Curating the Big Screen Experience in RE

While the number of regular church goers in Australia continues to decline, the numbers of people regularly heading to the cinema remains impressively healthy. This is despite a significant increase in competition in recent years from various online steaming services that claim to bring the cinema experience to your home. In 2016, 71% of Australians went to the movies and they went, on average, seven times[1].

It is worth asking the question, with the range of entertainment options available to people nowadays why does going to the movies remain so popular? While people go to the movies primarily to be entertained, there is no doubt that many of the movies we see, engage, at some level at least, with the some of the great questions of life. While people may not go to church anymore in the numbers that they used to, Christianity’s great themes of forgiveness, redemption and salvation are regularly played out in creative ways to enthusiastic audiences on the big screen. Even the ‘popcorn’ movies from Marvel or new chapters in the Star Wars canon invite the audience to reflect on some of the deeper issues of life.

If cinema provides people with their place of transcendence, it raises the issue of the value of trying to replicate this experience in the classroom. If Chapel is bringing the church experience into the school context then can you bring the emotional gravitas of the big screen experience into the classroom and use it as an effective teaching tool in RE?

In this article I am revisiting an old theme. RE teachers have been going on about the value of movies as a teaching tool for years but I want to try to put a new spin on this idea by suggesting that movies can provide an immersive learning experience for students.

Experiential learning is learning by doing and it has traditionally been understood to be taking students out of the classroom to enhance their learning. There is no doubt if you are teaching about Judaism then a visit to a Synagogue and hearing from a Rabbi offers a far richer learning experience than just getting students to trawl through internet sites to put together a PowerPoint presentation. For a number of students in our Anglican schools the Christian faith they are being taught in the classroom becomes real when they have the experience of participating in an act of service learning.

The traditional emphasis of experiential learning has been on getting students ‘out and about’ beyond the classroom. However in recent years there has been a lot of discussion about making classroom learning an experience through interactive games, creative role playing activities and hands on learning to name but a few examples. I believe that movies can play an important role in the classroom by bringing a topic to life by creating an immersive experience for students.

Practicalities  

A Good AV Set Up

I have always been a fan of using movies in teaching but many an RE teacher can recall how their best efforts to create an immersive experience for students were seriously undermined by a dodgy AV setup. We have come a long way from the days when a school only had the one AV room where classes could see a movie and teachers would regularly came to blows over who could access this precious but scarce resource. In recent years we have taken giant strides from the days when you had to use a makeshift screen and a data projector hooked up to portable speakers that gave out whenever a loud sound effect was deployed. Rapid advances in technology has enabled costs to come down considerably so that nowadays most Anglican schools have fantastic AV resources as a standard feature of many of their classrooms. While the ritual of connecting up your computer is now part of the beginning of many a lesson a powerful cinema experience is readily available to teachers in a way that it has never has been before.

Having said that if you want to make a movie an immersive experience then a decent picture and great sound is a must. Some classrooms are better suited to this than others so a bit of pre-planning around your AV resources is a must. Consideration for those around you needs to be taken into account. There is no doubt as impressive as some of the fight scenes in the Matrix are they do generate a heck of a lot of noise that may not endear you to the Year 12 teacher in the class next door who is trying to conduct an important assessment task.

Great Content 

The key to making a movie an immersive experience is to make the experience high quality not just in terms of set up but also in terms of content. You need to ensure that what you are showing is age appropriate and context relevant and of good enough quality to ensure that students are fully engaged. Faith based movies, while well intended, often don’t have the quality to hold up to our media savvy young people. Mainstream movies tend to be better but it can be a real challenge to find a relevant high quality movie that engages the students at a particular year level.

To ensure that the movie experience is powerful use movies sparingly. One really good film is a much more effective teaching tool than diluting the power of the big screen experience by regularly showing ‘average’ movies. The movie needs to be firmly imbedded in the curriculum and not just used as a time filler. Ensure that students get the most out of watching a film by giving them the relevant background beforehand and find effective ways to get them to reflect upon what they have seen.

