Tag Archives: Films as teaching Tool

Close Reading Stranger Things

What are the elements of gothic fiction and how can the Netflix series Stranger Things help to teach gothic fiction and close reading? This is the inquiry project my students are currently working on in our film elective.

Gothic Films contain the following elements:

● Dark & gloomy
● Supernatural beings, monsters and the paranormal
● Heroes, villains, damsels in distress and sometimes, romance
● Feelings of suspense, mystery and fear
● Settings of unease such as dark forests, storms and unnerving
places

I first polled my students to see who had access to Netflix.  As students are watching Season One of Stranger Things we have been focusing on why this film series is so popular and the elements of great storytelling and filming.

To help building background knowledge, students read an article about the Stranger Things creators, Matt and Ross Duffer in the New York Times. Students then completed a graphic organizer based on their reading and understanding.

Reading Response Graphic Organizer

As students watched Season One we focused on color, lighting, sound, and music to build suspense. Students learn film terminology to help better understand the ways filmmakers manipulate these elements for emotional responses from the audience. For example, Diegetic sound is a noise which has a source on-screen. They are noises which have not been edited in, like dialogue between characters or footsteps. Another term for diegetic sound is actual sound. Non-diegetic sound is a noise which does not have a source on-screen, they have been added in like the music interludes. I asked students what are some of the ways the film directors use non-diegetic sounds to build tension and suspense in the series.

Additionally, students have studied the character archetypes presented in the film series and mapped out the hero’s journey based on Joseph Campbell’s mono-myth.

I do not only want students to be consuming the show, but also use the show as a catalyst for their own creativity and movie-making. Students have had two film challenges, courtesy of The Jacob Burns Film Center.

Film Challenge No. 1 – Taking inspiration from Stranger Things and what you learned about match cuts. Create a short film about someone or something in your house that is not what they seem to be. Your film should use at least one graphic match, a way to connect two shots by having similar composition. Also consider sound, color, and lighting to help tell your story.

Check out this film posted on the JBFC website:

Film Challenge No. 2 – Think about Stranger Things and the moments when the characters were introduced to the Upside-Down (the Lab Scenes, When the wall in Joyce’s home reveals another world, when Nancy and Jonathan go into the Upside-Down.

Your second film challenge is to use some new camera moves and create a story about a mysterious room in your home.

IMAGE: Revealing a character’s reaction or a new piece of information at just the right moment can add the perfect amount of tension to your zombie love story or get a big laugh in your action-comedy.

A whip pan is a quick turn of the camera that can be a stylish way to make that big reveal. You must use a whip pan to reveal something to the audience. Check out the video about the Whip Pan Shot below for more information.

SOUND: What’s the sound of a sword made of light? What about a monster made of cosmic gas and time particles? Deep questions like these are the realm of the Sound Effect Designer and her team. They create all the sounds in a film from the common (footsteps), to the uncommon (Chewbacca). Create at least 3 sound effects for your film.

STORY: A new room has just appeared in your house! Nobody has ever seen it before. Was it there all along? How could you miss it?! Maybe it just appeared. However it happened, now it’s here and there’s a problem.
A few tips:

Every scene in your film should move the story forward in some way, big or small, and every scene should have conflict.

A character wants/needs something, and the story can’t move forward until they get it. Remember, the scene is only interesting if there is something in the way of your character and their goal.

Using frames from Stranger Things I created weekly check-ins with my students, like this  “Meme” Check-ins in a Google Forms and ask how students are doing under the current pandemic.

Stranger Things Meme Check In

Here were a few student responses:

I love creating films but I like watching and breaking down shows/movies better.

I enjoy when we watch little videos about something related to film making.

I like creating more than watching.

Class online school is has been good so far! The lessons and everything have been nice.

Class has been really good during this online school period. The amount of work is really good and the assignments can be fun.

Lastly, students are comparing what is real and what is fiction in the show. Students researched more about What Was Going on in the Hawkins Laboratory in Stranger Things? From the 1950s to 1970sProject MKUltra, also called the CIA mind control program, is the code name given to a program of experiments on human subjects that were designed and undertaken by the United States Central Intelligence Agency—and which were, at times, illegal. Experiments on humans were intended to identify and develop drugs and procedures to be used in interrogations in order to weaken the individual and force confessions through mind control. The project was organized through the Office of Scientific Intelligence of the CIA and coordinated with the U.S. Army Biological Warfare Laboratories.

For a creative writing activity, student wrote out the dialogue for the scene between Dr. Brenner and Hopper in Episode 7 at the Lab. What did they say to each other that allowed Hopper to go into the Upside Down with Joyce. Having students write out edited scenes sheds light on inferential knowledge and understanding.

Television shows and movies are great visual texts to help students practice close reading skills and showcase their understanding in creative ways like movie making projects.

 

 

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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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