Dead Poets to Dangerous Minds: A Social Studies Film Class ☆

A unique course offered in the Social Studies program this summer at Teachers College provided students with the opportunity to look at educationally themed films from a fresh angle. The class, called “Dangerous Minds, Dead Poets, and Democratic(?) Education on the Silver Screen,” allowed participants to examine how these films can shape teachers’ ideas of what an educator is, how the way in which social issues are portrayed shapes the way the films are perceived, and how these films can be used as teaching tools in a social studies curriculum.

Scott Wylie, a doctoral student in the Social Studies Education program, proposed the idea for the class. “I was interested in looking at how Social Studies teachers come to understand their role in the classroom and what influences those decisions.” Wylie joined forces with fellow PhD student Amy Mungur, whose background in how social issues are portrayed through film was the perfect match to explore this concept, to co-teach the course. In combining these ideas to create the class, Wylie and Mungur focused not only on how feature films about education influence teachers’ concepts of their own profession, but particularly what it means to be a social studies teacher, teaching for social justice.

Wylie and Mungur chose Dead Poets Society as their first film so as to establish the theme of what a teacher may or may not look like. Next, they watched such movies as Dangerous Minds, Lean on Me, and Blackboard Jungle in an effort to explore race and power issues in schools. To include a film that depicts a student’s perspective of the school structure, they chose The Breakfast Club, which looks at students’ views of teachers, principals, and their own social status.

The films featured in the course were not necessarily depictions of social studies classrooms, but did portray social studies lessons. For example, while Dead Poets Society is centered around Mr. Keating’s English class, it is really more about the relationships within a school community: the teachers, the administrators, the students at the all boys school and their parents, and how each of these factors relate to the power structures perceived by each party.

Many of the classes throughout the summer session were framed around critical media literacy. Wylie explains that critical media literacy is “situating the film in such a way that looks at who benefits from that film, how they benefit from it, and how it might have been made to benefit a different audience, who produced the film, who was their intended audience, and what is the tone of the film, so that students are not just looking at what the message of the film is, but they’re thinking, ‘This is a message that was produced for a specific reason.’”

That reason could be for box office sales, to influence the political debate of the time, as a response to the prevailing social trends of the day, or for any number of other motivating factors. Wylie wanted his students to recognize how, over time, those issues all change. So how we see a film today and how we are situated as individuals in relationship to that film could be entirely different from its original intent.

By way of example, Mungur provides a description of just one critical media exercise students were asked to engage in. “Take Lean on Me. We got deep enough into it that they really analyzed how Morgan Freeman portrayed Joe Clark, and if that affected in any way their relationship with that character. Were they softened by his character because it’s Morgan Freeman as opposed to if it was someone else? Then we juxtaposed that with interviews of Joe Clark and had them make that comparison, which is all a critical media exercise into what the director is trying to do and how these choices impact how we conceptualize the film.”

The instructors wanted the class to show teachers how film can be used in their curriculum. While there might not be obvious connections between a specific issue and a film, there are opportunities to use film as a tool to elicit conversation about social studies issues, such as the time in which the film is made, what kind of issues were happening then, and how that shapes the way the film is made. Using critical media literacy and analyzing historical context enables students to see these films differently from someone viewing it in another time.

For their final project, students in the class created a digital media exploration in the form of a video that depicted their vision of social studies education. Using pictures, iMovie, voiceovers, and music, the videos showed the students’ view of social studies education with directors’ commentary to explain a rationale for that vision. Wylie and Mungur hope their students are able to take what they got out of the course back into their classrooms and challenge how their students view film, social studies, and beyond.