AMERICAN TEXTUAL IDENTITYA Curriculum Presenting the Possibilities ofFilm and Media Literacy Education Beyond the English Classroom
By Uriah B. Renzetti


In the past century, this nation has seen numerous groundbreaking technological advances. From the motion picture camera to the Internet, we have continued to explore the possibilities of each. We have learned the positive and negative influences while expanding their capabilities. On the whole, we are a better country because of technology. Yet, our education system seems to have halted its carriage of progress in the nineteenth century. Our students are suffering because of it.

This backward focus has limited the learning potential of our classrooms. Particularly in English classes, a focus on the canon of novels and the literary elements contained in them has limited the textual world that students can be introduced to. With the expanded definition of “text” to contain visual forms such as printed and TV advertisements, films, and other video products, our students need to learn how to critically view and respond to a growing collection of textual forms in order to be intelligent, participatory citizens.

Because of the wide range of texts that children and young adults interact with, it is our responsibility as teachers to train them in how to read and analyze the many forms of texts. This goal fits under what is called media literacy education (MLE). While being able to analyze the effect of literary elements in a canonical novel is an important skill, it should not be the only skill taught in an English class. Instead, teachers should equip students with the tools and strategies for how to read any type of text, from novels to short stories, poetry to plays, films to TV shows, ads to news reports, podcasts to tweets.

Educators understand that it is essential that their students graduate with the ability to communicate effectively. This includes speaking well and writing well. No English classroom would neglect the importance of developing students’ writing craft. In the same way, no classroom should be without some incorporation of MLE. It is important to note that MLE should not be confined to the English curriculum. Just like writing, it has great potential outside of literature.


For those teachers who are skeptical or against MLE, they need to look at the compelling literature that has been published over the last decade or so. Renee Hobbs, a leader in media education, conducted an in-depth, multi-year case study on the impact of MLE in the English classroom. The results, along with the construction of the project, were published in her book, Reading the Media: Media Literacy in High School English (2007). In nearly every test, the students who were taught in the media literacy-based English course significantly outperformed the similar, traditional English course students. Students that received MLE were able to understand the construction and objectives of the news media; analyze print and TV ads; and critique rhetoric and propaganda in canonical texts, film adaptations, and news media. In the end, students were able to not only be consumers of media, but critics and creators. The MLE curriculum did not stray from classic literature texts. Frankenstein, Brave New World, and As I Lay Dying were included in the curriculum, and were enhanced by the inclusion of other texts such as film adaptations of Frankenstein, excerpts from All the President’s Men, Bowling for Columbine, CNN: Time Newsstand, National Public Radio: All Things Considered, New York Times, and Newsweek.

John Golden, a high school English teacher and author, has effectively incorporated both fiction and nonfiction films into his curriculum to teach literary elements, compare/contrast exercises, and several reading strategies. In Reading in the Dark (2001), Golden focuses on fiction films to teach and demonstrate literary elements such as characterization, setting, point of view, and symbol. Not only is he teaching how students can apply literary analysis to a visual text, such as a film, he is also teaching the basic vocabulary of cinematography. In the same way that an author can use a metaphor to describe a character, a filmmaker can use a low-angle shot of an actor to portray an aspect of the character. The takeaway from using film to teach literary elements is that it helps students of all academic levels to recognize and evaluate the same elements in traditional print texts. Film can act as a “bridge” to help support students’ critical skills. This application can apply to writing as well. Students can practice this by creating storyboards or screenplays of novels or short stories and write a partial novelization of a film. The higher levels of thinking that educators and administrators require will be exercised with these cross-medium activities.

In Golden’s follow-up book, Reading in the Reel World (2006), he focuses on documentaries and nonfiction films. In parallel fashion, Golden not only describes how to teach and analyze nonfiction texts, but also introduces the forms and techniques of documentaries. He shows how documentaries can show students how to write persuasive arguments, identify biases, and describe tone. In a world where documentaries contain both fact and fiction, students need to have the skills to discern how the filmmaker is creating his/her argument. By evaluating the use of the audio, visual, and graphic tracks of a documentary, students can see how each track contributes a particular (and usually deliberate) effect on the viewer and topic of the film. Documentaries, particularly in their editing, can be used to teach students how to discern the bias of texts.

