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Movies, Books, and "The Giver"

By Katie Bacon, on January 8, 2015 11:55 AM
Professor Robert Selman and doctoral student Tracy Elizabeth, Ed.M.’10, say that a movie can actually do something amazing for the book from which it is adapted: It can spark a new interest in reading.

You’re a teacher. The movie version of a book you want your students to read is about to come out. Do you steer students away from it for fear they’ll watch the movie instead of reading? According to a new study by Professor Robert Selman and current doctoral student Tracy Elizabeth, Ed.M.’10, you don’t have to. In fact, as they found when they started creating teaching resource guides for educators, including a recent one for The Giver, the movie can actually do something amazing for the book: It can spark a new interest in reading.

camera illustrationThe Giver, Lois Lowry’s novel about a society with no war, no grief, and no poverty — but no memories, music, or love, either — is one of those books that lodges itself in your head, demanding to be discussed. Professor Robert Selman says, “I can’t tell you how many kids have told me it’s the best book they’ve ever read.” This is partly why he and current doctoral student Tracy Elizabeth, Ed.M.’10, jumped at the chance when Walden Media approached them to create an educator’s resource guide for The Giver, the film Walden produced, as they had for The Watsons Go to Birmingham the year before. In both cases, the guide has accompanied the release of a movie version of the book and has served as a bridge between the two media.

The guide for The Giver draws on a theoretical framework Selman has been developing for the past several years about the interplay between education, ethics, and entertainment, or the three Es. The idea is that a curriculum designed to bring the three Es together will have more of an impact on students academically, socially, and emotionally than one designed only to educate.

“The three Es together can strengthen each other and help with the connection between academics and students’ lives,” Selman says.

The guide also draws on the relatively new idea of  “transmedia,” a term popularized by the comparative media expert Henry Jenkins when he used it in 2003 to describe how different types of media (like television, books, movies, and games) can converge to strengthen the understanding of the original story or product. As Jenkins wrote in a column in MIT’s Technology Review, “Reading across the media sustains a depth of experience that motivates more consumption … [o]ffering new levels of insight and experience.” Selman and Elizabeth think that, given the media habits of today’s students, transmedia may be an essential, powerful, and inescapable way of helping students learn.  

This fall, in seven classrooms in three states, the guide served as the basis for an exploratory study by Selman and Elizabeth seeking to delve into how a transmedia curriculum may affect students’ motivations to read and learn and how it may affect their social and ethical development.

“Transmedia is a way of increasing engagement, and, with the right kind of discussion, it will also, we hypothesize, impact reading comprehension and ethical reflection,” Selman says.

Selman and Elizabeth’s eagerness to create the guide also springs from a depressing fact: According to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study of 8- to 18-year-olds, students outside of school spend a huge amount of time each day — more than seven and a half hours on average — using media. But only 38 minutes of that time (down from 42 minutes five years before) is spent reading. While Selman and Elizabeth point out that the traditional view has been to steer students away from the movie version of a book, for fear that they’ll watch the movie instead of reading, the two researchers hypothesize that creating a deep and thought-provoking connection between a movie and a book could actually increase students’ interest in reading that book and that the very act of comparing and contrasting the way a story is told in two media could lead to a deeper understanding of the ideas in the story and of the characters and the choices they make.

If it’s an unfortunate given that many students will spend much more of their free time watching TV than they do reading books (seven times more, according to the 2010 study), “what we’re puzzling over is, what can we as educators do to look on the bright side and take advantage of that?” Elizabeth says. “What can we do besides saying stop watching so much TV? What can we do to find the educational opportunities in their viewing time? What types of salient educational themes are they presenting that are also being presented in the book, and how could we possibly use the film as a trampoline to increase interest in the book?”

In fact, in the best of circumstances, a high level of interest in both a book and a movie can feed off each other (think about the Harry Potter series). “There is a certain amount of engagement in a really good book and a certain amount of engagement in a really good movie, and if you put those two together, you get exponential engagement,” Selman says.

Elizabeth’s own experience as a teacher is part of what led to her excitement about the possibilities of a transmedia connection between books and movies in the classroom. She spent three years as a literacy specialist at an elementary school in South Carolina and then worked as an instructional coach for grades K–5. Beyond teaching reading, her job involved working with students on social development, which she would approach through organizing book circles in which students would read and discuss in small groups the issues brought up by various books. As a motivation to read the book and as a reward, Elizabeth started showing the movie versions to her students. Robin Hood (the Walt Disney version) and Because of Winn-Dixie were two of the movies they watched. What she found was that not only did the students love the activity, but it touched on many of the educational standards that were required in South Carolina.

“Once kids learned that there was a movie version of the books or stories we were reading in class, they would express delighted curiosity in the ways in which the film would tell the story. What would characters look or act like? What parts of the book would the film include or exclude? Students were very excited by the possibility of seeing their favorite characters come to life. After being ‘invited’ to a movie viewing, students notably increased their focus when reading — they wanted to consume every detail of the book in preparation for critically analyzing the film. [It was] very cute — and a great way to motivate reluctant readers.”

