Tag Archives: Films as teaching Tool

Traveling Through The Twilight Zone with 3 Writing and Viewing Assignments

“You’re travelling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead – your next stop, the Twilight Zone!”

Te Twilight Zone was a television series that first aired in 1959 for five seasons and has had three revivals since then, including this year on CBS. Created by Rod Serling, the original series addressed topics of science fiction, suspense, horror, and fantasy. The original series is currently available on Netflix.

This classic series is a great text to analyze with students and use as a creative writing model. Through the science fiction, fantasy, horror, and suspense, Sterling (who wrote two thirds of episodes) was able to include his own social commentary timely themes  from the anxieties of nuclear threat to the broken promises of suburbia, warning against anti-intellectualism and condemning virulent racism and bigotry — themes that all sound uncannily familiar today. 

Two episodes to watch with students are the 1963 episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and the 2019 remake, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.”  These two episodes are worth viewing for a compare and contrast assignment. I have provided the graphic organizer I created for my students below.

Each episode of the initial Twilight Zone opened with a monologue from Serling where he would introduce the theme in his own, hypnotizing way. Sometimes abstract, sometimes, direct, each monologue served to draw the viewer into a story that might challenge long-held beliefs or put them in a world they never could’ve imagined. Each of these monologues ended with Serling inviting the viewer to enter a story that took place in “The Twilight Zone.”   

Similarly, the Twilight Zone closing monologues offered commentary and persuasion. Check out the closing monologue from “Eye of the Beholder.”

Now the questions that come to mind: where is this place and when is it, what kind of world where ugliness is the norm and beauty the deviation from that norm? You want an answer? The answer is, it doesn’t make any difference. Because the old saying happens to be true. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, in this year or a hundred years hence, on this planet or wherever there is human life, perhaps out amongst the stars. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Lesson to be learned in the Twilight Zone (1960).

What does Ron Sterling state in his closing statement? What is he trying to persuade his audience to think about? Examining the openings and closings requires students to study  craft and structure. Viewing and studying openings and closings are opportunities for students to flex their own writing muscles and voice to provide their audience with synthesis, analysis, and substance. Once students look at various models and mentors, they can write their own concise social commentaries or monologues about fear, identity, or stereotypes.

Ultimately, having students create their own compelling Twilight Zone episode or updating a classic Twilight Zone episode allows students to be creative and innovative communicators. Storyboards and graphic organizers are scaffolding tools to help students create and execute an engaging episode.

Twilight Zone Proposal

Twilight Zone Project Reflection

Twilight Zone Planning Sheet

Want more about the Twilight Zone formula and storytelling techniques, check out this video essay deconstructing the cinematic techniques and formula for Twilight Zone episodes.

 

 

 

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New York Times Op Docs Incredible Teaching Tool

The New York Times website has great resources for teachers. There are gems throughout the website that can be used as teaching tools, texts, and learning opportunities all teachers need to know about. One of these gems is Op-Docs.

Op-Docs is a short documentary series begun by The New York Times Opinion section in 2011. Today it comprises more than 270 short, interactive and virtual reality documentaries. Each film is produced by both renowned and emerging independent filmmakers.

As the Times states these documentaries are, “films driven by the creative and journalistic interests of the filmmaker and that will also challenge the New York Times audience to see the world in new ways. Op-Docs spark conversations, tell memorable and astonishing stories, introduce powerful and unexpected individuals, make thought-provoking arguments and give viewers unforgettable cinematic experiences.”

Documentary film, done well, can engage and instruct through storytelling. But a film can’t stand alone as an instructional method. Watching the documentary should only be part of the process. Discussion questions and related readings need to be included in the mix to prompt reflection and to illustrate the topic more completely.

The Op Docs have so much potential in our classroom for teaching critical and close reading to writing different text types for different purposes.  So many of these short films showcase aspects of life that are hidden or unspoken.

I was moved by San Quentin’s Giants about the San Quentin prison baseball team. This Op Doc showcases how baseball is a vehicle for reform, reflection, and purpose for the incarcerated players. When the film begins the images show men playing baseball, one might think it is a local or community baseball team until the camera zooms out in the background the viewer sees the barbwires around the buildings and the people on the periphery wearing prison jumpsuits.

Again, these documentaries are used to inform viewers about the people, places, and things presented in the film. Some might describe these types of films as a “slice of life” that presents an angled representation of a subject.

If we asked students to create documentary films what might they present on film with research and narrative?   Whereas San Quentin uses storytelling and interviews, the Op Docs A Conversation with . . . about race are interviews and testimony with people about race, racism, and perspective. The testimony of the people interviewed are a catalyst for classroom  discussions. Think about what these same conversation might look like and sound like in school. From our students’ perspectives what will they say about race, class, or gender in their school and community.

 

After watching a number of these Op Docs with my students and discussing the research and filming elements involved, I asked students to research and investigate the issues that are hiding in our school. Who are people worth shining a light on their life? Wright’s Law really puts into perspective how much we might not know about someone.

When I posed this question to my students some students wanted to address bullying, a common theme in schooling today. Whereas, another group researched video game playing and addiction among young people because of the influence of Fortnite. In completing this project students had to gather relevant data from multiple sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information in documentary film writing.

First, research is conducted, then students have to decide how they wanted to string together the facts and testimony. The Op Docs blends a bit of narrative with information and argument writing.  We studied closely how to start the documentary by visually hooking the audience right from the moment the film starts. This might be a statistic about the topic presented in the film or a sound bite from an interview conducted with a member of the school community. Then, students introduced the topic and elaborated by including both visual and audio footage to offer perspective on the topic. This, in turn, is like support material in an essay or research paper. Students are still working on their projects and I should share some finished films soon. 

Any person can actually submit a op-doc to The New York Times and this can be an authentic assignment for students to create as a project based learning opportunity. The New York Times is looking for “films that are driven by the creative and journalistic interests of the filmmaker and that will also challenge the New York Times audience to see the world in new ways. Op-Docs spark conversations, tell memorable and astonishing stories, introduce powerful and unexpected individuals, make thought-provoking arguments and give viewers unforgettable cinematic experiences.”

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