Writing is an essential component of a child’s education. Film can help students process writing elements and conventions, but it can also provide an opportunity to see the world from different perspectives and make meaning out of it. “We need to define reality for our students, I think, as a concept, a working hypothesis subject to complex cultural forces that are psychological, political, and rhetorical….[U]sing multiple versions of a story can enable a thinking in difference that opens up the complexity of the problems posed by language in a very tense political world” (Bishop, Reading Race in the Multicultural Classroom, 1999). Reality is rarely simple. Joseph Harris makes the point “that a text that poses no difficulties for you also offers very little for you to write about, that criticism begins with seeing problems, gaps, or inconsistencies in a text….I want [students] to see for themselves how viewers of the same scene can often describe and understand it in strikingly different ways, and, when that happens, to get a sense of what might be involved in arguing for one view or the other of it” (Harris, 1999).

Not only can students analyze media, but they can create it. Students in the UK have made documentaries of science experiments; filmed dance presentations and poetry performances; and animated volcanoes (Burn & Durran, 2007). And for those teachers who think using film is for only upper level, college-bound classes, think again. The “incorporation of film into the discipline-based ESL course helps to make difficult subject matter more accessible to ESL students. Film studies facilitates the acquisition of expository writing skills by providing a stimulus which activates the students’ imaginations….[and it] offers a graphic presentation of what is often abstract” (Kasper & Singer, 1999). Also, English-language films are not exclusive to these benefits. Engaging Reluctant Readers Through Foreign Films goes beyond offering viewing guides for twenty-four films by showing how these films can strength students’ vocabulary and learn literary/film elements such as characterization, imagery, and point of view. An invaluable resource included in this book is direct quotes from both English and Social Studies national standards and rationales for how teaching with foreign films satisfies many of them (Holmes, 2005).

While this paper is not intended to be a literature review of the benefits of MLE, it is important to show a few examples from leaders in the field who have had success in real classrooms. What is presented above only scratches the surface. Searching for “media literacy education” in the book department of will result in over 3,000 items. While research in MLE began in the 1990s, the progress and application of it has started to pick up in the 2000s. We are at a time when educational reforms and standardized test scores frequent the news headlines. We need to be open to the use of film and media in any classroom to engage and equip our students to become effective consumers, critics, and creators of texts of all varieties. U.K. Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell put it succinctly: “I believe that in the modern world media literacy will become as important a skill as maths or science. Decoding our media will be as important to our lives as citizens as understanding great literature is to our cultural lives” (quoted in Burn & Durran, 2007). It is not a matter of if America agrees in practice with Jowell; it is a matter of when.

“American Textual Identity” Curriculum

Below is a description of an American perspectives course that focuses on how texts have illustrated our country’s most recent century. It strives to be interdisciplinary in format. The intent of this curriculum is not to be strictly adapted in a high school classroom. Instead, it is meant as an outline, showing the possibilities of MLE in a variety of contexts and applications. A schedule is not given because each classroom has different needs and time constraints. It is meant to either encourage reluctant teachers to see the unlimited potential that film and media can have in high school or to inspire teachers who already incorporate media literacy in their classes to acquire new ideas and expand their horizons.