While I have argued that watching a movie can be a spiritual experience it shouldn’t be seen as so sacred that you feel you cannot interrupt it. With senior students regularly stopping the movie to ask questions can be really helpful for their learning. I often do this when watching a movie depicting a story from the Bible to see how particular parts of the film compare or contrast with the Bible’s account of the story.  If you are just starting out using film in your teaching then it can be really instructive to sit in on an English class and observe how teachers in this context make use of film as text.

What this isn’t

We all know of an RE teacher whose entire teaching program is based on showing movies of dubious quality and relevance simply filling in the time not caring if the students are engaged or not. Showing a film should never be an excuse to simply put your feet up for lesson. As a teacher you can gain a lot by staying engaged and watching to see how the students are responding to what is being shown. Which part of the film seemed to really engage and move them? Picking up on this enables you to ask some great follow up questions such as ‘you seemed to be really engaged with this part of the story – why was that?’ What were you thinking/feeling when this event occurred?

Conclusion

In a recent interview Australian author Tim Winton commented that if a work of fiction has a distinctive and powerful voice then people will follow it anywhere. Similarly an engaging movie will take its audience along with it on its narrative journey. In an age where getting students to open up the Bible can get bogged down by a lot of their preconceived baggage connecting with scripture via the medium of film can open up rich new avenues of engagement.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, once described the vocation of a priest as someone who keeps the great questions alive. Movies also keep the great questions alive and cinema engages with a far wider and more diverse audience that the average priest ever encounters. Good school chaplains and religious education teachers keep the great questions alive in their respective school communities. A highly effective way they can do this is to enlist movies to invite students to reflect on these questions at a deeper and richer level.

My Current Top Five Movies

  • Selma (2014) – A biographical film about a key event in the life of Martin Luther King. Biographical films are a great teaching tool that brings the story alive to many students in a way that simply reading about it doesn’t. This is a good film to use with senior students and provides a clear statement about how the Christian faith motivated MLK in what he did.
  • The Matrix (1999) – An RE classic and a great way to finish a unit on the life Jesus. This film works especially well with boys. There is so much going on in this movie and the links to the Christian message require some unpacking. So if you are not familiar with it then you would benefit from reading up on it beforehand to enable your students to get the most out of it. The good news is that plenty has been written about this science fiction classic that depicts a future that every year seems to get that much closer to becoming a reality.
  • The Passion (2008 BBC/HBO 4 part miniseries) – Not to be confused with the similarly named Mel Gibson film this is a well produced and acted depiction of the last week of the life of Jesus. It is long (4 hours) but provides a sympathetic treatment of Caiaphas which is missing in many movie depictions of the story. If you can look past Pilate’s Irish accent this is the best depiction of the lead up to the death and resurrection of Jesus that I have found to use with students. It can be difficult to track down a copy but it is well worth the effort.
  • Exodus Gods and Kings (2014) – A big budget retelling of the Moses story with Christian Bale in the lead role giving a take on Moses as a warrior. I don’t warm to how God is depicted is this movie but this opens up a great conversation with senior students. The themes of the Exodus story are there and this film works really well comparing and contrasting its account with the story from the Bible.
  • The Oasis (2008) – a fantastic Australian documentary about homeless youth in Sydney and the work of the Salvation Army’s Oasis Youth Support Network. Suitable for senior students who find it captivating in terms of depicting the lives of young people that are radically different from their own. Making them aware of their own privileged backgrounds it also provides an inspirational example of following Jesus in the life of Paul and Robbin Moulds.

[1] https://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/fact-finders/cinema/audiences/attendance-patterns

 

Reverend Andrew Stewart has seventeen years’ experience as a school chaplain and works as a chaplain at Mentone Grammar in Melbourne. Andrew is also the chair of the Chaplains in Anglican Schools network in Victoria.   

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