Silent movies in the classroom — teaching English

September 11, 2007 § Leave a comment

Found a fascinating little journal article this morning, written by an English teacher based in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1923. It’s the result from a little test to see whether movies could help teach children about English literature, better than books. (CUNNINGHAM Adelaide: “Teaching English with the Movies.” English Journal. vol. 12, no. 7, sept. 1923: 488-490. You need a JSTOR subscription to access it).

Incidentally, this English teacher in 1923 has no qualms about using the word “movie”, though she seems to prefer “moving pictures” and she uses “movies” in between quotation marks the first time around:

The promise of a “movie” stimulated the class like an electric current. The idea that a school book was actually suitable material for a movie gave it a charm never before associated with the textbook, which had ever been the symbol of “all work and no play.” A movie! They would study Silas Marner in order to understand and enjoy the movie.

Now, results are indeed encouraging, not just as regards interest and attention of students (some things never change), but also plot retention, moral lesson, and – my favorite – documentary value:

The effect of the movie upon the pupils was expressed also by a theme written November 1 upon the subject “The Pleasure and Profit I Derived from the Silas Marner Movie.” To quote from several of the themes: “It is a pleasure to be able to sit down and see the people who lived in the seventeenth century pictured before me. Their quaint dresses and customs are interesting. I think that if a person reads a book and then goes to see the picture of that book, he will understand the book better. The events in Silas Marner were made clearer in my mind by seeing the picture. It showed plainly the different characters and helped correct any wrong ideas I had about their appearances.

Miss Cunningham may have been a rather enlightened individual (though movies, even fictional movies, were often thought in relation to their educational value in the 1920s):

it seems to those of us who teach English that our pupils should in a great measure guide and determine our methods of teaching. It is useless to condemn moving pictures; we may as well condemn all novels because “dime novels” are pernicious. Why not bring the movies into the schoolroom ? The future appears bright for the educational moving picture. The schools of New York City are using it in the teaching of English, history, and science.

Still, she does seem unaware that images also lie. One can wonder at the “truthfulness” of the last example she gives:

A film is being staged in the “Sleepy Hollow Region” featuring the comedian, Will Rogers, as Ichabod Crane.

One can also wonder about the unrecognized paradox of an art form that is described in the same breath as close to “dime novels” and as having educational value — or Will Rogers as historian. (the film mentionned by miss Cunningham appears to be the 1922 version of The Headless Horseman)

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