Using Pixar and New York Times Op-Docs to introduce and reinforce literary devices

When I first implemented independent reading in my classroom, I didn’t do a very good job of previewing literary devices for my students before they read on their own. For the most part, we pretty much just dropped everything and read. While I’m sure these students still improved as readers, I know that I did not provide the necessary scaffolds to help them enhance their comprehension of their texts.

I like to think that I’ve grown as a Language Arts teacher, though. No longer do my students just hop into their novels without any guidance or direction. I prefer to use the mini lesson as an opportunity to introduce a reading or literary skill for my students to focus on as they read, and I like to design this activity in a manner that doesn’t involve any reading. I realize that sounds bad when I say (write) it out loud, but if I’m going to get my students’ best effort during independent reading time, I’ve found that it really helps to engage them in a medium beforehand that does not involve text.

If there’a one thing 7th graders like doing in class, it’s watching videos. Luckily, both Pixar and the New York Times have an abundance of free resources that can be used to teach or reinforce complicated topics like theme, conflict, character motivation, point of view, etc. What’s better, most of the videos that I use (below) are between 3 and 6 minutes, which leaves plenty of time for discussion both before and after each clip. Heck, sometimes we even incorporate a little writing as well so the kids understand the type of response I want them to produce after they read their own books.

Pixar has more short films available on YouTube then what I’m going to preview below; these are just some of the clips that I’ve incorporated into my lessons:

For the Birds” is a great film to use to introduce students to the concept of theme. In this movie, a group of identical-looking birds are congregating together on a telephone pole wire when they are approached by a large, jovial bird that is clearly of a different species. The small birds mistreat the outsider and eventually knock him off the wire. There is a twist at the end that I will not give away here, but this movie definitely had my students discussing and debating its various themes. Some other good Pixar films to use to cover theme are “Boundin“, “Pigeons” and “La Luna“.

“Presto” is about a self-serving magician that is so unaware of the feelings of others that he refuses to let his hungry rabbit have a small snack before the two of them go on stage for their performance. Feeling slighted, the rabbit does his best to sabotage the act and the result is a slew of hilarious missteps that your students will surely enjoy. I use this film to discuss with my students how character’s differing points of view can sometimes lead to conflict. Other Pixar films that can be utilized to review point of view are “One Man Band” and “Lifted“.

At less than 2 minutes long, “Dante’s Lunch” is the shortest Pixar clip that I use to get my students thinking about character motivation. The dog’s motivation is fairly obvious, but sometimes obvious is good for our students, right?

The New York Times Op-Doc Channel has 6 seasons worth of free mini-documentaries. The ones that I discuss below are clips that I have used in my class over the past year:

San Quentin’s Giants” covers the baseball team that inmate-created baseball team at San Quentin Prison. This film is highly-captivating and it certainly tugs at the heart strings, even for non-baseball fans. It also lends itself to a host of rich discussions involving theme and point of view.

Summer’s Choice” follows an at-risk teenager who is artistically-gifted, yet struggling to meet the demands necessary to earn a high school diploma. Ultimately, Summer must make a decision as to whether she will work to help her family or do what she needs to do to graduate. This film is a great piece to supplement a discussion involving character motivation.

“Bike Thief” is definitely the most lighthearted of all of these NY Times films, but it provides a surprising twist that will have your students questioning their predictions regarding the direction of the movie. I actually used this clip in a mini lesson in which we practiced citing evidence to support claims. After watching the movie, I asked my students to write a paragraph explaining why it was so easy for the man in the film to steal his bike over and over again in public.

My students read Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water each year, and I have used both “Toys of War” and “What are you carrying?” to supplement that text so that my students can gain a richer understanding of the harsh conditions that many people in Africa endure on a daily basis. Both of these clips will get your students talking, and they are great pieces to use to differentiate for argumentative writing.

Does anyone else use movies to introduce complicated literary devices? Have you used any New York Times Op-Docs that I did not mention? If so, please share any of these resources below and how you incorporated them into your classroom.