Sunday, September 7, 2008

E-School Goes Hollywood

Using Video to Make Your Point

A couple of years ago I was invited to teach a class at a Gilder-Lehrman Saturday Academy in Wichita, Kansas. The purpose of the Academy was to promote the teaching of social studies using historical documents and introduce creative means of weaving primary resources into curriculum. Given few guidelines other than these, I created a course called "Government in Modern Motion Picture". My audience consisted of 9th through 12th graders from public high schools who were willing to sacrifice six Saturday mornings in the middle of the school year. The students received no credit, but there was no homework and free donuts. Pretty good deal!

Within this class, I married primary resources and Hollywood with thematic teaching of the institutions of government and modern policy concerns. For example, the students one week viewed the PBS American Experience film "Simple Justice" and then read Earl Warren's opinion in the Brown v. BOE case followed up by a short piece by Robert Carter (the other major attorney in the Brown case). On a Saturday morning, these kids probably learned more about the litigation aspect of the civil rights movement than many kids learn in a semester.

Let's face it...this generation of kids prefer to absorb information in an engaging manner. In the high tech, video rich world in which they live "edutainment" makes sense. Give them a compelling tale in an sensory rich environment and you can throw in the facts with few complaints. My attitude: if you can't beat them, join them.

To this end, I believe a list of highly recommended movies can be a healthy addition to any e-class, particularly in the field of social science. Of course, some caveats have to be given at the onset of releasing such a list to students. First, the students must realize that at best movies are an interpretation of life. Artistic license will always clash with actual events, so a young viewer can not rely on Hollywood to be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So help Cecil B. DeMille. After all, I have the sneaky suspicion that Moses did not actually speak English with a Chicago accent.

Second, having reviewed scores of government textbooks over the years, I have yet to read one that does not show some bias and/or a tendency toward a particular ideology. Edwards/Lineberry, Wilson, Sabato, and the rest of the best for AP Government all have their bones to pick and causes to champion. In the same way, movies ALWAYS posture and often in the most liberal of ways. While this posturing is seldom subtle to cynical APGOPO teachers, the bias of Hollywood can be totally lost on a naive seventeen year old. We must give them some fair warning and careful guidance through these intellectual mine fields.

Finally, at the very best, a movie is the Cliffs Notes version of a complex topic. Having the students read Carter, Marshall, and Warren is a bare minimum in any decent introduction of Brown v. BOE. It is the ultimate fantasy, by us ever hopeful Pollyanna types, that some day the student will be motivated to pick up Richard Kluger's definitive work and delve into the facts behind the flick. Then again, I made it through English Lit with the yellow and black booklets and a Blockbuster membership. We can only do what we can do!

Next week I will get into my video selection and some of the documents I use. Remember, in any e-class format we need to rely on Netflix as a helpmate and hope the students take the initiative to view our suggestions. This means using the films as supplemental resources or, if you have face time, using them during these times. The former can again be Pollyanna and the latter not necessarily the best use of precious face time.

You might be thinking about how to best utilize video with Hippocampus or any other e-school curriculum and give me the benefits of your ideas. Blog me back and pass on the benefit of your experience. If you are teaching in a regular class setting and reading this please share some of your experiences and ideas with political science related video in the classroom. Until then...

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