Lights, Camera, Action: Bringing Jewish Studies to Life on the Screen
Through several years of teaching Judaic classes, I often found myself thinking, this subject would make a great movie. Not only would film evoke the type of emotional response I would like to see from my students, but it would also engage them in a way that would bring the Judaic content alive for their understanding, analysis and evaluation.
Film is not a new tool in day schools. Many of us use it in our classrooms when we want to show the students a visual representation of a Judaic subject or topic. The main problem with this method is that watching films is a passive experience. I wanted students to be fully engaged. So I set out to create a program wherein students became the producers of the film, actively grappling with the Judaic content and values and then applying the information learned in real world situations and characters.
My search led me to two filmmakers, Darrin Fletcher and Chet Thomas, who were implementing the same concepts of film in classrooms with at-risk teens. We came together to discuss the need in Jewish day schools. The result is Student Impact Films (www.studentimpactfilms.com), an online curriculum and software enabling students to research, write and produce their own short films, all with the goal of engaging them in Judaic studies. Darrin and Chet had the expertise to develop the curriculum and tutorials that are on the site. Through their professional circles and contacts, they also provided us access to many of their Hollywood peers.
Their connections enabled us to populate the website with exclusive interviews with Hollywood professionals, access to professionally composed music and many more features that make the software a fully engaging experience. Students have access to a robust library of produced screenplays, a music library of professionally composed music by genre, as well as a sound effects library to add the appropriate effects to their films. The software also offers virtual tutorials to reinforce skills that are taught in the curriculum pages of the website. If students miss a day of school for any reason, they can access the software and catch up on what they missed.
The program started in Los Angeles in 2011 at the Shalhevet School, where my class helped produce One Last Shot, a film about bullying, which was accepted and screened at five film festivals and can now be viewed on YouTube at http://tinyurl.com/b5u94lr. The film itself took two days to film and a couple of months to edit. The students’ pride in their work has far surpassed what they learned during production time. The program was then implemented at the Jewish Day School of the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, where to date, students have worked on films with topics ranging from tzedakah to leshon hara, which were screened at the end-of-year arts festival.
The key to the success of a filmmaking program such as ours is putting students in charge, enabling them to become the writers and producers. Filmmaking offers a cross-curricular experience where the students learn language arts (reading and writing scripts), math (budgeting), art (set design) and much more. The experience also teaches them life skills such as teamwork, collaboration, scheduling and time management, and leadership. Most importantly, filmmaking forces students to learn the subject matter well and then demonstrate their understanding by grappling with the emotional struggles of the characters in their film. This process enables us to assess the student’s cognitive understanding of the material in a tangible way, and draws out and showcases their emotional responses to that topic.
All too often when we teach Judaic classes we push content and skills, subconsciously imparting to students what we want them to think and feel about the subject. Filmmaking allows students to evaluate material cognitively and respond to it emotionally with their own sentiments expressed through characters and storylines.
Through film, we develop minds and hearts, we promote a Jewish identity, and with that, we produce magic.♦
Yossi Kastan is the incoming head of school of the Brauser Maimonides Academy in Hollywood, Florida, and can be reached at [email protected].