Unscientific survey: TV and movies in the classroom?

I received a heartfelt email recently from a parent who has decided, with regret, to  leave SFUSD for private high school next year. There are a lot of reasons for the decision, but one particular thing really rankles:

Both of my children have watched dozens and dozens and dozens of hours of film and video that is often totally content free, and as a rule, unrelated to curriculum.

The parent went on to offer one concrete suggestion — keep track of and limit the amount of television and videos that are being shown in classrooms.

I’m not opposed to using TV and movie content in the classroom if it can be directly related to the standards and the curriculum being taught, and that is also the official district policy, as I understand it (I don’t know if there are specific limits on how much TV is too much).  Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of Henry V is a case in point — if this doesn’t bring Shakespeare alive, I don’t know what does!

News clips from CNN, “The Daily Show,” documentaries or other content can really enliven a lecture and engage kids in discussion.  Personally, I think the “Daily Show” report on the Ethnic Studies debate in Tucson is the sharpest social commentary I’ve seen in quite a while and would spark a great discussion in any high school or middle school classroom.

When my kids were in elementary school, teachers occasionally showed movies in class — usually on the last day before a vacation or at the end of the day after a class party when everyone (kids and teacher) was fried. I didn’t/don’t love the practice but I never felt it was so widespread or common that I had to protest.  I’m not aware that my daughters’ middle school teachers are using much, if any TV or movies in the classroom, and officially it is district policy for such content to be directly related to what is taught.

When I was in middle school, my beloved biology teacher Ms. Pensky used to have Friday movie day and show us reels of educational science films (some of them admittedly pretty hokey but still with legitimate scientific content).  But showing “House” and calling it science? (I’ve been told this recently happened in a high-performing high school but haven’t personally verified the claim).   Last year I was visiting a very low-performing school with an assistant superintendent and we came upon a math class watching the movie “The Blind Side.” (The teacher was aware enough to be embarrassed when we walked in).

So, here’s my unscientific survey for current SFUSD parents: what are your kids’ experiences with TV and video in the classroom? Do not name schools or teachers in the comments — this is not a “gotcha” exercise but instead I’m trying to get a sense of how widespread these practices are and whether a clarification of district policy is needed. I’d also love to hear from teachers about how you use TV and video in your classrooms — as I said above, I think there are some very legitimate uses.

You can answer in the comments or send me an email if you would rather comment privately: comments “at” rachelnorton.com

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20 responses to “Unscientific survey: TV and movies in the classroom?

  1. I’ll be touring elementary schools this fall and making it clear to them that rainy-day movie watching is unacceptable. Little kids love to play in the rain, and parents can and should be expected to dress them appropriately. This is California, for christ’s sake!

  2. As it’s been quoted to me, district policy is that movies are supposed to be directly related to standards being taught, and limited in their classroom use generally. In my opinion, middle schoolers should not be shown R-rated movies at all unless their parents specifically consent. I even think PG-13 movies should require parental consent (even though I let my own tweens watch PG-13 movies without worrying too much).

  3. Hi Rachel,
    Now that we have reached middle school age I have seen a huge jump in the number of movies watched and a dive in the quality. Some movies have been simple silly fun, seen as a treat, or shown by substitute teachers. Some movies have been appalling. Is there any district criteria to the type of movies that may be shown (ie: PG13 or R rated). I couldn’t get a straight answer from our large middle school and asking made my son’s life at school really hard. It would have been nice if I could have been directed to a district policy.

  4. I’ve heard of this in our school, but thankfully never in my 2nd grader’s experience. There are several newer teachers in the 3rd and 4th grades who will show non-educational movies as a “reward” (for what, showing up at school?) a couple of times a semester. There were a small handfull of parents who were angry, but most either didn’t know or couldn’t care less. We clearly told the principal we did not agree with this tactic, and would request the teacher notify us ahead of time if they were going to do this so we can decide whether we want him to stay in class, or at least limit his media consumption outside of school to compensate. We’re not fundy christians, but try to limit screen time to 30-45 minutes a day. Our current teacher (who came from another public school) was APPALLED that they did this, as she feels like she has little enough time to teach the expected curriculum. Clearly there is not a “norm” among teachers that entertaining movies are inappropriate use of limited class time. It would be great if the district was clearer about this policy, and actually enforced it!

