Alright class, today we are going to study the historical and cultural context of England during the Neoclassical Period which spanned from roughly 1600 to wah-waah wah-waah wah-waah-waah-waaaaaaaaaaaaah...
This is bad enough during a “normal” school year (whatever that means) in a traditional classroom. It can be so frustrating to take a subject that you care so much about and have spent years studying and hours, nay days, preparing a truly enlightening and captivating lesson only to be met with yawns and blanks stares.
Inevitably you have to start threatening things like I’m taking a grade on these notes. Or, Don’t be surprised if there is a pop quiz tomorrow. And we’ve probably all had a moment of weakness something akin to If you only knew how interesting this actually is...and how much time I spent creating this really cool lesson...you know what, just turn to chapter 5, read the introduction and answer the questions - - - in complete sentences WITH EMBEDDED QUOTES AND PAGE NUMBERS.
We are seeing a lot of teachers online complaining that their students are not logging in to their new online classrooms, much less completing the assignments. But, we have to remember that getting students to care about historical context or commit to reading a classic novel is almost always more difficult than pulling teeth for most of us.
It’s always been a challenge, but nowadays, they are distracted by social media, the text message buzzing in their pocket, and balancing 5 AP classes and orchestra practice with varsity and club athletics. Oh yeah, AND A GLOBAL PANDEMIC! While some kids are lounging around in their pajamas all day watching YouTube or Netflix (or both at the same time), some of our students are now full-time babysitters while others are hiding from the emotional storms in their house, and more and more will be dealing with this new and sometimes devastating illness.
It’s no wonder that students are having trouble mustering up the motivation to focus on academics. We have to make it even more relevant and (dare I say) entertaining than ever.
We have found that using real, studio movies (not simply documentaries) can be a great way to teach cultural and historical context for English Language Arts or history courses. It can also be a faster and relatively painless way to have students explore plot and character development in classic works.
Movies can even be used as part of engaging professional development (just a little teaser for an upcoming article).
DISCLAIMER: We advise you to preview any movies you assign for inappropriate content or language, and have documentation that they were approved by an administrator.
Movies Project for British Literature/History
As noted in our first article in this series, we want to provide you with ready-to-use activities so we are sharing an actual assignment one of our writers has used. Rather than a traditional summer reading assignment, this particular project was handed out at the end of the school year to students who had enrolled in advanced senior English the upcoming fall. The students said that they enjoyed it and many parents reported that they had watched the films as a family which led to some great discussions. This really paid off in the classroom with students entering the school year with a wealth of background knowledge that could be reviewed much more quickly than it would have taken to teach.
Assigning this to students in a remote learning setting brings the challenge of the accessibility of the films (ideally, multiple copies of each film could be made available for students to check out). With the limitations imposed due to “Stay put” orders, giving students a list to choose from allows them to find whichever movies are available on whatever streaming services they may have.
Nearly all movies can be rented through a streaming service. In the project below, we have tried to include at least one option that is currently streaming for free. We would also recommend making an alternative assignment available that does not require the use of technology, particularly if your school is in a low socio-economic community.
The purpose of this assignment is to explore the historical and cultural contexts of major periods in British literature as well as some important pieces of literature we were unable to cover this year. You will need to view 1 film from each of the following 6 categories (there are 21 total films listed). For each film you watch, write a half-page summary of the movie AND a half-page personal response (opinion).
You may earn extra credit by watching and reporting on a second film from each category.
*POSSIBLE EXTENSION: For each film you will also find and read an on-line article about the actual historical figure (if nonfiction) or the protagonist in the actual literary work (if fiction) and write a half-page analysis of the portrayal of the character in the film.
- Shakespearean Comedies
- Victorian Novels
- Pride and Prejudice (2005): A spirited girl meets single, rich, and proud Mr. Darcy and reluctantly falls in love [Starz or rent]
- Jane Eyre (2011): A modest governess who softens the heart of her employer soon discovers that he's hiding a secret [Starz or rent]
- Great Expectations (2012): A humble orphan suddenly becomes a gentleman with the help of an unknown benefactor [Roku or rent]
- Victorian History
- The Madness of King George (1994): the story of George III’s recurring mental illness during the American Revolution [Roku, Pluto, Vudu, or rent]
- Creation (2009): Charles Darwin’s battle over whether to publish his findings [Amazon Prime or rent]
- Amazing Grace (2006): A film depicting the plight of slavery in the mid-19th century [rent only]
- Belle (2013): Mixed race daughter of an Admiral raised by her great-uncle who is presiding over a major anti-slavery case [rent only]
- Lady Jane (1986): Jane Grey who was queen for only 9 days, mid-16th century [Amazon Prime or rent]
- The Young Victoria (2009): crowned queen at 18 years-old, mid-19th century [Pluto, Sundance or rent]
- Bright Star (2009): Romantic poet John Keats biopic, early 19th century [rent only]
- Classic Leaders
- Becket (1964): playboy turned priest Thomas Becket and his best friend Henry II, 12th century [Amazon Prime, Tubi or rent]
- Luther (2003): the story of German church reformer Martin Luther in the early 16th century [Netflix DVD only]
- Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007): Elizabeth I faces an assassination attempt & the Spanish Armada, late 16th century [Netflix or rent]
- 20th Century Leaders
- The King's Speech (2010): stuttering George VI becomes king when his brother steps down before WWII (R, language) [Netflix, Roku, Showtime, or rent]
- The Iron Lady (2011): the story of England’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher [Netflix or rent]
All but one of these films are available on a streaming service. Many of these films are also available through Netflix’s mail service (they offer a 30-day free trial membership upon request).
Simple variations on the project listed above (besides using films about other cultures or eras) would be to have students respond in a discussion board or by creating and posting videos.
Or, you could have students select a novel for which there are several different film adaptations to compare and contrast - or simply explain which one they like more and why.
Romeo and Juliet
The Great Gatsby
Of Mice and Men
A Christmas Carol
Here is a list of children’s books that have film adaptations that could be used for a similar project. If these are books that you have assigned or read with your class at some point in the school year, you could have them compare the movie to the book. Some of these are even picture books that can be found on YouTube.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Tale of Despereaux
Percy Jackson and the Olympians
Mr. Popper’s Penguins
James and the Giant Peach
Because of Winn Dixie
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
And, here are some children’s books that have more than one film adaptation that could be compared.
Alice in Wonderland
The Secret Garden
The Cat in the Hat
A Series of Unfortunate Events
The Jungle Book
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
A Little Princess
A Christmas Carol
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
We were even able to find a few films about children’s authors.
Hans Christian Anderson
Saving Mr. Banks (PG-13)
But what if they don’t actually watch each of the movies in their entirety?
So what? We gotta be willing to let go a little more than usual right now (and, guess what, many of your students haven’t actually been reading the whole book). If they have watched or studied enough of it to be able to discuss the difference in the films, then they probably learned something.