Borrowing: How Film Study Can Influence Traditional Modes of Literacy


It’s been a while. The week of July fourth I was in Indiana with friends and family, and since then it has been all about wrapping up the most arduous doctorate semester yet! The difficulty has been good though. I’ve really learned a great deal about myself, my interests, and knowing now what I don’t know, which is really valuable to moving forward I believe. In my last post, I promised I would share one of the lessons presented in a class that I totally plan on co-opting. I’m going to share the basic premise of the lesson and provide some insight into how I’ll use and structure it myself. The lesson was originally designed by a master’s student who is about to go into the classroom for the first time. Based on his lesson, I’d say he has a bright future as an ELA teacher! As the title above indicates, the lesson involves using film as a literacy. 

The lesson he presented concentrated on the still image more than the moving image. What I liked most about it was its concentration on the power dynamics seen on-screen. I saw a lot of value of looking at still frames first before taking on moving pictures, but more than anything I found value in helping students think a bit more critically about the visuals they consume. (In his version, he sticks to still images throughout for a longer term project.)

We’ve spent a good deal of the this semester in class talking about critical shifts. These shifts often come in two forms: new awareness or disruption. Really, it’s about jarring the senses to a degree; at the least, it’s about questioning assumptions. In the greatest of realities, a critical shift then affects some kind of change in the individual. Those shifts are hard to come by and they are even harder to produce as a teacher in many cases. Those of us teaching in the humanities have a good shot, but I don’t want to imply that other disciplines can’t reach a critical shift with their students as well. I believe there are ways of causing awareness or to disrupt a students assumptions in any field. Think about the times you’ve been really jarred by information that resonated within you. I’d imagine they are the times in your life you’ve made the most profound changes.

Back to the lesson. The power structure he presented on the still cinema images allowed him to talk about positioning of characters and objects. For instance, in America and most Western culture, we read from left to right. When looking at an image, objects or characters in the lower, left hand corner have the least power in the scene whereas the object or character in the top, right hand corner of the screen have the most power. This power structure can change depending on who is foregrounded or backgrounded in the image as well. (Not to mention if your interpretive community happened to be from an Eastern culture that reads from right to left!) You can see what I mean below from a few of his PPT slides he shared with us:

Telling Our Stories With Intent Pwrpnt (1) Telling Our Stories With Intent Pwrpnt (2)

I’ve always been a fan of film study, and it has taken me years to even consider doing much of it my classroom confidently. This year, however, I’d like to start using it more frequently and conduct more visual literacy analysis and practice in my classroom. I envision studying elements of positioning in film and still images in order to bridge some terminology and ideas with more traditional storytelling. It’ll give me a chance to ask students questions about what character is in a position of power in this scene of the story? Which character is being foregrounded? Backgrounded? These sort of questions, I hope, will generate a whole new vocabulary for my students to use as they envision characters, objects, and settings being positioned by authors. I think it’ll make for great dialog in class, but I think it’ll open up interesting writing as well. There are opportunities here to really have students question assumptions of positions of power in and out of storied worlds, whether in film or print.

I still have much to consider before moving ahead with these ideas, but the lesson really inspired me to move forward. The long term goal is generate a critical shift for my students, but the immediate goal is to give them a new way visualizing text and developing a new vocabulary to discuss stories. This will certainly be worth reporting out on later in the year.

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