Film Foundation Strives to Raise Visual Literacy

Article ImageNearly a decade ago, Margaret Bodde, co-executive director of the Film Foundation, began having a discussion with Martin Scorsese about how best to teach film to a broader audience than simply those studying film in college. "We started to see that if kids aren't introduced or exposed to films from the past, they'd have no motivation to protect them for the future," explains Bodde, so the Film Foundation was established with the express purposes of preserving film and educating the public.

Scheduled for a full release in March 2005, the Film Foundation's "The Story of Movies" project, which uses a variety of digital media and Web portals, aims to increase middle school students' visual literacy. "Visual literacy is really the grammar of film," says Bodde. "If you look at any great work of literature you can break it down by the use of words, alliteration, and different grammatical structures that help convey meaning and emotion. The same is true for film. Music, the pace of the editing, and all the things that go into how a scene plays out are like grammar in literature; they help convey deeper meanings and relationships between characters in a visual, nonverbal way.

"If you could get kids and teachers to analyze and break down films the way they do literature, you can really get a lot of value out of that," Bodde continues. But Bodde and her colleagues came to realize that if they wanted their program to be implemented during school hours and not as an extracurricular activity, it would have to integrate with existing lesson plans. "Catherine Gourley, our curriculum writer, came up with the idea and the language for the first-ever film study standards— essentially guided outcomes for what students will achieve after taking this course," she says. "By creating these standards, teachers could then effectively implement this program to meet their goals for a specific age group, allowing them to integrate film into the core curriculum, dovetailing it with subjects like history." While the program will be available to all teachers, the Film Foundation has focused on promoting it to teachers at schools that do team teaching and have integrated curriculums. The Film Foundation has also partnered with Turner Classic Movies, which is putting together a promotional piece that it will be airing on its network to advertise for this program.

In March, the Foundation plans to distribute 10,000 units of the lesson plan for To Kill a Mockingbird. "Each teacher will receive two printed books—a teacher's guide and student activities book—and two DVDs," says Bodde. One disc holds the full-length movie, while the other contains supplementary material like mini-documentaries. "It's very important to us to know that schools would screen the film at the beginning and end of the program. But in between, when you're talking about different scenes in a movie, DVD allows you to move around much more easily," she says. "It's more limiting to think of this with videotape."

The Foundation has also put together an online portal for educators. Using a host of IBM's software and services, including Lotus Workplace and WebSphere, the Web site "serves as an environment to provide a level of support to educators. Teachers are able to have a threaded discussion in which they can talk about their experiences working with the program and share best practices," says Jeff Schick, member of the Film Foundation advisory council and director of worldwide content management sales for IBM. "We also created the portal so that teachers could gain access to an infrastructure that would have all of the print materials available online." As revisions are made to print materials, this portal will be the primary method of distributing updated content.

While "The Story of Movies" project may yet incorporate much advanced functionality in its portal, enhancements are made on an ongoing basis. "Instant messaging and team room technology will be phased in over time," says Schick. "We actually had those in the prototype, but we're not 100% sure that we'll turn them on when we go into production and hundreds and thousands of people go online. We want to make sure that we don't overload their senses. Once people start getting settled in, we'll start opening up this additional functionality." Another next-generation technology that this project has chosen to eschew for the time being is IP-based digital video delivery, although that's not surprising considering that another of the Film Foundation's primary missions is defending artists' rights.

"We hope to expand the curriculum to include more titles," Bodde says of the future. "One of the goals ultimately is to also include foreign titles, documentaries, and other types of film-making. Feature films are only the beginning." In the meantime, though, the program will stick with the classics. By this time next year, it will have three films in circulation: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. "Our goal is to offer more once the template is created," she says.

Bodde and her colleagues also don't see this program being forever limited to middle schoolers. "We want the curriculum to grow as the students who are taking the course go from grade to grade," she says. In addition, Bodde hopes to significantly alter the perception of how film can be used in the classroom. "It used to be that teachers were looked down on and called lazy for showing a video in class," she says. "We're trying to turn that on its head and say that you can get a lot of value out of viewing classical film, and there are a lot of activities that can grow out of this kind of study."

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