Tuesday, September 1, 2009

How to Make Feature-Length Films Fit into a Class Period

During History Week, I wrote about using part of the film 1776 to help teach about the Declaration of Independence. I realized that teachers might benefit from a guide to cutting down any feature-length film for classroom use.

Let's assume you already have a film in mind that illustrates main ideas you desperately want your students to learn. How do you go about making it fit comfortably into one class period, since that is the most likely time frame you'll have to work with?

First, get the DVD version of the film. VHS won't work because you'll spend too much time trying to skip around to the right parts.

Now, onto the film itself. Figure out an initial running time by subtracting the beginning and end credits from the total running time (which you'll usually find on the DVD case). You won't work backwards from this number, but it's a benchmark you need to consider.

Using the DVD's chapters as a guide, pick the minimum number of scenes that address your main ideas most directly. For now, leave out scenes that provide too much background (like introducing characters), explore subplots or cover minor details. Remember, you should teach as much background information as possible before you show any video. You might have most or all of your 45 minutes filled up from these alone, but either way we want to cut out unnecessary minutes. If you want to skip to the middle of a long scene, write down the exact time you want to go to, and figure out how to go there on your particular DVD player/software. Skipping the latter part of a scene is easier, just make sure to note the actual minutes you would be playing.

If you still have time left, look for scenes that support your main ones and that address minor but important details you want to highlight.

At this point you should have a rough outline of what you'd like to show and how many minutes it will take. Go back and watch your cut down version from beginning to end. Double check how long it takes, remembering that you might have to take a minute to explain why you skipped something or point out something before a scene begins.

Hopefully you'll have 45 minutes or less, or will have identified some more minutes to shave off when you watched your edited version.

In general, keep these things in mind when trying to decide what to use or not use from a film:
  1. Is it appropriate for school use?
  2. Will your students find it engaging? If you're unsure, get some feedback from your children, young relatives, or adults who aren't teachers on how interesting they think it is.
  3. If it seems like something isn't working in your "edited" version, whether in terms of timing or clarity, go back to the original film. There might be a different scene that illustrates the same idea in a better way.
  4. Do you have a lesson that can teach a particular point just as good or better than something in the film?
  5. Finally, how do your students respond to videos in general? Are they always excited, sleeping and talking through them, or somewhere in the middle? In this case, less is more (even if less means no video at all).
Finally, don't let technical issues derail your plans and ruin all of your hard work!

Before you show anything in class, make sure you have the right equipment and that everything works properly. None of your planning will matter if you spend 30 minutes trying to get your film to play at all! Set up and test everything before class starts, asking yourself these questions:
  • Is the DVD playable?
  • Does your DVD player or laptop software work?
  • Does the TV or LCD projector work?
  • Are the speakers loud enough for your students to hear clearly?
Also, some DVD players (especially on the software side) allow you to "bookmark" exact points to play later. This would certainly make your planning and actual playback in class go much more quickly and smoothly.