Elevating the Senses

I am definitely a proponent of experiential, multi-sensory learning. I believe that people learn by doing.
There are a couple of activities that I do with my film class which are good examples of this kind of teaching/learning. A teacher knows when he/she has had a teachable moment or several, and these lessons always satisfy me because the students leave the room talking about how engaged they were in the lesson and how much they learned as a result.
The basis of the course Reading Literature/Reading Film, one which I co-wrote the curriculum form, is seeded in the need to facilitate a student’s understanding of visual media. Students (and people in general) all too often are passive about the visual media they take in (whether it be film, video games, social media, ads…) without having the ability to take a critical look. We decided to take what that can & do think critically about– literature, using it as a basis to teach visual literacy through the medium of film.
Some students come to us having taken Video Production as an elective at our school; some come with no background knowledge at all. So, before we can begin engaging in the conversation of analysis visual images, we need to establish a common vocabulary to do so.
Using literary devices as common ground on which to begin, we talk about how we recognize plot, setting, character and theme in films. From there, we move onto theatrical device, referred to as mise en scéne in the film industry, to discuss how acting, costume, make-up, set and props continue to the understanding of the literary elements. Only then can we move onto the teaching of the cinematic devices that are utilized to make meaning in a film. These include: framing, camera angle & movement, focus, lighting, sound and editing.
Instead of providing students with a laundry list of terms, I try to get them to become active learners through the process. Here are some activities I employ:

When teaching students to understand framing, camera angles and movement, I hand out a letter size blank piece of paper and ask them what it could be used for. Among the myriad of possibilities, their wheels spin and some shout out, “a storyboard,” “something to deflect light,” “a clapper board” … the list goes on and they really can be quite focused and inventive. I roll up the piece of paper, and, immediately, they get it, mimicking my movements as I look through the make-shift lens.
I ask for a volunteer to stand at the front of the room. Typically, the most extroverted are the first to raise their hands. I choose one asking him/her to stand at the front of the classroom. I direct the “cameramen/women” to move freely about the room to actuate the shot I’m looking for. We start off with a medium shot which I explain to be neutral; a discussion ensues about the effects of a medium shot on the viewer. We move on to a close-up and long shot. We discuss the shared features of a long shot and establishing shot. By the time they get to angles, I have them standing on the chairs of their desks or the subject doing so while students get him/her in a low angle. Immediately, they begin making connections to standout scenes in films that most are familiar with. I have camera person sitting on my rolling desk chair while the “subject” moves about the room and the camera person needs to dolly after her, maintaining the medium shot all the while.
One student asks if she could take pictures, and, before I know it, we are featured on the front of our school news website.

While the camera lesson is ever bit kinesthetic, the sound lesson is similarly engaging but focuses on the hearing sense primarily. Using short clips from Scent of a Woman and The Truman Show, I have the students turn their desks away from the screen, prohibiting the visual sense. In their journals, I ask them to record what sounds they are hearing and what they infer those sounds to be while listening to the clips. For the first clip, it’s the scene where Chris O’donnell’s character awakens from a sleep on the couch only to find the blind character played by Al Pacino, disassembling and reassembling a gun while O’donnell times him. At first, students think the tinkering of the gun parts are utensils clanking on dishes, but as they continue to listen, they become aware that it’s a gun being assembled once they hear the cocking of it. A few astute listeners key in on O’donnell waking up as they hear the rustling of sheets and a belt buckle.

Next, I ask them to turn their desks toward the screen and I play the shower scene from Psycho and the big wheel scene from The Shining with no sound. For each frame, I ask them to journal what they think should be heard with the visuals in the shot. They do a pretty good job.

I try to choose films they are not too familiar with. There was only one student who had seen 3 of the 4. About 1/3 had seen The Shining, but as far as the others– less than a few for each film.

When the students continue talking about the lesson after I’ve concluded it, I know it’s been successful. I LOVE teaching this course!! One of the things I love most is that I primarily show only clips which keep the students wanting more; it’s a way of enticing them to borrow some of the classics they might not have otherwise seen.

Sources for these lessons:
Reading in the Dark, John Golden

Reading the Movies, William Costanzo


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