Teaching English through Film and Screenwriting…

I am honored to be able to cross-post Stephen Wilmarth’s blog post below on Langwitches.
If you are interested to read more about Steve’s International Experimental program at the Number One Middle School in Wuhan, China take a look at:

by Stephen Wilmarth
China has a problem.  It will soon become, if it isn’t already, the largest English speaking country in the world.

This is the result of English being a mandatory subject for every student who graduates from high school and goes on to a university.  The Chinese national college entrance exam, known as the GaoKao, consists of nearly 25% English language related questions, including English grammar, English vocabulary, English sentence structure, and English reading passages.  And the GaoKao is the only criteria used to select students for China’s most prestigious universities.  So, every public high school in China is focused on teaching students English as a second language.  It is a national priority and a national obsession.  In this heated environment, the teaching of language takes center stage.  Questions abound.  Is the teaching of English being effectively accomplished in China?  Why are so many English learners, who score well in English sections on all-or-nothing tests like the GaoKao, unable to “function” in English?  Can an emphasis on the “test” really be a successful strategy for learning a second language that is as different from the Chinese native tongue as English and Mandarin are?

The evidence that the conflict between the “test” and the “need” is not very promising for the current system of teaching methods.  But closing the gap between the need for Chinese students to score high on the GaoKao, while achieving better results in using English in professional and daily transactions with foreigners, does not have an easy or clear answer.

In my own boot-strapping attempt to improve the teaching of English for my students at the International Experimental Class, I’ve made a choice to try and give students a much wider range of active learning options.  I can do this because I’m not bound by the system to prepare my students for higher education in a Chinese institutions.  My students are all focused on going to a university abroad, predominantly to the US.

I offer the following project as an example of one of the kinds of methods that we’re trying.  Observe these artifacts and make your own judgement.  Give me your feedback.  I’m interested in improving the outcome and the methods for achieving better results in language learning.

The Project Description:

A class of 45 students at my school in China were matched up with a class of 20 students at the All Saints Catholic Girls College (high school) in Liverpool (Sydney), Australia.

Each class broke up into teams to make a total of 6 short movies per class – 6 movies made by our Chinese students, and 6 movies produced by the Australian students.  These movies were storyboarded, scripted, filmed, directed, and produced strictly by the students.

The final versions were then stripped of soundtracks – music, dialogue, and sound effects, and the silent versions were exchanged between the schools.  The students were then asked to put their own soundtracks – music, dialogue, and sound effects, into the exchanged silent films.

The culmination of the project is to share both the original versions with sound and the updated versions with sound from the other class.  Students are then asked to analyze the films for cultural, language, and creative differences.

I’ll offer some examples of the work here.  I’m interested in finding “evidence” of learning.  How does making a movie, including storyboarding, scripting, filming, directing, and producing help to improve language and communication skills?  Is there evidence here that language teaching objectives are being met?

This is a clip produced by students at the No. 1 High School Affiliated with Central China Normal University.  The clip is titled “Hide & Seek.”  This first sample is a complete production with sound.

This next version is the same clip, but stripped of all sound, which was passed along to the students in Australia.  It’s now their job to create their own sound track for this video clip.

Here’s one of the versions returned by the students from Australia, with their own “script.”  This is titled “Hide & Seek” by Jennifer, Shalona and Ashmita.

This next clip, titled “Recurring,” turned out to be of great interest to the students in Australia.  It’s dark overtones and desire to “turn back the clock” in order to get a second chance, seems to be a strong theme among students.

Here’s the original version with sound.

Here’s the stripped version without sound.

And here’s one of the versions, titled “Recurring” by Cindy, that were returned by the Australian students, with their own sound track.

Here’s another clip produced by students at the No. 1 High School Affiliated with Central China Normal University.  The clip is titled “Friendship.”

Again, this “theme” seems to run strong in students in every culture.

Finally, here are the remaining clips, with sound tracks, produced by the students at the No. 1 High School Affiliated with Central China Normal University.

“IMAGINE FLYING” by Aqua Group

“Angel Beats” by Grape Group

“A Story About a Dog” by Lime Group

In all cases, I think this project demonstrates to me, at least, that there are common themes that interest teenagers everywhere.  I also think this work shows the strong influences of global “macro” cultures.
I’d be interested in feedback on this project.  This is but one of many projects we’ve run this year, using multi-media channels to help students build a better working knowledge in foreign language and use their creative energies to express complex ideas and feelings.