Difficult Topics Made Easier with Film in the English Language Classroom

By Margarita Kosior

Brighton, 9 April 2018

Last April, Margarita was invited to speak at the IATEFL GISIG/VAC PCE session. You can read all about her presentation in this post :

Inclusion and integration

Inclusion and integration of various social groups is a commonly discussed topic in contemporary society. Therefore, since this topic is of general concern, it should also be addressed by educators, even (or especially) those involved in English Language Teaching. Despite its urgency, the practice of incorporating social issues into ELT still has some opponents. Film in the English language classroom is one way to do this.

Film : a useful tool for tackling with ‘difficult’ topics in the English language classroom

One of the recurring arguments provided by those more sceptical is that tackling “difficult topics” in class can lead to disputes and unnecessary tension, especially that many English language instructors are not trained to deal with such situations. It can be argued, however, that film can become a useful tool in the hands of educators. Film is unique in a sense that it allows students to make connections between their personal lives and the people and events on the screen, and to develop high levels of empathy. Therefore, approaching global issues through feature film, documentaries, or short inspirational videos, is an effective strategy. Thanks to its audiovisual nature and authentic appeal, film brings real life into the English language classroom providing a context in which the language is learnt, the students are motivated and the difficult issues are discussed with more confidence and ease. Moreover, cinema, be it a feature film, a documentary, or a short inspirational video can satisfy the sense of curiosity and the need for knowledge. It also teaches to think critically and to evaluate facts, events, and opinions. In this way, by developing in the viewers the competences of cultural and social understanding, film brings people from various backgrounds together.

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Another advantage of using film to discuss “difficult topics” is that focus is shifted from the learners and their attitudes to the movie characters. There is no finger pointing; just reflecting. Thus film, which acts as a shield or a safety net, allows viewers to get into the shoes of the protagonists and reshape their ideas and beliefs.

The Power of Film

The power of film can be discussed on the example of Garth Davis’ Lion (2016) starring Sunny Pawar as a five-year-old Indian boy named Saroo, and Dev Patel in the role of adult Saroo Brierley. By an unexpected turn of events, the little boy finds himself on an empty train, falls asleep and gets carried 1600 km away from his family and from his home to the city of Kolkata (formerly called Calcutta). Lost, scared and hungry, Saroo wanders the streets of the city looking for shelter and food, and a way to get back home. His search continues for many years.

Stimulating Big Questions

The film tackles a number of issues which can be effectively transferred into an English language classroom. Without revealing much of the plot, it can be mentioned further that Lion stimulates viewers to consider many questions related to seeking one’s identity and going back to one’s roots: questions such as ‘Where is home?’, ‘Can we be happy away from home?’, ‘Who is family?’ or ‘Can we be happy without knowing our roots?’ reverberate throughout the duration of the narrative. What makes Lion so relevant is that an individual’s desire to know who s/he really is, the urge to be close to home and to the beloved ones are among the issues troubling many people nowadays forced by war and persecution to leave their homeland and seek safety elsewhere.

Social Issues in ELT

Except for feature film, documentaries are yet another way to introduce social issues into ELT. A prime example of a documentary appropriate for English language learners is He Named Me Malala (2015) directed by Davis Guggenheim. For its great part, the film presents the events leading up to the Taliban attack meant to take Malala’s life. In doing so, it paints an intimate portrait of a young girl who, influenced by her father’s beliefs, stands up against injustice and becomes a globally recognised advocate for girl’s education. Being just a 15-year-old girl on the day of the attack, Malala can become a role model for many teens all over the world. Hopefully, by the end of the session devoted to that Pakistani girl and her life, students realise that there are many similarities between each of them and Malala. This will empower them to follow in her steps and take action to support a cause they feel passionate about.

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Last but not least, short inspirational videos have the power to facilitate “difficult discussions” in the English language classroom. The Conditioned (2014) directed by Michael Marantz tells the story of how a homeless poet’s life gets forever changed when he meets a woman who does not walk by indifferent. The name of the poet is Raimundo Arruda Sobrinho and the name of the woman, Shalla Monteiro. After reading some of Raimundo’s poems, Shalla created a Facebook page through which the world could experience Sobrinho’s writing. A session based on this short film could involve students in a variety of tasks which aim at developing high levels of empathy in the students and at making them understand that being homeless is not a choice, and that all of us are more vulnerable than we might think.

Overall, regardless of its genre, film opens new possibilities not only inside the English language classroom, but also outside of it. It encourages prosocial behaviours in students and develops their sense of justice, and encourages them to create a more inclusive society.

Here you can find Margarita Kosior’s presentation slides margarita 2

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