This post was written by NCTE member Chris D’Ippolito.
It was the end of March 2020, and my honors senior classes and I were trudging our way through the end of Hamlet . . . online, at the start of a global pandemic. I posted movie clips to help support comprehension, attached links to No Fear Shakespeare, and attempted to craft writing prompts that would spur interesting discussion. Nothing seemed to “stick.”
One of my last homework assignments in the unit asked students to respond to a sophisticated essay about Hamlet’s Oedipal complex, and in one class, only 11 out of 18 submitted the work. With much uncertainty facing us about our return to school, I had to begin thinking about clever ways of grabbing my seniors’ attention. Hamlet certainly wasn’t cutting it, and senioritis had set in long before school closed on March 12.
So I thought first about what would interest and engage my seniors the most in online learning. I considered my interests and classes that I had previously taught, and I provided them with a Google Form of four elective-style “mini-course” options with short descriptions that can be found below:
- Independent Reading in Book Clubs: You choose a book from a suggested list with a group of three or four others and do virtual check-ins where you share your thinking one or two times a week.
- Creative Writing: Exploration of writing poetry, short stories, movie reviews, “Coronavirus Memoirs.”
- Author Study: Stephen King: A deeper dive into the master of horror’s short stories, novellas, film adaptations, and novels (e.g., IT, The Outsider, The Shining). We will begin by looking at some of his short stories and novellas and viewing the movie adaptations. If time allows, we will also look at other films, TV series, and stories in the genre.
- Film Studies: A general study of classic and modern cinema, with connections to stories/books that were adapted into movies.
With 43.8% of the vote, my seniors chose Film Studies as their Quarter 4 mini-course. Confident in the selected topic, I set out to craft a structure for my lesson plans. Since 2020, I have utilized this “mini-course” during the third quarter of my senior class, now titled “Film as Literature.”
Structuring the Mini-Course
Regardless of format–online or in-person learning–I wanted this film mini-course to contain weekly reading, writing, and discussion—a typical slate of learning opportunities in my classroom. With this mini-course, however, I added “viewing” to the mix since I envisioned seniors screening about a movie a week. After all, I would argue for movies as a critical viewing and learning modality, a sort of reading experience on screen.
At the start of the mini-course, I pushed out a movie survey to students to better understand their backgrounds as moviegoers. I asked them questions such as “What is your favorite moviegoing experience?”; “Explain the differences between watching a movie at home and the theater. Which do you prefer and why?”; “What makes a ‘good’ movie?” We discussed these responses and I shared the results with my classes.
This year, we read an article by Brian Raftery at Entertainment Weekly titled, “Here’s what it will take for movie theaters to survive 10 years from now,” and I shared some quotes from movie director M. Night Shyamalan about the importance of watching films with other people in theaters. Our discussion ended on the post-pandemic movie landscape and the prevalence of blockbuster action films and franchises that now dominate theaters. Invariably, my students cited many Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies as “good” movies that they love watching, so I said to them, “Alright, let’s watch an MCU film!” During the lockdown and in past years, I have given students more choices for MCU films. This year, however, since we began this journey in February, Black History Month, we decided as a class on Black Panther, a movie that celebrates and honors African culture.
As we screened the movie in class, I asked my seniors to note 5-10 questions, comments, or observations about the film. To provide a more focused screening of Black Panther, I asked them to consider the questions “What makes Black Panther a ‘good’ movie?” and “Are MCU movies ‘theme parks’?”, the latter a preview of the op-ed we would read post-viewing. When the film ended, they discussed their notes in a small group and then shared their takeaways with the whole class.
During the following class period, we read a 2019 New York Times op-ed written by director Martin Scorsese that garnered some criticism from prominent filmmakers in Hollywood. In the piece, he discusses his skepticism about MCU movies and espouses his ideas on “great films,” alluding to past and current directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Greta Gerwig. I hoped to shock my classes with this essay, as many teenagers often obsess about Marvel movies.
For their writing assignment, I made sure to marry that week’s reading and viewing work to the responses. After having read the Scorsese essay and having watched Black Panther, seniors then responded to one of two questions:
- In your opinion, are Marvel (MCU) movies “theme parks”? Explain.
- Discuss one of Scorsese’s “soundbites” from the op-ed and connect it to Black Panther or one of your favorite movies.
Because both prompts usually generate a reasonable amount of debate and discussion, we gathered to discuss our responses in a Socratic Seminar, a fixture of my class throughout the school year. To ensure that every voice is heard, I require that each student contribute to the discussion at least once. If I do not enforce this rule, I find that a small group of more outspoken students tends to dominate the conversation.
Reflections on My Teaching
During the lockdown, I was struck by the completion rate of seniors’ first writing assignment of the mini-course. In the class of 18 mentioned at the outset, 16 out of 18 seniors submitted their work; that’s 89 percent completion on this assignment compared to 61 percent on the previous Hamlet homework. Of course, there are other factors to consider (level of difficulty, length of response, text complexity), but it seems that this topic tapped into a reservoir of interest and eagerness to learn that I hadn’t seen from that class in quite some time.
In the years since, I have noticed that reluctant students are more participatory during discussions about the films. In 2021, in an end-of-the-course survey, 77% of my seniors suggested expanding the “Film as Literature” mini-course to the start of the second semester (Note: I currently teach this mini-course for the third quarter only, as seniors go on internship and do not take my class in the fourth quarter). In my 2022 survey, a large percentage of students wrote about Film as Literature as one of their most positive experiences and memories from my class.
I would cite two key takeaways from the past three years teaching second-semester seniors.
The first is the importance of choice. At the start of the lockdown, I offered my classes four mini-course options before they decided on Film as Literature. In addition, instead of selecting one movie for the entire class to watch, I gave them several options. Finally, students chose from one of two possible responses for their weekly writing assignment. Choice makes the content “stickier,” in my opinion, and allows kids to take more ownership of their work.
The second takeaway deals with the importance of interest and accessibility of content. To illustrate this point: one of my students, Matthew, missed three or four consecutive assignments on Hamlet (Hamlet = not “sticky”) at the beginning of lockdown, but with his “good movie” response, he submitted his work on time and crafted an insightful argument that exceeded the word count requirement. The quality and length of Matt’s work underscore the importance of harnessing choice, students’ interests, and accessible material to motivate seniors to continue to read and write, even after their college acceptances and commitments.
Chris D’Ippolito is currently a 9th- and 12th-grade English and creative writing teacher in Thornwood, New York, and the advisor of his school’s National English Honor Society chapter. He has also taught 7th- and 8th-grade English for four years at the district’s middle school. D’Ippolito is passionate about helping his students develop lifelong reading habits in an age of constant distraction, as well as teaching strategies for honors students. He can be found on Twitter at @chris_dipps.
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