Films as Community Builders

old film projector with dramatic lightingThe students in our ESOL program have busy lives. The majority of them have jobs, many have children, and several are full-time students and part-time workers.   They have very little time to socialize at school, and few have the opportunity practice their English outside of class.

As a way to increase our students’ sense of community and connection to one another, as well as to give them more opportunities to be exposed to “real” English, we have hosted ESOL Film Days, where students from all classes come together once a semester to watch a film in our college’s performing arts theater. The process requires some preparation on the department’s part, but the benefits are many.

Picking an appropriate film

For us, “appropriate” means three things. First, we avoid films with a lot of advanced and low-frequency vocabulary. Movies with too much content-specific vocabulary can be very challenging for students.

Second, we do not select films with a lot of implied cultural context. The experience is supposed to be enjoyable, but students can feel confused and frustrated if they do not have the appropriate background and cultural knowledge required to understand the story.

Finally, we tend to gravitate towards PG-rated movies to avoid scenes and language that might be offensive or awkward in a large group setting.   This does limit our choices as many PG movies are too child-oriented, but we have found a number of successful titles so far, including Temple Grandin, The Blind Side, Invictus, and Dead Poets Society. We tend to gravitate towards films that are uplifting and inspirational, and ones that speak to the value of education.

Preparing for Film Day

We often preview several films before we find a good one and do so well in advance so both students and teachers are prepared for the event.

Part of the preparation involves creating a handout for students on the major characters and basic plot of the movie, as well as key vocabulary students will need to know to follow the story. One of our instructors watches the movie to gather this information, sometimes using www.imdb.com to fill in any gaps.

Making choices about the best words to select can be tricky as we must be aware that we will have beginner, intermediate, and advanced students in the audience. When watching the film, we ask ourselves, “Will students be lost if they do not understand this word?” If so, we put it on the list. We keep the list to roughly twenty words or concepts. Luckily, due to the richness of films, many unfamiliar words can be guessed from context.

This one-page handout is then distributed to the teacheFilmDay1rs and students 2-3 weeks before Film Day, giving instructors the option to go over it with their students in class beforehand. We recently created a handout for the movie, Dead Poets Society, which can be downloaded here.

Another piece to prepare is a PowerPoint with questions that students will discuss while watching the film.   We pause the movie halfway through to give students a chance to react to what they have seen and discuss it with a partner. We generally divide the audience into three groups, making one question for each.   The questions can range from basic comprehension questions to those which will elicit more critical thinking, such as comparing two characters or sharing opinions on a particular character or event in the story.   “How?” “Why?” and “What do you think?” questions generally produce more lively discussions.

The last slide of the PowerPoint includes 4-5 reflection questions that are shown at the end of the movie, generally listed in order from easiest to hardest. Many of our writing teachers assign this as homework.   Students are asked to pick one and write a paragraph in response. Other teachers choose to take this assignment as extra credit.Discussion_Questions_FilmDay

The final piece of preparation is to arrange food. We ask all students and teachers to bring a dish to share as we take a 45-minute lunch break after the first half of the movie.   Some teachers create a food sign-up sheet to encourage greater participation. The food is placed in the reception area outside the theater.

The Day of the Event

As students begin to file into the theater, music from Pandora’s World Music station is playing, and the atmosphere is relaxed. Without trying, students tend to sit in three main groups, which naturally set up our discussion groups.

The PowerPoint and movie are ready to go on a laptop connected to a projector.   Before playing the movie, we make sure that English subtitles are always on to help our lower-level and deaf students.

After a short introduction to the movie, the lights go down. Bringing so many students together often results in a very animated response. We gasp and laugh together, and sometimes we cry. We feel connected emotionally. It becomes a beautiful, shared experience. Students are not part of a class anymore, but feel part of a larger community.

About halfway through the movie, the lights come back up, and we pause for lunch. A few teachers have stepped out prior to the break to set up the food tables. Students and teachers alike survey the amazing array of unique dishes only ESOL students seem to be able produce. Our mouths water, and we dig in. This sharing of food is a wonderful community builder. Students chat, take group pictures with their cell phones, and practice their English, all while enjoying delicious fare. Teachers circulate, ask students questions about the movie, and get to know their students in a way the traditional classroom setting does not allow for.

After 45 minutes, students are corralled back into the theater and shown the discussion questions.   We give the groups about 10 minutes to share their thoughts with their partner(s). Then we open up the conversation to the whole group, with two teachers carrying around microphones to catch student volunteers.   Students are overwhelmingly supportive of one another, always clapping after a brave student has stood up and shared his or her opinion with the hundred or more other students sitting around them.

The movie then resumes to the final credits. Students applaud, and some whistle. Others might be crying, including the teachers.   To finish, we show them the list of reflection questions to answer for homework or extra credit, and they head home.

All in all, Film Day allows us to share an experience with our students in a relaxed and celebratory way. Their hard work has paid off when they can understand a film, and participate in a discussion that allows them to express ideas and opinions with their peers.   It’s an event that makes everyone feel good.

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