  5. Public schools in California face a possible cut of another 7 days per year of school this year, meaning public school students in California would get 168 school days of year, compared to students in Japan who get 223 school days per year. There is already not enough instruction time per year, for students, in California, so this makes it much more critical that time in class is as productive as possible. Movies should be shown rarely, and when they are — they should be specifically linked with the curriculum being taught.

  6. at our school, there is little to no movie time. With one working TV for 24 classrooms, that answers this! ;-)
    movies are shown in the cafeteria during rainy days, and many students choose to get some crafts and activities instead (but again, no rain this year means no film). Parents have updated the DVD collection to have more appropriate, less disney choices, and students have appreciated the upgrade.

  7. Choice Parent

    In the Fall of 2010, while touring middle schools for my kid, I was surprised at the number of middle school classrooms that were watching movies. I would say that I saw at least two classrooms at Hoover, Giannini and Aptos watching movies as I was looking through the hallways. This was not happening at the end of the day or a Friday. It was happening bright and early at 10 am or so on Wednesday or Thursdays or Tuesdays. Frankly, it was one of the main reasons I decided not to send my kid to one of these large mddiel schools.

  8. The formal assessments for Kindergarten are administered one on one, so yes, you do have lengthy periods of testing to do. The end of the year assessment period is longer at present, but I understand that PALS takes longer than the Brigance so the beginning of the year assessment period may increase.

    Kindergarten end of year assessments vary by school, but we give most of the Fountas and Pinnell battery for reading and it’s time-consuming. Given the length of the assessments, there will be a lot of sustained independent work in the classroom during testing time. (Unless you have an IRF or literacy coach who does the testing, although I think most teachers prefer to complete the assessments themselves.) I personally think showing videos would be too distracting, but some teachers may find that it works.

  9. Rachel, thank you for bring up this important topic. I hope you can hold a broader forum on the issue and involve a wide range of parents in the discussion. It’s very important to get parental feedback on this issue. It seems that there would be a wide array of activities a teacher could have children do instead of watching a movie or television show in class. Group reading, writing a poem, learning a board game, drawing, looking up new vocabulary words, making up dialogue for a play, working on a crossword puzzle, reading a book, and playing a card game all come immediately to my mind as more beneficial than watching a movie. I have heard from parents that there are several days during the academic year where teachers show movies in class because they have student assessments to do. If this is the case, SFUSD should acknowledge this and provide teachers with volunteers or assistants who can work with their classes while they are performing their work outside the classrooms. Maybe students would have more PE on these days or special art projects or other focused activities which enrich their lives. As school can be a place where students are exposed to a variety of ideas and activities, perhaps this time could be used for more beneficial purposes, either in life or academic skills.

  10. @ERat – The Three Robbers is probably my favorite Tomi Ungerer story (although griselda’s Ogre is close). I bought that video cllection for my own kids because it is so wonderful! I would be fine with a Kindergartener watching one of those stories. :)
    Curious also because I have heard offline from some parents that there is one week towards the end of the year where K classes watch a lot of videos because their teachers are busy doing “assessment.” Is this the annual Brigance or CELDT or something new? (I’ve heard some grumbling about something called PALS that is apparently being piloted at some schools). Does this square qith your experience?

  11. I don’t have adequate technology to show videos without a lot of advance planning and bargaining, so even if I were inclined to show videos regularly I wouldn’t. I occasionally allow a story on video as an option for a whole class reward – we watched “The Three Robbers” from on video this year.

    If I can find a short video that’s a nice introduction to a unit of study (and I can arrange for the DVD player, find all of its cables and remote control, etc.), I’ll show it. TMBG’s “Solids, Liquids, Gas” video opens the states of matter investigations every year.

