Teaching visual literacy and film can be a lot of fun. If there is anything our students are familiar with it is film. However, just like novels, plays, poetry and other forms of literature, film has its own conventions and terminology.
I have to make a confession here: when film was first included in the English syllabus many moons ago I was reluctant.
You see I had majored in Literature and Media at Uni and had then spent a few years working in film. I knew that this was a whole new field with a completely different language from written texts. In my view, a wrong one as it turns out, the knowledge needed to do justice to film study was not knowledge that the average English teacher possessed. It was not compatible. I was passionate about literature and I thought introducing film would be a distraction.
Fortunately it wasn’t my call and now visual literacy is a central part of English curricula. As indeed it should be.
Yes it took a while for us to master it and yes, it required work but that is true of all new developments. What I had seriously underestimated was the capacity for learning and hard work that passionate English teachers have. My bad..
So what is this visual literacy thing and what are the elements we need to teach?
Because this is a visual medium it would be crazy wrong to only provide text information. I have created a number of pdfs and presentations that you can use directly in your classroom.
Have a look at the introduction below.
Just as literacy is the ability to read, understand and make meaning from written texts, visual literacy is the ability to do that with visual texts. The platforms that this will include are expanding in the digital age but for now we will content ourselves with film.
In order to make meaning from film our students need to :
- Understand the essential elements that go into the construction of a film.
- Understand the language that is used to talk about film that is different from that used to talk about books or poetry or plays.
- Understand that they can analyze a film in much the same way you would any other piece of literature.
And then they need to be able to:
- Identify and explain how the selection of subject matter has been influenced by the genre, and the likely audiences.
- Identify and explain how representations of people, places, events and concepts have been shaped by attitudes and values of the filmmaker.
- Compare and contrast different mediums for telling the same story.
And they need to be able to discuss all these things using accepted forms of Standard English.
How hard can that be?
It is helpful to begin by revisiting the basics of what a text is and how we read them.
What is a text?
In this context anything and everything is a text which can be read. A song, a painting, a person, a photograph, any object, a loaf of bread, a car etc, etc, etc.
As we begin analysing a text it is important to remember 3 things:
- Texts are created in context. They represent a particular society at a particular time. This influences the form they take and the ideas they represent.
- Texts gives you a particular version of (part of) reality. They emphasise some things and remain silent about others.
- Every text offers you a way of seeing and valuing things and invites you to accept its version as the way things are and are meant to be. What comes to be accepted as the normal always serves someone’s interests.
It can be a lot of fun and a huge time saver to spend some time at the beginning making sure that students understand these basic principles.
A helpful activity.
I have always found the chocolate example to work well.
Students are shown different types of chocolate. A luxury chocolate and then a garden variety normal chocolate. Their task is to interrogate the chocolate and see what they come up with. If you are doing this with senior students you could ask for a text-centred, a world-centred and a marxist reading.
You can also do it with cars or anything where there are visible gradations of value.
The questions to ask of any text.
- Who created the text?
- What is the intended audience? (who is it produced for)
- What is the purpose of the text?
- When was the text created?
- Who is empowered?
- Who is marginalised/silenced?
In the next few posts we will look at what makes a film a classic, the constructedness of film, the idea of ‘archetypes,’ the usefulness of storyboards in the English classroom and also the importance of soundtracks.
Till next time
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If you would like to pick up a handy vocab list for teaching film in your classroom you can download it here.