The main question that permeates the course is: What can film teach and reveal to us about ourselves, our country, our history, and our culture? To explore this, we will look at film’s birth and development in America, along with other media technologies such as radio, television, and the internet. The interaction between literature and visual texts will be investigated. Visual texts will be evaluated for their presentation of historical, social, cultural, and artistic events or eras. Also, the news media industry will be analyzed from the newspaper heydays to the propaganda of the war years to the emergence and evolution of television to the transformations on the web. One goal of this course is to train our students to be the “3 Cs of Media,” which stand for consumers, critics, and creators. Texts will be looked at beyond face value, deconstructed, and evaluated. Students will then create written and oral responses in many forms, including newer media such as blog posts and podcasts. Below are the units of the course. They include a description of the time period, key points and themes, along with the reading/viewing list of books, films, and media. For any teacher interested in using film texts included in the following curriculum, I have created a "Listmania" on that you can access here. Except for the literature referenced above, I have not listed any print texts, as I trust educators to make their own choices as to which edition of readily available novels suits them best.

1. The Birth of Cinema and the Coming of Sound

In this short section, students will learn about the infant stages of motion picture technology. They will track the development of what people, places, and things were chosen to be filmed and how filmmakers transitioned from short “one-reelers” to feature-length films. Connections will be made to the industrialization and urbanization of America.

A focus on World War I in the reading list will provide a foundation and subject for comparison during the World War II era. T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and other selections of war writings from e.e. cummings, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton, and Gertrude Stein will be read.

For films, students will see some of the first experiments with film, including Eadweard Muybridge’s horse short film, Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope shorts, and Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). Finally, excerpts from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) will be the first of many texts in the course selected as a springboard for discussion of racism and public reaction to fiction films.

Muybridge's horse film
The Great Train Robbery

2. The Depression Era

The 1930s present a wealth of important texts that reveal to us how our ancestors survived the Great Depression. By this time, Hollywood made only sound pictures. The birth the of the gangster/crime genre occurred at the beginning of the decade, with classics such as Little Caesar (1930) and The Public Enemy (1931), starring Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney, respectively.
This genre would last throughout the decade, with The Roaring Twenties (1939) being one of the better, later films. The protagonist was not always the bad guy. Robinson plays a former bootlegger who has “gone legit” in the farcical comedy A Slight Case of Murder (1936) and Cagney plays one of the titular G-Men (1935). Warner Bros., the studio that produced these films, was known for its blue collar, urban style. It specialized in what is now known as “social problem/consciousness” pictures. This group of films shone a spotlight on relevant social issues like abuse in chain gangs (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, 1932), lynching (Fury, 1936), prison corruption/horrors (San Quentin, 1937; Each Dawn I Die, 1939) With hard times hitting a large majority of Americans, a life of crime seemed a bit more attractive. This crime wave also appeared in literature of the day. “Hardboiled” crime fiction was popular for several years, particularly with the works of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain.

Crime was not the only thing going on in the 30s. Literary adaptations such as The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Wuthering Heights, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (all 1939) were popular. While many of these films provided escape from the troubles of the day, some projected the Depression on screen, like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940).

From Book to Film. The yellow circle reads "The Picture Hollywood Said Could Never Be Made"

For more escape, people went to see film musicals and comedies. Busby Berkeley (at Warner Bros.) directed kaleidoscopic, fantastic, and immense musical numbers in hit films like 42nd Street (pictured below left), Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade (all 1933), and Dames (1934). The dynamic duo of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced their feet off in nine features over the decade at RKO Studios, including the classic Top Hat (1935, pictured below right) and Swing Time (1936).

From "42nd Street"

The Marx Brothers

At Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), the studio that released many high-class, star-studded productions, including The Great Ziegfeld (1936), and the Broadway Melody series. For laughs, Americans went to see the Marx Brothers (Duck Soup, 1933), and “screwball” comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938).

Depending on your curricula, you may want to discuss the creation and eventual enforcement of the Production, or Hays, Code. Made at the beginning of the decade, movie studios created a sort of “do’s and don’ts” list for what content could be filmed. The Code was mostly full of “don’ts” which included nudity, sexual acts (both consensual and nonconsensual, including rape), prolonged kissing, direct acts of violence, mature language, non-heterosexual characters or relationships, and using explicit terms for pregnancy. National pressure was put on the studios to make the code, or else the government or another large agency would serve as the censor/regulator. Before its enforcement in 1934, filmmakers pushed the envelope and made films that violated the Code. The most famous example of these risqué “Pre-Code” films is 1933’s Baby Face, where a woman literally sleeps her way up the corporate ladder. While society has changed since then, and the content of these films would probably be rated PG if released today, the Code provides many topics of discussion about the impact of cinema on society and how “norms” change over time.

