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In the summer of 2015, executive headteacher Karen Bastick-Styles decided to place film at the heart of everything the students at Greenside Primary School in Hammersmith, London learnt, with all academic learning and whole-school community activity taking place through a prism of film and filmmaking. One year and one term on, we caught up with Karen, her teaching staff, and some of Greenside's students, to see how they got on with their 'Film Factory'.
"At the beginning of the project, I made a bold statement that we could teach everything through film. Thanks to careful planning and immense motivation from staff and students, that vision became a reality. As film is perhaps the first medium that babies read, we wanted to learn about and through film, and to make films. We wanted a strong and rigorous theoretical study alongside filmmaking with technology," explains Karen.
Buy-in from teachers via shared learning and professional development was also key. "You need to have the belief that anything is possible through film and that it is a vehicle that can inspire students in any way that is appropriate to your cohort."
Central to Karen's vision was ensuring that teaching and learning adopted an experiential, holistic learning approach and that all experiences were personally connected to the children and contextualised within the real world. "We had 'crew days', which consisted of vertical groups aged 3-11, making films and documentaries, and curating our own film festival."
External assessment by governors and the school's local academy body included 'outstanding' and 'truly innovative' use of film to bind together good discussion, language skills and high quality vocabulary. The enthusiastic tackling of complex, challenging and creative learning by students of all ages was also noted.
So just what equipment is needed, and how would one go about financing such a venture? "In the previous academic year we saved some of our funding so we could afford to buy an iPad for each student to use," says Karen. "We also successfully accessed a £10,000 Big Lottery Grant to develop film work with our parents/carers and community. With this money, we purchased a camera, tripod, iMac for editing, a green screen and lights. In the summer term we set up workshops and joint learning projects for parents/carers to make documentaries with their children."
Greenside's story is inspirational, but it's also important to recognise just how little is required to set up a simple filmmaking project in your school. Even just a handful of digital cameras or tablets and some basic editing apps such as iMovie can produce a wealth of creative learning outcomes.
Planning chronologically inspired by a film helped Greenside teachers select the best curricular areas and learning outcomes. They recommend watching the film first, planning as you go along. Then constantly returning to the film as a text with students, piece-by-piece throughout the term. This allows for prediction, reflection, getting to know the characters and plot, as well as increasing engagement and excitement for what's coming next.
Co-deputy head, Rebecca Tossell believes film is a great equaliser, reaching students of all abilities. "Our higher attainers are able to acquire an entirely new vocabulary about film, about how camera angles tell a story, about how the music or soundtrack might reveal the characters' feelings. They have been able to include that vocabulary and analysis in their writing, which is much more sophisticated than we've seen in the past."
"Similarly our lower attainers start from a place which is more equal than they may have had previously, because students of all ages and abilities understand film. These students are more confident and willing to contribute in group discussions and group work."
Robin Yeats, Greenside's co-deputy head and Year Six class teacher, urges teachers to treat film as a text just like they would other texts, such as books. Decoding and inference skills are present in the reading of all texts, and film provides ample stimuli for further curricular activity. One of his favourite projects used Pixar's monumental Up offering an abundance of STEM opportunities, from creating 3D nets of the house and experimenting with different materials and measurements, to testing how much helium was required for allowing the house to float away.
Year Four teacher and assistant head, George Webber, says the opportunity to learn filmmaking with her students has been invaluable to her own professional development. She also directly attributes the school's consistently high attendance data to using film in the curriculum: "It makes school an exciting place to be because they think 'What are we going to find out about today? What are we watching today?' And that builds in them and creates a healthy culture of coming to school."
The development of core transferable skills is evident from external assessment and the young people themselves. Examples of progression through challenging projects include: filming and editing using iPads, mastering care and precision through making flip-books, and learning time management to meet team deadlines. Using film to contextualise world environments, and expand their knowledge and experience of what things outside of everyday life look and sound like, were also high on their breakthrough list.
So, what are the best films out there, as voted by the students of Greenside? Topping their list are the favourites you'd expect from students of this age - Toy Story, Zootropolis and Pan. But scratch beneath the surface and you'll find some titles you might not have considered screening for children; Parisian adventure Le Ballon Rouge (The Red Balloon) and cult-classic documentary Man with a Movie Camera.
So what's next for Greenside? Film will remain the main artistic source of inspiration, as they explore other creative industries, such as music labels and TV companies. They will also share their success with other schools and support them in using film to improve writing, and engage students in STEM learning through and about film.
The first in Teacher of the Year Simon Pile's three part series talks about different techniques to help teachers embrace and enjoy filmmaking in the classroom.
Reading time 3 mins
Our focus on Language looks at not only English and Modern Foreign Language cinema in relation to the curriculum, but also at the language of film itself.
Participant materials for Filmmaking for Curricular Attainment training session.
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