Hollywood Comes to the Askwith Education ForumBy Jill Anderson
When you think about Hollywood and the movies, education and learning are not the first things that come to mind.
“It has always been Hatfields and McCoys, Red Sox and Yankees between the worlds of education and entertainment,” said Micheal Flaherty, cofounder and president of Walden Media — the production company behind movies such as Holes, Because of Winn-Dixie, and Ray. “Nowhere is this more true than the worlds of literature and the worlds of film. People have always seen television and film and the world of literature as mortal enemies that can’t be reconciled.”
At last week’s Askwith Education Forum, “Plots and Provocations: Learning from the Movies,” Flaherty and John Schreiber, executive vice president of social action and advocacy for Participant Media, discussed how education and social awareness are the main missions of their productions.
Lecturer Joe Blatt, director of the Technology, Innovation, and Education Program, pointed out that much of learning takes place prior to children attending school and continues outside of the classroom comes via entertainment.
Flaherty realized this while working as a school teacher in Dorchester, Mass. He would ask the students what they did the night before, and noticed their responses almost always had to do with media. When Flaherty saw his students’ interest in the movie Titanic motivating them to check out library books and attend museum exhibits on the real-life event, he began to see movies differently. It dawned on Flaherty that movies had a certain power of bringing stories to life. Thus, he decided to start a film company focused on tying education and film together, to excite kids’ imaginations and intellects, and Walden Media was born. “We got laughed at by every venture company out there,” he said of trying to secure financing based on Walden’s mission to produce movies with educational significance.
Flaherty has met with a similar resistance from educators. “The worst thing a teacher can hear is, ‘We are from Hollywood and we are here to help,’” Flaherty said.
But, as Flaherty explained, Walden Media’s goal is to bring stories to life, which it’s done in many films based on children’s literature including Bridge to Terabithia, Charlotte’s Web, and The Chronicles of Narnia. “We try to use films to influence a love of literature and a love of education,” he said. “We’ve gone on a mission to bring books alive. Books that kids love not only to introduce the back of that story but to light a spark to love literature.”
For Schreiber, movies aren’t only for bringing stories to life, but also for bringing about social awareness and change. In the five years since Participant Production films started, it has produced several high-profile and award-nominated films including The Visitor, Good Night, and Good Luck, Fast Food Nation, and An Inconvenient Truth, which Schreiber said, “proved there can be a real junction between social change and movies.”
Both companies partner with teachers, museums, and organizations to develop comprehensive education programs, as well as social awareness campaigns. A key element to Walden Media and Participant Productions is incorporating curriculum and opportunities to learn tied directly to the films. The goal, Schreiber said, is to “simultaneously entertain and educate is the basis for a new paradigm which will result in ever increasing cultural and social literacy.”
Doctoral student James Croft, Ed.M.’08, has explored using films when teaching, but has found it somewhat hinders the learning process, since, unlike a book, it’s difficult to pause movies for discussion. When Croft inquired about what made movies a more viable teaching mechanism than other types of media, Flaherty emphasized that teachers should not rely on films as a babysitter in their classes, but rather they should seek out specific clips that could enhance their lessons.
Anything “we can do to engage” students and get them to show up in class was worthwhile, added Schreiber.