Filmmaking is a powerful tool for literacy-based language instruction. Elaborating on the New London Group’s findings, Rick Kern shows that a well-rounded literacy-based program should incorporate four basic curricular components: Situated Practice, Overt Instruction, Critical Framing, and Transformed Practice. Situated Practice involves spontaneous communication without metalanguage. Overt Instruction develops metalanguage by introducing linguistic or social rules and conventions. Critical Framing emphasizes explicit reflection on such rules or conventions. In Transformed Practice, students create new texts on the basis of old ones.
Transformed Practice is the component most often lacking in language programs, but it is crucial to meeting the goals of a literacy-based program. Transformed Practice always entails a work of translation — from one language or cultural context to another, from written to oral speech, from a text to a performance, or from the sign systems of language to those of film. Therefore, Transformed Practice helps students to reflect critically on the work of translation that is always a part of foreign language acquisition, and to experience firsthand how meaning is not absolute but is rather conditioned by language, culture, and communicative medium.
Filmmaking always involves Transformed Practice. Even a simple project — filming a dialog from the textbook — involves the Transformed Practice of acting. A more complex project — making a film adaptation of a literary work — includes several stages of Transformed Practice: writing the screenplay, drawing the storyboard, acting, shooting the film, editing it, and perhaps adding music.
Unlike live performance activities that involve a high degree of Transformed Practice, filmmaking yields a material product that can be reviewed later. Knowing that their performances will be captured on camera, students may put more energy into memorizing their lines, speaking correctly, and acting than they would for a live performance in class. Since filming can be done outside of the classroom, students may use props, costumes, and locations in a meaningful way. This provides an even more memorable context for communication and helps students to retain linguistic structures long after making a film.
Filmmaking also has the advantage of distancing student performers from their audience. Whereas many students seem unwilling to try their best when speaking in front of their peers in class — apparently fearing to make mistakes or else to seem more driven than others — filming in small groups may relieve them of these social pressures.
Moreover, student films may be used in future learning activities. For example, they may be used as the basis for listening comprehension activities or class discussions. In addition to their usefulness as instructional materials, these films demonstrate the students’ past accomplishments and are enjoyable to watch.
Finally, in an age when film and television prevail as two of the most popular art forms and means of communication, helping students to gain a basic familiarity with film production enables them to think more critically about how meaning is made and disseminated in the cultural products they encounter every day.
Now I will turn to the concrete example of a film three Russian students and I made this fall. The students were enrolled in a Russian Conversation class and had each had at least two years of college-level Russian. For an extra course unit, they chose to meet with me for an additional hour each Friday for nine weeks to make a film adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s 1834 short story, “The Queen of Spades” (Pikovaia dama).
Individual classroom activities and homework assignments were designed to integrate the study of language, culture, literature, and film. Students were presented with grammar and vocabulary that directly related to the themes of the story, the literary theoretical topics we used to analyze the story, and the cinematic concepts and techniques students implemented when making the film.
In the first phase of the project, students read “The Queen of Spades” in English translation, referring to the original Russian text as time permitted and in preparation for our class discussions, which were conducted in Russian. In the second phase, the students wrote a screenplay and made a film. They were required to limit the words in their screenplay to Pushkin’s own lexicon, so they worked more with the Russian text in this phase, effectively locating, selecting, and abridging lines from characters’ dialogs and the narrator’s commentary.
“The Queen of Spades” is about gambling, so before students read the story they learned Russian card game terminology and also played the game featured in the story — faro. When students read the story for the next week, they were able to understand how the game is played and interpret its significance in the story.
Our discussions of gambling carried over to our discussions of time and temporal structure. The students reviewed Russian expressions of time in order to summarize “what happens when” in the story. Next, students were introduced to the Russian formalist literary terms siuzhet and fabula. Terms that pertain to the temporal structure of narratives, siuzhet and fabula provided students with a critical framework for analyzing time in “The Queen of Spades.” As a result, the students noted that Pushkin’s story is structured on the principle of cyclical rather than linear time. Students linked the story’s tendency to start over again and again to the temporal logic of gambling: In gambling, as in Pushkin’s story, the end of the game is often but the pretext for a new beginning.
The second literary point we covered — the genre of the fantastic tale — complemented the grammar point of how to express one’s point of view in Russian. Often, the reader of a fantastic tale is unable to determine whose perspective on the events is being presented — the character’s, the narrator’s, or the author’s. Since the fantastic itself foregrounds the question of point of view, to exercise linguistic expressions of opinion, argument, and uncertainty is to rehearse the epistemological problem the genre poses. In class, the students expressed divergent points of view about whether the story is a work of the fantastic. By examining Pushkin’s ambiguous play with narrative point of view, the students eventually concluded that the story is a work of the fantastic because it invites multiple contradictory interpretations.
Finally, the students made a film that exemplifies their ideas about gambling, time, and narrative point of view. In their screenplay and during the editing process, the students reordered the events of the story in such a way as to highlight Pushkin’s own temporal manipulations. They also worked with cinematic point-of-view, using camera set-ups to recreate the fantastic ambiguity as to whose perspective on the events is being shown. Thus, the students’ film offers an analytical interpretation, or “reading,” of Pushkin’s story. Overt Instruction on Russian grammar and vocabulary, generic conventions, literary theoretical concepts, and basic filmmaking techniques provided the context for Situated Practice and Critical Framing in class discussions, and informed the students’ Transformed Practice when they made their film.
The students’ film of “The Queen of Spades” can be viewed on my project website at http://dcrf-dev3.berkeley.edu/jillian/. This site contains sample films and suggestions for incorporating simple as well as complex filmmaking projects into the foreign language curriculum. Interested instructors may check out a camera and tripod from the BLC.
Kern, Rick. Literacy and Language Teaching. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 133-69.
New London Group. “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures.” Harvard Educational Review. 66/1 (1996): 60-92.