Blog1: What purpose does film serve in the history classroom or in the telling of history?

by eug22 on October 2, 2017 - 10:18pm

Who doesn’t love watching movies in a classroom! When the teacher tells you that you will be watching a film today in class, you’re ready to get the popcorn out and put your feet up while others plunge into their seats - half of them paying attention while other snooze or text. We can imagine this because we have all been there at one time or another.

Just to give you a background about myself, I am a high school teacher who has taught various subject areas such as computer technology, construction technology, world religions, media arts and career/civics. There have been times in the past that I have used film in these courses to help students create a visualization and understanding of a film or a past historical event. I wouldn’t depend on film as a way or alternative teaching method but rather as a means of storytelling. Film supports the purpose of engagement with others and it helps students piece together the material that would be discussed in class.   

If we take a look at author Robert A. Rosestone of History on Film / Film on History he states on the premise the idea of a major shift in how we view or understand history is through films. Robert states “the idea that one of the major changes in the future will and should be an acceptance of the dramatic feature film-and the visual media in general – as a legitimate way of doing history, of historying it.”  We can all agree that with technology today we can just pick up a phone, a personal electronic device, a computer or a watch and view any historical film. These new advancements will not only help attract students to watch more films, but also change how and when they watch them.

In class, the purpose of film is to help students capture the moment and make them feel like they are part of the film. Film is not just another story in a textbook; it’s a picture, affecting the student’s real feelings and providing them with real emotional connections. A movie is a visual piece, which helps students create a dream like visual in their mind. They can experience this to a certain degree. It also helps them convey emotions of joy, sorrow, pride, and anger. 

Robert A. Rosenstone also states “on the premise that in fact history has been done on film for some time now, and that the way to understand its contributions is not to begin by theorizing as to what history must or should be, and not to insist that the current rules of written history are necessarily applicable to this visual form, but to derive as we regularly do or should do in most fields-theory from practice. This means looking at a lot of history films to see how their directors have over the last century developed a particular visual language and set of practices for putting human heritage on screen.” If we adhere to this idea or motion that it is the only way movies can work in the classroom, we are losing an incredible source of learning material.
Robert A Rosentone also states “by watching film as history we can begin to move forward towards understanding and evaluating the medium as it undertakes to interest and inform us about moments, movements and events and people of the past.” I agree with this statement because filmmakers today consider their craft as a piece of literature or art form. Films now involve their audience to process visual and auditory information along with a plot and character development.

Surely, being able to observe and examine film as visual information the way one would analyze an interpretation from a textbook is a key skill in today’s world. However, students need to know now how to break down that information and know when to ask questions. Many teachers I know encourage film in the classroom environment and point out that students need to learn how to tell if something in the media is a social construction.

Students should also be taught how to study and evaluate a movie. I asked ten of my colleagues and they all felt that students are more motivated and learn more when a film is used. They all agreed that by using a movie in class it helps students with historical debates, it helps students with a better understanding of the narrative, and it helps students remember time periods and dates. Movies are meaningful pieces of learning material. In order for a film to serve in the history classroom, I have put together three recommendations I think would help students in the telling of history:

1.    Provide background information of the film: It is important that the teacher provide the students with information as to what they are watching; provide students with the setting / time period, background on issues the film proposes, and cultural context.  

2.    Provide students with questions, which are relative to the movie: Provide students with questions to the film. This is a good way so that students can relate their own lives to the film and also find more background information from the film study.  

3.   Movie assignment: Have students complete a homework assignment based on the film, this could be a quiz, a journal entry, or a discussion period amongst classmates.

These simple recommendations will help students understand what movies are; a type of storytelling that explores factual stories and issues using film. Simply put, history movies can be used as proper lessons for students in a class, and a fun engaging tool used to learn about history.   

Eugene Pagliaro

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