by Sam Wolf Lewis
Lights, camera, action!
Every student at Dvir School in Ashdod knows these three English words. I have been teaching in Israel for six months and during the first two months, I taught English lessons using the traditional methods-workbooks, charts, and figures. Progress was okay, but I began to think the students might benefit from a more engaging and unique approach to learning. After all, Dvir is no ordinary Israeli school. We are a nexus, a cross road where diverse students come to learn. Our students’ families have immigrated from all over the world. France, Russia, Ethiopia, Brazil, and India are only a few countries that are represented here. Although, each child is as unique as the country they hail from, there is one thing that motivates them all to learn the English language and work together as a team: American movies.
My sixth grade girls don’t know what the “present perfect” tense is, but they can quote Disney’s “Frozen” in its entirety. My fifth grade boys don’t know the significance of an “infinitive” verb, but they can repeat every cutaway gag from Fox’s “Family Guy.” I set the standardized text books aside and opened my laptop. I showed the class a short movie I made in college. Their eyes were glued to the screen and their hands folded in their laps, a nice change from the usual frenetic classroom behavior! As soon as “The End” appeared on the screen, the room roared with requests to make a movie of their own.
We wrote the script together. With the help of Google Translate, the students discussed the theme of their movie. Is it an action film? A comedy? A romance? (Not surprisingly, there is not a single student interested in making a movie that is a love story. “Ewww!”) We create our story lines from everyday experiences such as planning a party, babysitting a younger sibling, doing after-school sports. With my help, the students crafted a script in English that they took home to practice. It’s more than a script, it’s a trophy. The kids brandish it in the hallways to show their peers. They wave it in the faces of their homeroom teachers to show them they’re speaking English. I can’t remember them doing the same thing with their old English workbooks.
When it comes time to film, the kids can barely contain their excitement. The boys pace back and forth. The girls sit in front of the mirror and brush their hair for fear the camera might spot a single split end. The filming process takes time, sometimes hours. But it’s worth it at the end of the day when the cast crowds around to watch the dailies from the shoot. Every student demands of themselves that their lines sound perfect. When they stutter, stumble, or mispronounce words, they yank on my arm and demand I film another take. This is an encouraging change from correcting homework assignments where students don’t take such obvious pride in whether they get an answer right or wrong.
The most exciting part of the “Learning English by Filming Experience ” is screening the movies. All of the students and teachers gather around the TV in the hallway to watch the premier. When the lights go down there is complete silence, something many teachers at Dvir thought simply impossible. When the lights come back on there is laughter, joy, and of course, one hundred and thirty five voices crying in unison: “Sam! Take me next! Me next!”