I love using short films in my classroom. I bet you already have a collection that you like to you. I’m not different. I use short films for a bunch of different reasons: to introduce a new idea, or to explain something we all found complicated. Sometimes to inspire discussion and debate, or to get stuck into some creative writing. Short films are fabulous for both literature and writing.
So, here are my top 5 favorite films for high school ELA. I’ve split them so you have:
- 2 for teaching literature,
- 2 for teaching writing, and
- 1 for debate
The Tiger Who Came to Tea – introducing critical theory
I love using this short reading of the children’s classic, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, with my older literature classes. In fact, I used to only use with my senior students who are studying literature and needing to apply different critical theories. Over the last few years, I have been using it as a debate prompt with my younger students as well.
The first question I ask is “what does this text tell us about society?”.
At this point, I introduce critical theory. Gender and feminist theory and also Marxist theory. *Warning* – this discussion does result in some criticism of Judith Kerr’s text. It’s great to consider the narratives that shape our understanding of the world as children, but it’s not always a comfortable discussion.
- What did you notice about society?
- What does this text show about men, about women, about children?
- What does this text show about work and social class?
- What is the relevance of the tiger arriving and eating all the food?
- Why a tiger?
- What groups in society might the tiger represent?
At this point, I might draw a comparison between this text and invading forces: the Nazis in Poland, Judith Kerr has spoken of this being the inspiration for her story. The discussion is often lively.
An interesting counterpoint to this story is the another children’s story – Where the Wild Things Are. Here we develop our discussion to include colonization, imperialism, and how other races and ‘the foreigner’ can be represented in literature.
Again the discussion is often lively.
Copy Shop – introducing concepts in literature (literature)
Copy Shop is an unusual silent film by Virgil Widrich, 2001. It received an Oscar nomination for a short action film. The film is 12 minutes long and ‘tells’ the story of a man who accidentally photocopies himself until ‘he’ takes over his town.
Just this concept alone is intriguing enough for students!
I often begin this lesson by asking students to mind-map all of their thoughts on the topics of:
- reality, and
These thoughts can be as generic or as specific at you decide. I generally put these topics on the board and then pose the question “write down everything that comes into your mind”.
After watching the film, sometimes twice, I ask students to add ideas to their mind-maps based on the film. For identity and society – we discuss how we are shaped as individuals, how society shapes us into a particular mould. For gender and relationships – students often notice that the single female is replaced by the male, that the relationships show companionship, then threat. For reality – we discuss to what extent we can trust our senses, what we see.
The final step is to debate some of the big ideas in literature:
- Our individual understanding of reality cannot be trusted
- Masculinity and femininity are entirely constructed by society
- Society is at its roots chaotic and disordered
- Technology controls humanity
- Capitalism and consumerism has made humanity self-destructive
I could go on!
Picture Perfect – the Jubilee Project (writing)
I use this short and sad story for a variety of different reasons with my classes: writing flashbacks, relationships, realistic dialogue, incidents, and memory writing.
It’s a poignant tale and dedicated to survivors of Leukaemia, a sensitive one to use with classes but often generates excellent sympathetic debate and great emotionally intelligent writing.
Lock Up – by BloodyCuts (Writing)
*Warning* – this short film is the epitome of suspense and then a moment of terror. Your class will scream. Please, please, please watch through till the very end before you decide to use it! Don’t look away at the end, otherwise you might miss ‘it’! To be absolutely clear – you get a glimpse, the most fleeting glimpse of ‘it’.
Ok, you survived! Here’s how I use this film: to build tension, to create a character who has no idea what is about to happen next.
This short film is fantastic for writing a realistic moment of suspense – rather than one that is filled of creaky staircases and slamming doors. Write a character who has literally no idea what is about to happen to them!
You need to be speedy with the pause button here. I watch with kids up to the bit where the man collects his keys. Then pause. We write this opening section as descriptive narrative.
Then we watch – pause – write until the very end. As the students haven’t seen the whole thing – when they first see the figure – they are shocked, their character can be shocked. So their writing is often much more authentic, than if we had planned it in advance.
It’s great for writing genuine expressions of a character’s experience of cluelessness to horror.
Fireflies – the Jubilee Project (debate)
Another one from the guys at the Jubilee Project, I do love them, and to be honest you could use any of their films effectively in the classroom.
But Fireflies is something special.
I pose a bunch of questions when using this film, sometimes before, sometimes after, sometimes both!
- What is friendship?
- What is normal?
- How can we truly know one another?
- Can we know ourselves?
- Does everyone have to be the same?
- Why are children more accepting?
- Can society change?
- Do we need to let children teach adults how to behave?
More short films for your classroom enjoyment…
The stories we wear
This short film is actually an extended advertisment for the outdoor clothing company Patagonia. Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll is on the road talking about climbing and about his very patched and repaired jacket. It’s such a beautiful film and would be great as a writing prompt. Here it is “The Stories We Wear by Patagonia”.
Life lessons from a 100-year-old
These British 100-year-olds talk about their lives, their experiences, and they dispense advice about how to be happy. Sit back and prepare to get emotional! Find it here “life lesson from a 100-year-old”
Jekyll and Hyde characters song
As this is a classic English Literature GCSE text, I cannot resist this Jekyll and Hyde song. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde…when a good man releases his evil side…Mr Hyde and Dr Jekyll…who are the characters when the dust settles? 🙂
Enjoy all the chuckles here “Jekyll and Hyde characters song”
Alma is such a great short cartoon, it’s absolutely perfect for creative writing. It is silent, sinister, and completely mesmerizing. Watch Alma here
I promise to keep adding to these as I find them, but do drop your favorites in the comments below!
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