Photographs of the Great Depression are still remembered today. The Farm Security Administration hired Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, and other photographers to visually document the devastation of the Dust Bowls and the Depression.
"Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange
Many of their photos can be great “mentor texts” for creative freewriting.

As for literature texts, there are several classics written at this time. John Steinbeck wrote several novels in the decade, including Of Mice and Men (1937), The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and Tortilla Flat (1935). Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying (1930) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936).

While African-American literature—including Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), and Harlem Renaissance fiction—were published during this era, black representation on film was lacking. While blacks were not excluding from appear on film, they were forced to play only bit parts, usually maids, servants, shoe-shiners, or slaves. It was accepted for white actors to wear “blackface” in certain musical numbers (e.g. “Bojangles” in Swing Time).

3. World War II



The textual products created during World War II give us great insight into how our grandparents and great-grandparents survived during some of the darkest years of the twentieth century. While the books made about the war (Night, The Diary of Anne Frank, A Separate Peace) show the hellish atrocity of war, Hollywood went against the grain. Many studios (especially Warner Bros.) were for the war and made films glorifying the war hero, celebrating the Allies’ strength and power, and demonizing the Axis foes. Propaganda abounded at this time. Even the animators of Looney Tunes made a few dozen cartoons directly related to the war that lightened the hearts of viewers by making funny caricatures of Hitler, Mussolini, and the “Japs.” The U.S. government’s own Office of War Information was in some ways, the force behind the propaganda. After many films’ end credits, a “Buy War Bonds” picture would appear. Movie audiences could even buy bonds at the theatres. This propaganda was found in print texts as well. Of course, this “We did it before and we’ll do it again” message came only after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Before that, studios (mainly Warner Bros., again) made action/suspense films about the dark, looming cloud of war in 1939 and 1940. Of the dozens of war-themed films, here are just a few that would be of interest: Casablanca (1942), Action in the North Atlantic (1943), Air Force (1943), Destination Tokyo (1944), and Frank Capra’s (of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939] fame) Why We Fight short film series.


Porky, Bugs, and Elmer singing "Any Bonds Today?"

formeandmygal.jpgBut Hollywood made more than war films. Musicals were still popular. And with the falling expenses of Technicolor film, musicals were now being made in color. For Me and My Gal (1942) is an interesting musical because its story is set during World War I. Judy Garland and Gene Kelly star as vaudeville performers who serve in the war in different ways. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Cabin in the Sky (1943), and Anchors Away (1945) are a few choices for this era.
Depending on your course objectives, you might find a discussion of the women’s film genre helpful. With the male soldier exodus to Europe, women became a larger percentage in moviegoer demographics. Movie studios were happy to oblige by making films with strong female leads and melodramatic narratives. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were the two most popular and well-known actresses who played in these roles. Davis starred in Now, Voyager (1942) and Watch on the Rhine (1943). Crawford acted in The Women (1939) and Mildred Pierce (1945). Finally, Hitchcock’s first American picture, Rebecca (1940), starring Joan Fontaine, is another women’s picture. Based on Daphne du Maurier’s book of the same name, it features a Gothic setting, and is one of the most talked-about books/films by feminist critics.

4. The Postwar Years

beaver.jpg woodstock.jpg

World War II brought countless changes to our world. The textual aftermath is proof enough. After the war, the largest age group of moviegoers went from young adults to teenagers. The studios had to adjust. But if that wasn’t enough, the popularization of television was the main cause of the decline and eventual death of the studio system. Attendance dropped precipitously. Instead of studios producing thirty-odd features, they invested their funds into several “blockbuster” films that would nearly guarantee large ticket sales.