In the case of The Giver, a story about a boy who discovers that his world has traded away free choice, human will, and emotion in the quest for a perfectly orderly society (the Community) both the movie and the book are targeted to adolescents and take on complicated ideas, such as when is it necessary to lie and to break rules? What sort of purpose does experiencing strong emotions — whether love, anger, or grief — serve in our society? If a society believes in euthanasia, when is it acceptable, and when is it not? The guide, freely available online, can be used by teachers, parents, or anyone who wants some ideas about engaging ways to approach The Giver.  Following the three-E framework, some activities are designed to build critical thinking skills. For instance, one activity challenges students to discuss how the lack of any works of fiction or history in the Community affects the lives of its residents. Another challenges them to create an imagined timeline over the past hundred years to show how the Community came to its current incarnation.

Other activities are designed to help students think through ethical dilemmas or to examine an issue through different perspectives. In one activity, students are asked to play the role of town leaders charged with protecting their citizens from suffering. Where should the line be between societal protection and autonomy? In another, they’re asked to categorize the rules in the community portrayed in The Giver and those in their own communities. Which are the most important ones to follow and why?

The last set of activities encourages students to think through the creative decisions made in both the book and the film. For instance, in the film, some of the scenes are in black and white; others are in color. How does the director decide when to make the transition? In another exercise, students are asked to create a soundtrack or playlist for the film, tying in the lyrics of certain songs with the mood of a given scene.

The extensive variety of activities means that teachers could spend weeks teaching the curriculum if they choose or could just try out a few. Elizabeth describes the guide as a “lunch buffet where there are a whole lot of different options. It’s up to the educator to choose which kind of meal is most appropriate for her students.” The guide, with its emphasis on comparing different texts and considering the author’s (or screenwriter’s) purpose in narrative choices, is also designed to work with the Common Core standards.

While the guide was timed for release with the movie version of The Giver in August 2014, teachers in Massachusetts and North Carolina tried out aspects of it last spring. One of them, a sixth-grade English teacher at a private school in North Carolina, found that her students were particularly drawn to the guide’s debates, an activity she hadn’t tried before in her classroom. In one particular debate, which drew from the Community’s rule in The Giver that people must never lie about anything, one group was assigned the Community’s position; the other was assigned to argue that sometimes lies can be harmless or even necessary. She recalls that the students responded enthusiastically to the exercise. “Kids loved the debates. They found them extremely challenging because it was the luck of the draw what side they would take; some of them had to take the position of a belief structure they don’t have,” she says.

Starting in October, seven classrooms, again in Massachusetts and North Carolina, as well as Colorado, began testing several specific sections of the guide as part of Selman and Elizabeth’s study — the first of its kind. As Elizabeth wrote in her dissertation proposal, “A trend in our culture is to translate novels into motion pictures, yet no studies have been conducted to investigate how the teaching of a novel and its movie adaptation may affect students’ academic and social competencies.” To get at the answers, Elizabeth will conduct before and after surveys and interviews with students and will examine writing samples and transcripts of the class discussions. She’ll also go into classrooms to do a “movie club” with the students, where they’ll watch the film version of The Giver together and then talk about the film and how it contrasts with the book.

Elizabeth points out that the research is very exploratory and that the goal is to use this study as the basis for more studies, with control groups, that will get further into the question of whether — and how — movies paired with books in a thoughtful way can increase both learning and student engagement.

“What we will be able to do is dig into the brains of adolescents and find out what excites them in terms of transmedia or book-to-film translations, and then use those points of data as launching pads for further research,” Elizabeth says.

And with this study, Selman and Elizabeth hope to get at something deeper too as they observe how students wrestle with the ethical decisions the characters make and how the students apply that thinking to challenges they may face in their own lives. As Selman and his colleague Janet Kwok, Ed.M.’08, Ed.D.’14, write in a forthcoming paper, “Being able to understand and observe how peers make their own moral and ethical choices could make early adolescence a much less lonely, and less destructive, place. Therefore, tweens are an optimal target audience for what we now begin to call the three Es, adding ethical reflection to entertainment and education.”

Selman and Elizabeth already have a few more transmedia guides in the works. Depending on the results of this research and future studies, they may look to do even more. “Given the digital age, where there’s so much screen consumption, if we do find that this work is positively affecting kids, we could really take off with it and use it as an opportunity to promote learning,” Elizabeth says.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth is also keeping her eye out for future projects that, like The Giver, challenge an adolescent to think deeply about the book he is reading or the movie he is watching. As Elizabeth explains, “I’m looking for projects where the story has depth and has with it some sort of authentic essence of adolescence. So that means, is there something going on that adolescents in real life might struggle with? Is there a way that this narrative can open doors for conversations or trains of thought for how to navigate these issues? So I’m really interested in conflict resolution, ways to avoid violence, to avoid bullying, ways to develop healthy romantic but also family and friendship relationships — those are the kinds of narratives that jump out to me.”

In other words, she wants projects that help adolescents find their place in society by giving them the chance to think about and discuss its ethics and values. One of the teachers who will be testing out the curriculum as part of the Harvard study, says the challenge that the guide provides students, on both an intellectual and an ethical level, is a large part of why she agreed to take part in the project.

“The guide taps into some pretty big themes, and it lends itself to some good higher-level thinking and deeper depth of knowledge,” she says. “I believe that if you treat kids as the thinkers and learners they are, they will rise to the occasion. For too many years we weren’t asking kids these big questions, and they’re very capable of talking about them.”

— Katie Bacon is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic and The Boston Globe. Her last piece for Ed. was on Lecturer David Rose and UDL.

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