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Making Movies - Using Digital Text to Document Personal Connections

Making Movies - Using Digital Text to Document Personal Connections

Written by Tommy Buteau
November 19, 2012

In my junior level American Literature classes, we need to cover a play by Shakespeare each year to be able to meet our Common Core State Standards. Last year, however, I just couldn’t figure out how to connect a Shakespeare play to one of the fulcrum texts we were already reading in class-at least not in a meaningful package that would be linked with my learning goals.

Then, I found a great unit plan by Cindy O’Donnell-Allen and Jenny St. Romain, and I knew connecting Hamlet to Of Mice and Men with an overarching theme of resilience would work perfectly.

Next, I started to look for interesting ways to have students represent what they learned in a compact way. I was thinking of having students perform a scene from the play in groups. Yet, when I attempted this in the past, students seldom created a project worth capturing on film. The time for preparation and creative application just wasn’t sufficient on my timeline. I needed something more focused.

In my reader program, I stumbled upon the Australian Theatre for Young People group, and saw their wonderfully stitched together version of the main soliloquy in Hamlet. I was intrigued. All I needed then was a way to connect it to the student’s lives to make it work.

As I thought about what was really happening in Hamlet’s monologue, I was simultaneously covering Joseph Campbell’s ideas in other classes. Soon, I became convinced that each of my students would have had a similar moment in their lives which they could include in the film through location, setting, and reflection.


1. Resilience Unit Plan

Cindy O’Donnell Allen and Jenny St. Romain created and team taught a unit on resilience at Fossil Ridge High School. Their fulcrum text was Hamlet, and groups of students also read an outside reading book to see how resilience plays out in various ways.

They found many different lenses to consider resilience under, and put them together in a nice web page for the students to look at on the first day of the unit. I missed that aspect when I first read their unit plan, but I do see this as a unique way to start a unit. I look forward to trying this out the next time I teach a unit on resilience, and it has also inspired me to start collecting ideas related to the theme of belonging for a similar web page.

Another interesting idea from this unit plan was a comparison between Hamlet’s association with his father and Daniel Beaty’s slam poem “Knock, Knock.” Not only is the poem incredibly powerful in this regard, but it also brings into view the idea that one path to being resilient is to write down or otherwise explore your ideas on your own, “To father [yourself].”

The study of resilience and self reliance fits in perfectly with what George has to go through when making his final decision in Of Mice and Men. Was his choice resilient? It also offers a great way to talk about the events in a realistic, understanding way while bringing the question of George’s motivations up for conversation.

To Be or Not To Be

With the resources I had, I believed the students could come to an understanding of what resilience was all about. But, I needed a way for them to show what they had learned. I had been considering having them act out a scene from the play in small groups. I had done this in college, and I still remember the people who were in the performance with me. Yet, when I had tried this with students in the past, I always found the students swayed between approaching it simply as a farce, or by giving it a superficial reading without any connection or emotion. I needed something more tightly contained, something more focused.

Then, I found it.

In a project by the Australian Theatre for young People organization, I found a model of something which small groups of students could collaborate on and have fun filming. Then, we could put it together in a way that shows how connected we all are, how we can see this connection also in the great voices of our literary history, and how we can make something better through collaboration.

It worked amazingly well. Students were engaged right through the editing process. From three different classes, I got about 15 versions of the speech. No single version was perfect, but together we were able to make one version with all of the lines performed correctly. We were also able to show how each person in the film has had a moment of silent resilience in their life, a moment when they had to figure it out for themselves.

And, it was lots of fun.

Mythic Journey

Another great find in O’Donnell-Allen and St. Romain’s unit plan was this inspirational talk by Bob Shumaker. In it, he talks about resilience and the necessity for communication with others.

As I was thinking about this in connection with both Hamlet’s soliloquy and Daniel Beaty’s “Knock, Knock,” I began to see that the thing that made these moments so powerful was the lack of communication. Daniel Beaty said he needed to father himself, and who could Hamlet talk to about his plan to drive Ophelia away?

