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C'mon, Ditch the Teacher's Manual and Bring Books to Life

No more worksheets, drill-and-kill test prep, and teaching from a manual.


Ask students and teachers about their favorite children's stories, and it's almost guaranteed that "Miss Nelson is Missing" will be named. My students at Olympic Primary Center in Los Angeles and I recently took this classic story and adapted it for the small screen.

I have to admit that this film project stemmed from selfish reasons. It's very difficult to step into a classroom everyday and do nothing but worksheets, drill-and-kill test prep, and teach from a manual. I need to do something fun and different. So, embarking on this project gave me something to look forward to. Luckily, it gave the kids something to look forward to as well. I may be slightly biased but the end product is pretty amazing.

What can other teachers do to make their own literary film projects come to life? Here are eight tips:

1. Be selfish: Throw away the teacher's manual (gasp!) and pick a story YOU love. Give yourself something to look forward to everyday. You deserve it, and so do your kids. What's that? Your district says you have to drill-and-kill? If your district told you to jump off a bridge would you do that too?

2. Make connections: Yes, now that you've thrown away the teacher's manual you'll have to justify it. Luckily, that’s easy to do with a film project. It's reading comprehension, oral language skills, music, theater, and technology integration all rolled into one. Depending on your story, you can also create tie-ins to other academic subjects. Additionally, you're teaching them real-world skills and problem solving. Not many worksheets can do all of that.

3. Write a script, and then toss it aside: Seriously. As the film evolves, the script becomes a suggestion. The movie is like a living creature. It will change and grow. Don't fight it. Go with the flow. Kids are creative and they'll start coming up with ideas. You're creative too, so jump into the fun!

4. Find music you're obsessed with! Sometimes a good pop song is better at telling a story than a typical nursery rhyme. I mean, do you really want to keep singing, "Mary Had a Little Lamb?" And do you think others want to keep hearing it? No and no. Go pop and everyone wins! When in doubt, pick Madonna.

5. Don't waste time: Have five minutes to burn before lunch? Or did those overzealous kids finish their assignment faster than you thought, leaving you like a deer in headlights with nothing to keep them occupied? Don't despair! Don't waste a minute and use that time to rehearse lines.

6. Say goodbye to breaks: Be prepared to give up your recess, lunch, and a few hours of sleep (and perhaps lose 10 pounds in the process.) Hours and hours will be spent on planning, gathering props, setting up scenes, and editing. It's a time-consuming process, but a rewarding one.

7. Make mistakes: And make plenty of them. Try different ideas no matter how ridiculous they may seem. This is very much a trial-and-error process, and that’s OK. It's a great learning experience and the beauty of film is that you can re-film scenes, or fix things in the editing room. Sometimes mistakes can turn out to be gold (or they can at least make a heck of a blooper reel.) If you have a Mac, iMovie is your friend, and a good editing tool for beginners.

8. Have a purpose: Do you want to have a big movie premiere for the school? The parents? How will you acknowledge the students? Will this be entered in a contest? Will it be on YouTube for the world to love and cherish? Get the kids motivated and excited with an event that will acknowledge their hard work. Give them a purpose for their efforts, and with any luck, they’ll learn to tackle future endeavors with the same enthusiasm. Something like this may not be on a Scantron, but the lessons learned are priceless.

Since my class finished our film, the students have been brimming with pride in their accomplishment and have seen the film so many times that they can now recite each others' lines. What started as a class project on school and community became an epic production that blended technology, music, and dramatic arts, and at the same time, developed reading comprehension, vocabulary, and oral language skills

The students learned to be creative and work collaboratively, and that is something that test-prep will never teach. I hope teachers, parents, and kids are entertained by our efforts and hopefully encouraged to blend more technology and dramatic arts into the curriculum. We hope you enjoy our movie as much as we enjoyed making it.

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