During my senior year of high school, I took a one-semester required class on United States government. I knew from the first day that it was going to be an easy class; after all, I had spent most of the last 11 years of my education learning how the U.S. government worked. After the first week, I determined that my eleven-year-old sister could probably do the homework. What I wasn’t planning on was that we spent much of the semester with the TV turned on. No, we weren’t watching CNN or C-SPAN or even FoxNews.
My U.S. Government teacher was a big fan of the documentary series 30 Days. Sure, some of the episodes were relevant—-like the one where the man who spent his days standing at an intersection holding up signs that protested gay rights was sent to San Francisco to live with a homosexual couple. But then there was the episode in which a Wall Street worker had to live in a self-sustaining compound. Oh, and not to mention the three class periods solely devoted to the Chris Rock movie Head of State.
Fortunately, this was a rarity in my education. I had many teachers who used films as ancillary materials in order to more effectively get students to understand concepts or events. My English class followed up the novel To Kill a Mockingbird with the amazing Gregory Peck film. My Global History teacher underscored a lesson on immigration in the early twentieth century with Far and Away.
It’s always an exciting day when you walk into a classroom and see the TV in the front of the room, plugged in and ready to go. Sometimes, it’s genuinely difficult to understand a concept without some sort of context. Movies help provide that context. Movies create characters and situations that students can latch on to and relate back to the concepts from their textbooks.
While I don’t believe that movies should be used as a substitution for textbooks and lesson plans, they can definitely be helpful in focusing students’ attention and helping them see the bigger picture of what they’re learning. Names and dates and vocabulary words can often pass by in a blur. But a good movie sometimes stays with us for a long time. If a personal story can help drive home a point that a textbook could only skim the surface of, then why shouldn’t teachers use them as ancillary materials?
While I can’t tell you anything new I learned in my U.S. Government class (except for the fact that I will never again watch Head of State), I can still remember the movies I watched in other classes that helped underscore what my teacher couldn’t always say. Sometimes, the silence after the teacher turned off The Diary of Anne Frank was enough.