Reel Conversations: Reading Films with Young Adults
Thomas R. Wilson
Ask the contemporary young adult student about a particularly thought-provoking or even controversial novel, and you are more than likely to be met with stupefied silence. Ask that same student about a particularly thought-provoking or controversial film, and you are more than likely to uncork a geyser of recited quotes or scene re-enactments, the accuracy of which might astound you.
If students are so aroused by this media and find themselves already involved in a voluntary, albeit unguided, examination of the genre, then why not offer a mentored tour of the subject in the classroom? That is the question Alan Teasley and Ann Wilder have dedicated themselves to answering in Reel Conversations (Boynton/Cook, 1996). These authors recognize that teachers at almost all levels of education already focus on four genres of literature: short story, novel, poetry, and drama. What Reel Conversations creates without compromising academic integrity is a film genre worthy of examination and instruction in the study of literature.
Examining the background of the authors is necessary to know that this book is not penned by a pimpled youth seeking to devour class time with the mindless viewing of films of lowly acclaim such as Porky's or Meatballs. Also, any fear a reader may have of being duped by an overzealous film buff should be pacified with the knowledge of the authors' scholarly backgrounds and involvement in the same work environment as those for whom they claim to be writing. Alan Teasley serves as director of staff development for the Durham (North Carolina) Public Schools and adjunct assistant professor in Duke University's graduate and undergraduate teacher education programs. Ann Wilder teaches English, young adult literature, and mass communications at Southern High School in Durham, North Carolina. Together they have published articles in English Journal, The ALAN Review, and The Iowa English Bulletin. Alan Teasley and Ann Wilder are educators who walk the same grounds as their audience and share a work environment that makes this book valid.
This common ground provides the setting for the book's origins. Ann had two weeks left with her ninth-grade gifted class, and she had run out of ideas. She was burned out and was at the point where she was even boring herself. She called Alan. What Ann really wanted was a quick fix: a guest lecturer for a couple of days and then a few more days of film watching Ñ a great way to coast into summer. What she got was a two-week unit on how to watch a film and write a critical review, and the beginning of a collaboration with Alan in using film with middle and high school students (p. 1). What the reader of this book gets is a complete text guiding English and language arts teachers in the instruction of film as a literary genre.
Reel Conversations is, first and foremost, a well-planned and clearly detailed how-to book for teaching film on the high school level. But it also offers the reader all the weapons necessary to fight the battles that may, and probably will, arise when undertaking such a task as what will be perceived by many as watching movies.
Certainly there exist numerous hesitations concerning the teaching of film at the high school level. Even more numerous seem to be the excuses created by educators themselves when suggestions arise to teach the genre. But Teasley and Wilder take great care to recognize these common hesitations and fears and promptly address them all in the first 15 pages of the book without sounding overly defensive.
As a high school English teacher who earlier this year considered the study of film as a unit in my classroom, I can attest to the following excuses offered by opponents to the teaching of this genre:
Excuse: I cannot possibly teach this in the classroom. There is no validity to pursuing the study of film as a scholarly undertaking and I will be hung out to dry when I am eventually called on the carpet for attempting to do so. Solution: The authors provide a detailed rationale for including film in the English/Language Arts Curriculum (p. 4-7).
Excuse: Movies today are too vulgar or at the very least questionable in nature and I could not possibly find appropriate movies other than Dumbo to show my students. And we all know that students will not watch those! Solution: The authors provide detailed principles for the selection of appropriate films (p. 8).
Excuse: It is illegal to use copyrighted movies in the classroom. Solution: The authors offer steps to use videotapes legally in the classroom (p. 11).
Chapter one shows that the authors have taken great care to construct a book that provides little opportunity for making excuses not to teach this genre. Teasley and Wilder have even eliminated laziness as an excuse. The authors have obviously invested hours in planning film units and watching countless films to find those appropriate for young adult students. The numerous annotated lists of films complete with the screen times of applicable scenes are evidence of the authors' labor. Such effort on the authors' parts saves the reader an enormous amount of time that would otherwise have been spent previewing films (p. ix).
With basic professional concerns pacified in the book's first chapter, the authors dedicate the remainder of Reel Conversation's Part I to offering a relevant and practical teaching guide for both the beginning and the veteran teacher. The information contained, practices suggested, and tips provided are applicable to teachers who already have experience teaching film and those who have not yet begun. Chapter Two serves to establish a foundation of knowledge and common understanding to which teachers and students can refer. The authors effectively present a technical film vocabulary to use in analyzing a movie in a critical review (p. 47).
Chapter Two includes three lessons. The first introduces the framework for reading a movie. Teasley and Wilder present pointed activities and discussion questions directing students to apply the terminology and framework to clips from a variety of films. The second lesson expands this application to the viewing of a whole movie. Finally, the chapter is closed with a systematic way for students to write a film review.
Chapters Three through Five offer a reader three approaches to using film in the classroom that do not alienate the proponents of creating life-long readers. In fact, Teasley and Wilder go to great pains to emphasize in each chapter how the study of film can be employed cooperatively with the study of literature and always tie this study to a writing project.
First, the authors develop strategies consistent with the reader- response theory to apply to student interpretations and discussions of films. The idea of reading a film or treating a film as a moving text is generated admirably here. The authors provide modeled class discussions including full dialogues that have actually transpired in the practice of these methods. As in other chapters, there are detailed suggestions for creative writing assignments to correspond with the viewer-response practicums.
Next, Teasley and Wilder undertake the teaching of film genres. Here, Ògenre study gives an opportunity to introduce students both to an important approach to film criticism and to a number of classic films they might not otherwise seeÓ (p. 72). This aspect of exposing students to the unfamiliar or seemingly outdated is quite refreshing. The authors do not, however, undertake this by wrenching students away from popular film. Rather there is a subtle meshing of the two. For example, the 1912 D.W. Griffith film, Musketeers of Pig Alley is referenced in comparison to Oliver Stone's 1994 release Natural Born Killers Ñ a stark contrast that will no doubt gain a student's attention. Again, all of the activities, discussions, and evaluations of films are found to be directed toward a writing venture. Finally, in Chapter Five, Teasley and Wilder involve themselves in teaching film across the curriculum. Here the idea of exposure to the unfamiliar is expanded as a variety of foreign and history films are used commendably alongside the subjects of social studies, music, and even math.
The concern to unite film with the existing genres is so weighty that authors have dedicated Part II of Reel Conversations to presenting thematic units that include appropriate movies as well as young adult novels. These chapters are essentially teaching units dealing with specific themes that appear in both young adult novels and films. The authors recognize that, like the novel or short story, the film cannot be studied in isolation. Part II examines common young adult themes such as belonging, coming of age, and love with more detailed lesson plans, discussion questions, and suggested writing activities.
Reel Conversations offers its reader everything needed to teach film on the secondary level with the obvious exception of a television, VCR, and actual film clips. If Alan Teasley and Ann Wilder held as their goal the development of a complete text guiding English and language arts teachers in the instruction of film as a literary genre, then their writing is convincing, justifiable, and legitimate. The authors' suggestions for including the use of film with existing genres as a means for providing expanded opportunities for discussion and writing make this book vital to the contemporary teacher and student.
Clear, thoughtful, and personal writing makes this text easily embraceable and believable to the secondary school teacher. Alan Teasley and Ann Wilder do not merely present ideas in their work: they offer actual teaching concepts that have been put to practice. This book is the result of ten years of developing lessons and employing them with real life middle and high school students. Reel Conversations is an indispensable and immediately useful tool for teachers of young adult students. Tom Wilson teaches English at West Middlesex High School in Middlesex, Pennsylvania.