I occasionally teach a film elective, and when I do, I find that the transition from watching movies as a viewer to watching them from a film perspective is a really hard one for a lot of students. In order to help them in their transition, I have found that giving students this one simple rule on the first day makes all the difference:
Time = Importance
The reason for this is that movies are incredibly tightly packed affairs. Like books, they are supposed to build up tension, establish interesting themes, and get us to connect to characters, but they only have a fraction of the space (a screenplay directly converted to regular pages would likely be 30 or 40 pages). This means that if a director has us spend nearly 30 minutes at a family wedding like in opening of the The Godfather (see below), it means something; in this case it is largely about characterizing the family members as humans first before showing them as mobsters, as this is essential in a movie where criminals are the “good guys.”
Another example would be the gorgeous swimming scene in 2016’s Best Picture Moonlight where Juan teaches a young Chiron how to swim over the course of nearly four minutes. Normal swimming lessons are rarely life-changing affairs, but the time spent (as four minutes is an eternity in movie time) cues us that this is, as director Barry Jenkins refers to it, “a key moment of spiritual transference.”
Both of these are examples of how looking at the way time is spent in films serves as a good cheatsheet for quickly figuring out what matters.
I would also argue that this principle of time equalling importance holds equal true in our classrooms, which tend to be equally as time-crunched as feature films. This is why Dave Stuart Jr. focuses on These Five Things; how Donalyn Miller gets her students to read 30, 40, or 50 books; and why John Hattie ranks the effect sizes of various teaching strategies and traits. At their core, all of these authors are there to remind us that time equals importance in our practice. If we want our students to turn into voracious readers, we need to give the topic of choice reading proper time, and if we want our students to argue well, we need to do it every single day. In both of these situations, there is no substitute for simply devoting the time needed to cue that these topics truly matter.
When I look back at my posts this year, while I didn’t fully understand it in those moments, a large number of my posts–ranging from cultivating student identities through our feedback to putting emphasis on positivity in our interactions with students–are at their cores about this concept. Time equals importance.
With this realization in mind, I plan to approach my classroom a little differently next year and truly focus on maximizing the time I spend on the most important things. For example, when it comes to student writing, I already strive to play less of an editor and more of a teacher in the margins of my students’ work, but next year I want to take this concept one step further by taking a page from a parenting class I took this last month. In the class, the teacher asked us parents to think of 1-2 traits that we really want our children to have and focus right now on building those. Her reason for doing this was that while we would ideally like to be building all positive traits all the time, in reality we can only focus on a few at a time if we want to have any hope of enacting real behavioral change.
Next year, that is how I want to approach my students and their papers. Instead of trying to do too much on any given paper–even for the best of reasons–I want to figure out what is most important for that student right now and put my time towards that. For some students, this might mean motivating them, for others it will be about getting their tone consistent, and for others still it will mean finally solving those pesky comma issues once and for all.
Or put in other words, I want 2018-2019 to finally be the year that I cast off the need to do everything, and instead fully embrace a notion that lies at the heart of great teaching and filmmaking alike–that time is our most precious resource, and thus if we are to have success, we need to find ways to get the most from it!
Yours in Teaching,
Connect with Matt
If you like this, join my mailing list for a [mostly] weekly writing newsletter, a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing, and access to my upcoming database of members-only resources for writing teachers!