Classic Movies In the Classroom

  • May 13, 2017

Classic Movies_Classroom

Timeless cinema, like the kind featured on Turner Classic Movies, offers students a unique opportunity to “experience” history.

 

IT’S TRUE. Old movies are like time machines. They can transport us to a world that existed long ago—affording us an opportunity to both see and hear people who lived nearly a century before today’s students were even born.

And it’s a little bit humbling to consider that we, today, are the first people in history to have such an opportunity.

I was struck by that thought just recently while watching a movie from 1931. It depicted what was, at that time, the workaday world of New York City, yet now, some 86 years later, it read like a completely different culture. The people of 1931 certainly looked like us, but they spoke differently, dressed differently, and even interacted with one another differently. They seemed to place a high level of importance on things like courtesy and manners. And the most advanced technology on display was a radio!

In terms of years, I was as far removed from the people in that movie as they were from, say, people in the Old West, and yet I could watch them, listen to them, observe them in a way that they themselves could not possibly have observed their own predecessors. This allowed me a level of insight on the past that was never possible before motion pictures.

Imagine if filmmaking had existed in the ancient world, or during the Middle Ages. How much more personal would our understanding be of the folks who lived during those eras? Sure, thanks to the work of archaeologists and scholars we have period art, craft, and literature from which to glean insight, but we will never actually see those people who lived so long ago, much less hear them speak.

Thanks to movies, however, the people of 1931—their mannerisms, their norms—are well within reach, and observable. This got me to thinking about how a teacher might put classic cinema to use in a classroom.

Turner Classic Movies, channel 256 in your DIRECTV SCHOOL CHOICE channel package, is television’s premiere showcase for timeless cinema. The network screens films of every conceivable type dating back to the earliest days of the medium—drama, documentary, period pieces, comedy—all with something to offer those who are curious about how things used to be.

From the safety and comfort of your classroom you could send your students on a fact-finding mission to the early 20th century, to observe and make notes and then digest their findings as a group. What were people like in those days? How did they conduct themselves? In what ways were their lives like ours, and in what ways did they differ? The exercise can be expanded by having students discuss their observations with elderly people, to get context, and “eyewitness” corroboration of their findings.

The relevance of a project like this to history and social studies is obvious, but you might also consider its application to English, journalism, and creative writing.

Granted, your students might be disappointed to learn that the movie they’re going to watch is “old.” But tell them it’s a time machine and you might just capture their interest.

—Stephen Vincent D’Emidio