    I think it’s tricky to find the balance between using and overusing all available resources, including technology (video, computer games, etc.).

  12. Hi Ben – yeah, it’s pathetic but you know as well as anyone the sad state of SFUSD technology infrastructure. We have made some modest investments in recent year, and will eventually have a great student information system, but it’s hard to justify spending $ cleaning up and digitizing Board policies when you are cutting from the classroom. Anyway, that work is finally underway and should be complete sometime this year.
    Saw the concept art for your students’ games – they look great!

  13. My son’s pre-k class watched too many movies and television shows. I finally gave the teacher my card and said she should call me and I will pick up my son from school if they are going to watch a movie. I also instructed my son to raise his hand and ask the teacher to call his mom and she’d pick him up from school (he loved this idea). Needless to say, they stopped putting kids in front of movies/tv.

  14. Learning, here, that school board members don’t have a way to quickly find out what current board policy is on any given issue explains a lot.

  15. I’m researching that very question now, Doug — I know there is a “policy” because it has been quoted to me before when I’ve received complaints, but I don’t know what form it is in — did the Board ever pass a policy on TV in the classroom? I don’t know of that happening but because our Board policies are only just now in the process of being updated and made searchable online, it’s a little bit of a process to go through the old ones. The “policy” could also be in the form of an administrative regulation, which the Superintendent creates to direct staff. Or it could be unwritten, in which case a BOE vote clarifying the policy would bring a lot of attention to the issue and cause principals and school staff to examine practices at their schools a bit more closely.

  16. You declare “official district policy” but you do not mention where said policy is written or how it is enforced. If you “clarify” it by way of a BOE vote…so what? Will that change teaching practice in the classroom in a meaningful way?

  17. At the end of his kindergarten year, my son watched movies every day for a week and a half. Parents were not told this would happen and they watched movies I would not normally have let my son watch. It bothered me greatly. Was there really nothing left to teach these kids? Nothing better to do with them than watch TV? They had watched movies occasionally throughout the year, but it seemed to be the day-before-vacation type of watching. I don’t think he’s watched TV in class at all this year, even on the day before vacation.

  18. I am a librarian in the district now, but when I was a classroom teacher, the main time I would use movies was when I had a substitute that I didn’t know. There were a handful of excellent subs that I would always request if I knew I would be absent ahead of time, but if one of my kids woke up sick and I had to call in a same-day sub, none of my preferred subs were available (they were excellent and in high demand!). After too many experiences with untested substitutes not teaching the curriculum I left or monitoring the students very well, I settled on emergency lesson plans that involved making a list of 100 questions on a movie and telling the students it was worth 100 points extra credit. I chose movies that could be referenced later in the semester in problem sets (e.g. for a Physics class, we did a complex problem using the principle of conservation of energy to determine whether it was realistic for Indiana Jones to outrun the rolling boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark, then worked the problem again after we learned how to compensate for the loss of energy to rotation… I won’t give away the answer, but it was a fun problem!).
    There are many excellent substitutes in our district, but there are also enough who have allowed behavior ranging from simple decisions not to work or sneak out of class all the way to vandalism and theft, that if I don’t know the sub, I only feel safe leaving a movie.

  19. My kindergarten twins watch movies in the classroom during rainy-day recesses and occassionally before holidays. The movies are less than 40 minutes. I don’t think it’s that big of a deal for kindergarteners. Many schools in other districts don’t have full-day kindergarten — and those kids probably go home at noon and watch TV…

  20. Thank you for raising this issue Rachel. One of my children watches several movies a month, at least, and over the course of the last several years, both have watched many more than I feel is appropriate. This is especially so when these are not contributing educationally in any way whatsoever. In bringing this up with other parents, though, I found that my concern was not widely shared at all, which surprised me. I have to say, this increased movie watching is worrisome, and honestly, demoralizing–this isn’t the change we’re trying to make!