The widescreen film (usually in color, as well) became the common format as a way to elevate itself above TV’s black-and-white, standard format. Students might find it intriguing that studios first attempted to make 3D films in the 50s, but the technology was very expensive and generally unpopular.

The 1950s was the decade of family TV sitcoms, where conflicts were always resolved in thirty minutes and nothing was really the matter. I Love Lucy, Leave it to Beaver, and The Dick Van Dyke Show are all examples of this genre.

catcher.jpgOn the book-end of things, literature was rebelling. Books were now more explicit about sex, violence, and the struggles of life in general. To Kill a Mockingbird, On the Road, Catcher in the Rye, Death of a Salesman, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are just a few titles that show the frankness of the times. The same attitudes were projected on the screen. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), The Graduate (1967), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, based on the Kesey novel), Easy
From "Easy Rider"
Rider (1969), All the President’s Men (1976), and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) are several films that show the counterculture, youth unrest, anti-establishment feelings, and a more presentation of sex and violence. One reason for these changes came from the termination of the Production Code. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) came out with the current ratings system in 1968, which includes the G, PG, PG-13, and R ratings.

Social issues shot to the top of the national discussion. Both the Cold and Vietnam wars caused controversy and many films (Torn Curtain [1966] and Apocalypse Now [1979], for example) deal with foreign conflicts in different ways. Along the same lines, the Civil Rights Movement stoked the fires of discontent. The important part of these social events is how the media covered them at the time. Families could see the horrors of the Vietnam War in their living rooms. But they could also be inspired by MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Pop music and culture events like Woodstock gained more media attention.


5. Towards the Millennium (1980s to Present)

In this final unit, we can look at the past few decades to observe the trends and guess where we are going from here. During this time, media expanded, with TV and the web becoming the most profitable news outlets. Sure, newspapers and radio programs were still being made, but during this time, their days became numbered. With the creation of cable TV, viewers were not stuck with the “Big 3” networks of ABC, CBS, and NBC. The explosion of TV content and channels started during this time and has continued through today.cabletv.jpg

With this increase in media came and increase in the exposure of political content. Political groups—from presidential candidates, the DNC and RNC, to AARP and Americans For Prosperity—pay for TV ads to persuade viewers to take their side. Presidential debates are televised The emergence of the 24-hour news cycle has opened up news commentary shows with hosts including Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity, and Anderson Cooper. With the ubiquitous web, newspapers, radio hosts, TV channels, and bloggers can all contribute to news and commentary, political or otherwise. Social media follow this trend. By using Facebook and Twitter, people can filter their news sources and other interests in a similar way as they do with TV. The connective possibilities of these technologies have yet to be fully utilized. Technology is in the fast lane of evolution. For example, we listened to music on a Walkman and now we listen to it on our iPods. Thirty-odd inch TVs seem small compared to our 50-70 inch slimmer versions today. High definition (HD) video has now become the norm. And moviemakers and viewers are still debating whether 3D will make it this time.



Technology is a large player during this time. The personal computer started to be sold to the general public and now seems to be an indispensible machine, just like our refrigerators and AC/heating units. At the movies, technology and space were two important features of this era. Literature, along with film, questioned the impact of them in our daily lives. Was the machine taking over? Books like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, A Scanner Darkly, 1984, and Brave New World. The final frontier also was a popular setting for film and TV. Examples of these interests are Star Wars, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, Alien, ET, Robocop, Gattaca, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Terminator, Star Trek, and Babylon 5.


Throughout the curriculum, I hope that you have seen how much we can learn from studying how Americans have experimented with film. The technologies constantly change and we adapt in different ways. By viewing cinema as an historical artifact through which we can look at our American identity, we have seen how our ancestors have responded to economic crises, foreign wars, domestic social issues, and rich literature. Film can act as a “mirror,” reflecting America’s beliefs, debates, struggles, triumphs, and dreams. By only looking at print texts from the twentieth century, we limit our perspective of our past, and hide an engaging tool from our students.

