Mentor Text Wednesday: Moving Past Summary in Film Analysis

MentorTextWednesday

Mentor Text:  “Captain America on the Potomac” by Linda Holmes for NPR. April 1, 2014.

Skill Taught: Moving past summary in film analysis

Background:

My English 9s are working on an essay  on the theme of a Pixar short film of their choosing as an entry point into the world of analytical, academic writing. The films are brief, easily accessible, and yet full of moments to pull apart and scrutinize. Plus, it’s a nice fun break in our spring countdown to the end of the year.

We covered thesis statements, structuring body paragraphs, finding copious evidence, explaining that evidence, writing introductions and conclusions. And still when I conferenced on their drafts I noticed the age old problem we all encounter when teaching this kind of writing: plot summary.

While I didn’t want to delve into the language of film criticism and camera angles, students needed help knowing what they could talk about in a film beyond the simple plot. Sure, they could identify a theme, but what should their evidence look like?

How I Used It:

I gave a brief mini-lesson on close reading a film. Students took notes on how the close reading they have done this year in printed text (based on the work of Christ Lehman and Kate Roberts in Falling  in Love with Close Reading, which I cannot recommend highly enough!) translates to the close reading that we can do on a screen.

CloseReadingFilmMW

 

Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list, but it gave my students a few concrete places to go in their interpretation that moved them past plot.

We then looked at Linda Holmes’ analysis of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). I love so much about this article: it’s truly analysis more than it is review, it spends much of its time focused on the film qualities of the story (particularly images), it takes something seemingly silly and reveals its potential for depth.

In short, this is EXACTLY what I want my students to do!

Students took to color-marking — looking for summary of the film’s action/plot versus analysis of film technique. The students made a number of interesting insights they could take right into their own writing:

  • “There is only one paragraph made up of one long sentence that is pure summary of the plot. It must not be that important.”
  • “The writer uses what she sees on screen to think about the theme of the movie.”
  • “This is mostly about what the movie is about, not what happens during the movie.”
  • “The writer helps us understand by making comparisons to other movies.”
  • “If we were writing about a movie with actors in it, we should list their names in parentheses beside the character they play.”

Before students moved back into their drafts, they broke into groups according to the short film about which they were writing and watched again — this time for deeper, close reading of film elements. Armed with new evidence and a better sense of direction, they began revising.

 

New Year’s (Writing Workshop) Resolutions (or, Why Didn’t I Do This in August???)

Midterms are over, and we have reached the point of the year where, inevitably, I second guess every decision I have made so far and long for a do-over. And while this year hasn’t been without its victories, I still wonder, What ever happened to that uber-planned-perfectly-balanced class I dreamed of while I sat by the pool in July?

Adding fuel to my restless fire has been my epic fall of phenomenal professional development. In November, I attended (and presented at!) my very first NCTE annual convention. A week later, I attended a whole-day workshop with Penny Kittle, my professional idol and one of the biggest reasons I stayed in the teaching profession. (I cried when I met her. Yep, I’m that person.)

Oh, I have been on a very high teaching high.

Coming off of these incredible experiences, I have synthesized all of my learning into a three-pronged attack plan for improving the thinking and writing in my classroom.  I am writing it down (and telling you) so that I will actually do it!

1) Cozying up to words, words, words

My students need to hear more words than they read or write. Why haven’t I thought of that before? If they are hearing beautiful language — the way words work together, the way words make music, the way words sound out loud — their reading will improve. Their writing will improve.

Penny Kittle and Tom Romano begin class every day with a poem. I’m beginning with a poem two days per week (on “reading workshop” days.) Students will just listen and breathe and soak up words. They will become exposed to poetry in a risk-free setting. They will be exposed to all of the things a poem can do. They might even try a collection of poetry for their independent reading. And, I hope, like Penny Kittle’s students, poetic language will start to slip into their own writing.

But wait, there’s more!

I am also planning to try something a bit experimental for a high school English classroom. I am going to read a novel aloud to my students. Teachers in lower grades do this all the time. There is loads of data that supports this practice as a way of improving student vocabulary, engagement, and passion for reading.  And yet, educators debate whether or not it’s appropriate for high school students.

Good teaching is good teaching, and if it’s beneficial for young readers then it must be beneficial for older readers, too.

Image So, I will be working Charlotte’s Web into our routine.  (Why Charlotte’s Web? Because it was all over NCTE. It felt like every session I attended mentioned my childhood favorite. Must be time to pull it off the shelf!) It should be well over everyone’s reading level.

We will use ol’ E.B. White to hear beautiful language, to reinforce the importance of re-reading at different points in ones life, to practice new skills of close reading, connect to a common text about which to write, and to just have fun with words.

2) Using media as an entry point to push thinking and writing forward

A few notable sessions I attended at NCTE used media as an entry point to close reading and critical thinking. And in a way that is more than showing-the-movie-of-the-book-as-a-day-off-when-we-are-done-reading.  Liz Lutz gave a great presentation on using Pixar films to teach critical reading. Chris Lehman, Kate Roberts, and Maggie Roberts encouraged teachers to use popular music, commercials, and other mass media to reinforce close reading skills.

I tried it as soon as I got home, using Pixar short films to help my students review the “distant reading” strategies Kylene Beers and Bob Probst outline in Notice and Note. (Haven’t read it? Go buy this one!) They loved it, and I desperately wished that I had used the films to teach the skills in the first place.

In the new year, I will use media to lead students into deeper thinking, deeper conversation, and deeper writing — especially as we move into analytical genre studies. In fact, our “light analysis” unit in February will now be working on the analysis of a Pixar short film — a friendly way of entering the realm of serious academic writing.

3) Giving the QuickWrite a facelift

On the midterm, I asked students to share the best and worst parts of writing workshop. Overwhelmingly, students listed the QuickWrite as the part they would get rid of. This isn’t new. My students last year said the same thing.

They hate the QuickWrite because they don’t see it as useful (even when they mine it for ideas in a bigger draft). Maybe this comes from years of free-form journaling in some lower grades? Maybe I’m just not doing a good job crafting interesting prompts.

While at Penny Kittle’s workshop, I was struck by her use of the term “notebook time” to describe the beginning of class rather than “quickwrite”. This is where our first ten minutes of class is headed in 2014. A QuickWrite might be one of many things that can happen during the broader and more productive Notebook Time. I will still use QuickWrites periodically to generate ideas for the writer’s notebook, but we will also:

  • Do sentence study & imitation

  • Respond to the daily poem

  • Practice meaningful revision

  • Make meaning of short bits of media

  • Play with and make interpretations about raw data (something Penny Kittle said is a weakness noted by college professors to whom she has spoken)

I hope students will like this better — that it will feel more purposeful to them and more playful at the same time. Our writing will become more like Play-Doh, and students will see the value of working with their writing even when it doesn’t become a draft.

What are your mid-year workshop revisions? What are you substituting, taking out, adding, or re-arranging (to borrow from Kelly Gallagher)?  Leave us a comment, or, better yet, join us on Twitter to chat about our writing resolutions & goals on Thursday, January 2 at 7:30pm EST. Use the hashtag #movingwriters.

– Rebekah