Chatham’s Dynamic US Culture & Cinema Course

A large screen glows in the pitch-dark classroom. It is eerily quiet.

Someone yells, “Don’t go in there!”

Others frantically chime in.

I peek around the screen on my podium to see 23 transfixed students, wide-eyed and hands covering mouths.

On the screen, the ceiling explodes. An alien tumbles onto the floor as scientists and soldiers scream as they scramble for safety.

Screams ricochet in our room, followed by nervous laughter.

This is US Culture and Cinema, a 100-level culture-based course that students take to learn about American culture, values, traditions and so much more through the lens of top ten classic American films.

Pre-reading activities include summaries, background information handouts and short video clips.

For each film, post-reading entails heavy discussions and a set of carefully crafted handouts designed to get students to reflect and synthesize information they’ve learned. Each handout builds upon their understanding and skills, starting with formulating their opinion, close critical reading, and summary honing. Film synopses are gapfill with word banks, giving students a chance to understand the story while they learn practical academic and technical vocab. Another handout doles out juicy film trivia followed by lively discussions in which they justify their favorite items. Same for quotes and film excerpts—with these they explain the humor, or infer why the character says something, and they act out parts of scenes as intoned in the film. There is a vocab match with words, phrases, and idioms and images. The Best Summaries has them choose the best summary out of 5 or 6 similar film genre summaries, specific character names removed.

While they actively watch the film, they follow along while completing questions with multiple choice answers. Questions are kept as simple as possible to prevent students from missing important moments. Images of the main characters are shown on this handout, along with images and maps of ideas or places at the end. The While You Watch questions and answers are designed to help students follow along with ease an otherwise potentially confusing film.

Each week, I send short video clips related to the film, director, film theory, and technical elements such as angles & shots and sound used in the film for them to watch and take notes for discussion. They then discuss the ideas they found most interesting and explain why. Class participation is typically very lively.

I have 3 criteria for choosing films. It should reflect American culture, values, traditions, and/or social issues. The film should also be a little older so that there is less chance of students having seen it. And finally, it should be in the top 10 or 20 for its genre.

This semester we watched Kramer vs Kramer (Drama), Singin’ in the Rain (Musical), Rear Window (Thriller), The Shining (Horror), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Western), Aliens (Sci-fi/Action), Big (Comedy).

by: Sylvia Shipp, English Language Program Lecturer & Student Advisor

 

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