As I was thinking about these things, I was studying myths for my other classes. Joseph Campbell speculates that there are 12 stages that every hero must go through on the heroic journey. Of those, there are only two really where communication is critical.

In the final stage, the hero must tell his community about what he has learned on the journey.

But, the begining of the journey also calls for communication. There is a stage where the hero must overcome fears, and it usually happens with the help of a mentor. In both of these situations, however, there was no mentor. What Daniel Beaty and Hamlet are doing is mentoring themselves. This is what must happen where there is no option for the communication that Bob Shumaker feels is critical for resilience.

Process and Reflection

My school has a 90 minute block schedule. We had already finished Of Mice and Men and Hamlet, and we had made connections to the overarching theme of resilience throughout.

Day 1

To get the students used to the soliloquy, I had the groups write it out on butcher paper so they could read it while being filmed. At the same time, the groups were looking up information on the speech—trying to figure out what the speech was about. This was when we watched Daniel Beaty’s great poem and also started to think about how the hero’s journey fits into everything. We focused on Hamlet’s journey, how he was at the moment of not being able to go back, but we also spoke about where this type of moment happened in Of Mice and Men.

Day 2

After our discussion today, the groups filmed the entire speech in about 45 minutes. They were able to film anywhere in the school as long as they were not bothering other classes.

Upon seeing the rushes for this day, I realized that the whole speech was too much for each group to get down really well, so I divided it into six sections for the next class.

Day 3

I had each student think about and elaborate in a writing prompt about where they have experienced moments like this in their lives. Then, each group chose the best location from someone in their group to film at outside of class.

I had each group also focus down on just one section of the speech so that we could get a more professional version. Next year, I will spend more time on this day going over my evaluation criteria for digital speaking; how things like appearance, performance, and eye contact really make a difference in today’s world, and how important it is to ramp up performance if you want to be noticed.

I do not usually give much homework, but I really wanted them to film in locations that were important in their lives, so the assignment for this day was to go as a group and film in a location where one person from the group has experienced a resilient or self mentoring moment.

Right from the very first day we spoke about filming, I let the students know that they would get to film the soliloquy in class, and that they would also need to get another version of it filmed at a location away from school. This year, however, it didn’t work out. I gave them too much time to work on it on this third day, so many simply filmed their second version of a shorter scene at school.

When I do this project again, I will focus more on this day’s discussion and leave no time for filming. I will give more examples of places where you might have had a moment like this, and I will likely show the film from the Australian Theatre for Young People video. All students in groups who did film outside made a solid connection between the location and the content of the speech, and their scenes are much more interesting for the audience.

Day 4

The final day of the project was for editing. I got the Mac lab, and all groups were able to download their film into iPhoto and then edit in iMovie. The few groups that had problems were able to download on a PC, send them to me in an email, or upload to their Google drive accounts. I then took the best clips from each group and put them together to produce the whole film. Several of the groups who edited together their versions of the speech were great. I will try to get permission from them to upload to YouTube and link here.


Most groups got a reflection on the relevance of the location filmed, but the individual reflections handed in with the group evaluations at the end of the unit showed a wide range of understanding. Most students understood the connection between the place they filmed and the soliloquy, but many still said things like, “We filmed there because there was a brick wall, and it looked good behind the person we were filming.”

Next time I will require all groups to film a segment of the speech as homework in a location outside of school where they have faced a similar moment in their lives.

I also required all groups to film a segment where they stated what the soliloquy itself was about. Only one group related it to the mythic journey and the idea of needing to make an important decision on their own before they can move forward. Many related it to the concept of resilience, but too many simply said it was about whether it is easier to live or die.

I believe more attention to the concept of resilience earlier may help some to see the connections. When I do this unit again, I would spend some time having students interact with the webpage on resilience created by O’Donnell-Allen and St. Romain.

I think with these small changes the learning will flourish, and we will still have a lot of fun with the project.

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