As we continue to make history in the twenty-first century, we must, I repeat must, equip our students with the skills needed to not only consume media, but to critique and create it. Media literacy education must be as foundational to high school curricula as the teaching of writing. If we expect America to lead the world intellectually, financially, politically, and creatively, it is essential that we open our minds to the immense potential of film and media in our classrooms. Long gone are the days when teachers show the movie adaptation of the book they finished in class just so they can have a break and catch up on grading. Finally, by using film as a way to present our country’s history, we can make our past relevant to our present, and instill the wisdom and lessons learned from earlier generations so that we may make discerning, intelligent decisions for our future.

I hope that this curriculum has inspired you to consider (or reconsider) the immense possibilities that film and media have in the high school classroom. You might be saying, “You left a lot out. You don’t even tell me how to teach this stuff!” You’re absolutely correct. And that’s just the point. I don’t want to give you the start-to-finish complete guide to teaching film and media. First, that’s impossible. Second, that’s not my job. As you know, there is no step-by-step approach to teaching any subject. Education is fluid and immediate. For one class, it might be better to teach that 3+7-1 instead of 6x2-3. You’ll still get 9 but the way you get there depends on your particular group of students. You know how to teach them best. As a film studies student first and future educator second, I want to contribute my humbly limited knowledge of film to educators like you who may not have taken any film courses in college or simply don’t have much knowledge about the study of film.

What I hope is that this curriculum has opened your eyes to what can be done through film and media across subjects. I acknowledge that I focused more on English classroom application by referencing canonical literature. I did this for two reasons: (1) I am an English major and have a little more knowledge of the subject, (2) film and media literacy is being used most often in the English classroom. But film must not be caged in the English curriculum box. Just as we know students should write in non-English courses, film should be used in any classroom where students can engage with the subject material and sharpen their critical thinking skills. And for those of you who are concerned about how media literacy works with the “standards,” don’t worry. You’ll find, as many educators have already, that MLE will easily satisfy many core requirements in any curricula.

Finally, I encourage you to give this a try. You’ll be surprised how excited your students will be at critiquing and debating the “big issues” presented in film. They will have a better understanding of literary elements when identifying them in movies. I welcome any feedback you may have about this wiki and curriculum, so send me an email. Please let me know if you use it in your classroom and how it turned out. And remember, this is only the beginning!


Bishop, E. (Ed.). (1999). Cinema-(to)-graphy: Film and Writing in Contemporary Composition Courses. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann.

Bishop, E. (1999). Reading Race in the Multicultural Classroom. In E. Bishop (Ed.), Cinema-(to)-graphy: Film and Writing in Contemporary Composition Courses (pp. 56-69). Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann.

Burn, A., & Durran, J. (2007). Media Literacy in Schools: Practice, Production and Progression. Thousand Oaks, California: Paul Chapman Publishing/ SAGE Publications Inc.

Golden, J. (2001). Reading in the Dark: Using Film as a Tool in the English Classroom. Urbana, Illinois: NCTE.

Golden, J. (2006). Reading in the Reel World: Teaching Documentaries and Other Nonfiction Texts. Urbana, Illinois: NCTE.

Harris, J. (1999). Reading the Right Thing. In E. Bishop (Ed.), Cinema-(to)-graphy: Film and Writing in Contemporary Composition Courses (pp. 70-84). Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann.

Hobbs, R. (2007). Reading the Media: Media Literacy in High School English. New York, New York: Teachers College Press.

Holmes, K. P. (2005). Engaging Reluctant Readers Through Foreign Films. Lanham, Maryland: ScarecrowEducation.

Kasper, L. F., & Singer, R. (1999). Inherit the Text: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on Argumentation. In E. Bishop (Ed.), Cinema-(to)-graphy: Film and Writing in Contemporary Composition Courses (pp. 116-24). Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann.

National Association for Media Literacy Education. (n.d.). Core Principles of MLE. Retrieved from National Association for Media Literacy Education: