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New book looks at classroom movies

Ad for a Kodak Pageant projector shows classroom movies
Ad for a Kodak Pageant projector shows classroom moviesKodak

Films You Saw in School


Many recall the euphoria they felt as children when a teacher or assistant teacher would wheel the 16mm movie projector into the classroom. Movie time was a fun way to learn, and an effective one. There were dull names-and-dates history movies or mathematical studies that threatened to put the class to sleep. But often there was a story told, a cartoon, even a clip from a Hollywood movie. In any case, movie time was always welcome.

Geoff Alexander has written “Films You Saw in School,” which carefully compiles and assesses all of the movies from each content area. Subtitled “A Critical Review of 1,153 Classroom Educational Films (1958-1985),” Alexander’s book is a thorough, fascinating assessment of the cinematic prowess and educational substance of nearly every classroom film over a period of almost 30 years.

Examining the content areas of Social Sciences, Science, Math, Language Arts, Literature, History and Geography, the book is perhaps most interesting when it discusses the Sociodramas that have changed over the years, their messages responding to different ways and mores. Dealing with teen angst, ethnicity, special needs, and other such social factors, sociodramas could be timeless (a pregnancy film made in 1964, “Phoebe,” was still being used in the 80s) or dealing with issues in a manner that required an update. Films like “The Tap Dance Kid” (1979) and “Black Girl” (1980) examine the African American experience, while Asian American life is covered in “Sie Mei Wong: Who Shall I Be?” (1970). Early appearances of noted actors are often found in these films, such as Michael Sarrazin in “You’re No Good” (1965) as a kid who steals a motorcycle for status and finds his actions result in being ostracized from friends, or Roseanna Arquette in “Mom and Dad Can’t Hear Me” (1978) which deals with deafness.

Art films in the classroom would include such popular movies as Saul Bass’ Oscar winning “Why Man Creates” (1968). History would sometimes use clips from Hollywood movies, such as the short film ‘Spanish Conquest in the New World” which was taken from the 20th Century Fox feature “Captain From Castile.” Seeing the likes of Tyrone Power and Jean Peters in a classroom film was a special treat.

Bell Telelphone had a popular series of Science films that played a lot during the 60s, some of them produced or directed by Frank Capra. Literature films would often feature well drawn narratives and good actors in order to enhance the learning of its literary source material.

“Films You Saw in School” offers strong details and gives a real sense of educational history as to the use of visual aids to enhance lessons. After going through video, DVD, and now live streaming, the 16mm film experience is archaic. But it has an underlying importance in how film enhances the pedagogical experience, and this book should be a staple in any University library that has an education component.