Technology, Innovation, and Education

Walden Media Presents Media Literacy: From Theory to Movies

Jean Kwon, Director of Educational Content, Walden Media, & GSE '00
Randy Testa, Vice President of Educational Outreach, Walden Media, & GSE '78 & '90
Respondent: Chris Dede, Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies; Chair, Learning and Teaching, HGSE

Friday, October 24, 2003

When are holes in education a good thing? When they are part of a movie called Holes, a Walden Media feature film adapted by Louis Sachar from his 1999 Newbery Medal Book. In this movie, a group of boys learn life lessons as they dig holes in the desert at a camp for juvenile delinquents. The movie is just the beginning, however. At the TIE Open Seminar, Walden Media's Jean Kwon and Randy Testa gave us the dirt on future plans for the movie.

Jean Kwon Jean Kwon led off by emphasizing Walden's efforts to create family-friendly materials that engage, entertain, and educate -- and maybe even make a profit. Quality entertainment is inherently educational, she said. To this end they have produced interactive classrooms and teacher training materials to complement their films, children's theater, and books. Other recent Walden productions include Ghosts of the Abyss, an IMAX movie currently in theaters, and Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey, a traveling version of the popular stage show.

Randy Testa pitched in next with background on two theories on which Walden projects are based -- "Media Literacy" and "Reel Thinking." Media Literacy teaches the importance of craft as well as the end product -- for example, seeing the bits of paper that make up a collage in a picture book, or the language and direction that make up a play. Reel Thinking is both a means and an end. It can be a film, a website, or an interactive classroom; it can also refer to using media as a tool for teaching and learning.

To this end, Walden Media will soon be holding focus groups for teachers to watch six movies, including Spellbound, To Be and To Have, and Stand and Deliver. The goals are both to have teachers reflect on how the screen can help them with their practice -- for example using the movie Glory when teaching about the Civil War -- and to help teachers see how the film has been crafted, so they can teach kids to be more critical consumers of media.

Randy and JeanWalden Media is going directly to kids, too. On April 10, 2003, Walden showed Ghosts of the Abyss to 3,600 students and teachers from 10 cities, across 4 time zones, in 13 theaters. The one-hour film was followed by a teleconferenced Q&A session with director James Cameron and Bill Paxton -- who starred in the full-length film Titanic -- and moderated by Katie Couric.

If you've been patiently sifting through this material to find the promised nugget on Holes, you're about to be rewarded. In addition to providing teachers educational materials to use with the movie, Walden Media has big plans. On November 13, 2003, they are sponsoring an all-day writing workshop for language, writing, and English students in the fourth to eighth grades. The event, which takes place in Regal Theaters in over 20 states, will examine the writing process from the book to the screen. The students will participate in nine different exercises, including viewing clips of the movie, discussing character development, and writing on various topics. At times there will be polls, and the workshop facilitators -- the theater ushers -- will count and record the number of raised hands. During Q&A sessions, students will be able to call directly into Walden Media and ask questions of author Sachar and director Andy Davis.

Although Walden Media has great hopes for the workshop, they realize that it has limitations. They have to work with some teachers' narrowly defined view of literacy and text and their wariness that movies detract from reading literature. Also, interaction capability between the workshops and Walden is lacking, so Q&A callers will have to call from pay phones or their cell phones. And, while ushers aren't teachers, kids are kids, which means classroom management is an issue.

Chris DedeProfessor Chris Dede responded to the presentation by suggesting that what Walden Media is trying to do is difficult but quite important. He proposed that they are taking a hot medium -- an absorbing and immersive movie -- and trying to infuse it with cool medium strengths. Cool medium strengths include the interactivity of text, where the reader is required to incorporate his or her own literal and visual interpretations. Dede noted, however, that DVD-type media are putting some interactivity into the hot medium of movies. What interests him is how to do this without destroying movies' strengths.

Dede also suggested that Walden Media not feel that they have to be so faithful to the book. Instead, because some of the historical flashbacks in Holes are weak, he would have preferred to have an educational consultant say: If you change this, it will make the whole movie stronger.

Joe and RJJoe Blatt, director of the Technology, Innovation, and Education program, applauded Walden Media's intent, but wondered if they could have tried to incorporate more post-release educational planning during the movie's beginning stages. If they had done so, they might be better positioned to exploit the post-release opportunities.

During the discussion that followed, Kwon and Testa were asked what they saw as the bigger priority -- to use film as an entry point for content, or to have teachers teach children to be more critical consumers of media. The former, Testa answered. To illustrate, he said he liked using Glory as an entry point into studying the Civil War. Using the movie does a good job of engaging visual learners and makes history come alive. However, as a secondary goal, he also wants kids to become more conscious of the multitude of meanings embedded in the way movies are crafted.

Future releases for Walden Media include the movie I Am David (due out in spring 2004), which highlights the plight of a refugee boy. To make the production more accurate and truer to its purpose, they have partnered with the UN High Commission for Refugees. Also on the docket are Around the World in 80 Days; The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe; and The Giver.

So get ready to dig in! For more information, visit the Walden Media website .

-- Heidi Larson, Ed.M. Candidate '04, TIE