloo, Ont. “They seem to watch an awful lot of movies in school these days.”

And not just in English class. Movies—big-budget Hollywood-style movies—now occupy a significant place in Canadian classrooms. With teachers claiming film is the surest way to engage students, celluloid teaching moments are popping up everywhere, from math class to geography.

School boards typically purchase blanket public viewing rights to show commercial movies to their students. The list of the 50  most popular films shown in high schools provided by Criterion Pictures, one of two copyright licensors in Canada, reveals approximately 2,000 showings of Hollywood movies in the month of February alone. And this is just a portion of the national total.

Literary adaptations are strongly represented on Criterion’s list—Romeo + Juliet is number one, and four of the top 10 are movies of Shakespearean plays. However, the list is quite diverse. The slacker comedy School of Rock was shown 23 times nationwide in February. The Bucket List: 26 times. Transformers: 21 times. Star Trek: 22 times. It’s not readily obvious why these movies are relevant to any curriculum, as parents such as Huff complain.

A recent survey of approximately 20 Grade 9 students in Waterloo revealed a great array of celluloid curiosities. French teachers frequently show English-language movies such as Spider-Man, Back to the Future and Elf to their classes. Even with French subtitles activated, the pedagogical value of this is not clear. One math class watched the science-fiction movie Jumper. An English class sat through Muppets in Space.

The Waterloo survey also revealed a surprising propensity to screen movies in geography. During the current school year, Grade 9 geography students in the Waterloo Region District School Board watched The Core, Unbreakable, The Day After Tomorrow, all three Jurassic Park films, Volcano and The Perfect Storm, among many others. While most of these movies have some tenuous connection to the physical sciences, the educational value of watching Tommy Lee Jones save Los Angeles from a river of lava in Volcano seems slight.

One class watched the John Candy and Steve Martin comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles as an example of the advantages and disadvantages of different forms of transportation. Another student saw five movies in one term; that’s nearly 10 per cent of the provincially mandated 110 hours of instruction time.

“These movies are garbage, basically,” snaps Michael English, chair of the geography and environmental studies department at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. “They don’t represent anything that has to do with reality or science.”

English loudly laments the overall quality of geography instruction in high school as preparation for university, and suspects feature films have become a “time-killer and treat given to students to please them and keep them happy.” The fact students often report movies are shown in serial fashion during the final 20 minutes of class lends credence to the notion they’re being used to buy good behaviour rather than serving an integral role in the teaching process.

Besides pacifying students, movies may appeal to teachers for other reasons. Instructors of Quebec’s new compulsory ethics and religious culture course in high school have been encouraged to use movies largely because it simplifies preparation time for the hastily rolled-out program.

Advocates of movies defend the practice by observing that students today have grown up immersed in media and technology and they expect the same from their schools. “Film can be a really effective way to get students engaged,” says Joan Engel, the Alberta Department of Education’s director of curriculum for arts, communications and citizenship, mathematics and science.

Alberta’s guide for high school English teachers includes an entire chapter on using film effectively. In particular, Engel notes that reading a book or play and then watching its film version exposes students to multiple perspectives. And the 2008 film Passchendaele, about the Canadian experience during the First World War, was made widely available to Alberta schools and libraries as a supplement to social studies instruction. (Of course, the selection of individual movies remains a subjective matter. Alberta’s high school English guide says this about Psycho, the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock horror classic: “The film is suspenseful, but there is no gratuitous violence.”)

Regardless of relevancy, the blockbuster approach to teaching shows no sign of slowing down. Criterion is planning to unveil a digital movie-delivery system for Ontario schools this September that will simplify the process by piping on-demand movies straight onto classroom screens.

And yet the ubiquity of movies in school may eventually rob film of its educational value, frets one long-time fan. James Frieden, a lawyer based in Santa Monica, Calif., operates, a website that sells teaching guides to movies for use in schools. These guides are distributed free in Canada to Criterion’s clients.

“You can do all sorts of fabulous things with movies in the classroom,” says Frieden, who also holds a teaching certificate. He promotes using movies to study overlooked concepts such as ethics or cultural differences and prefers using lesser-known, small-budget movies such as Pay it Forward, Water and Fly Away Home for their instructional value. He also recommends that movies be used sparingly.

Frieden blanches at being told Romeo + Juliet has become a substitute for reading the play. And he’s outraged to hear children are watching Hollywood fiction in geography. “Some teachers are out of control when it comes to showing movies,” he complains. “Movies are an underused teaching resource. Unfortunately they’re also an overused babysitting mechanism.”

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