On Enhancing Classroom Film Usage and Deepening Civic Conversation

Iremember in the 1980s when films would serve as “filler” when one of our teachers was out of class, or as “rewards” because they were considered “entertainment,” rather than something with perceived educational value. As VHS, DVDs, and most recently streaming video became more widely available, the use of each for screening video content in classrooms also grew steadily as a pedagogical tool.

Video content is now commonplace in teaching foreign languages (listening to native speakers), literature (film adaptations of books), and history (filmic depictions of past events). But the way films are used by educators has remained essentially the same as a generation ago — as an illustration for —or provocation of— class discussion. As a Tow-Knight Fellow, I’m developing a new film presentation format that makes students active participants rather than passive viewers. It integrates students’ diverse reactions and attitudes into their own film experience, and facilitates exploration of others’ views. The format itself is currently in flux, and this post will focus on what brought me to this point.

As a filmmaker for nearly two decades, social impact and audience engagement have been vital to my work. And promoting constructive dialogue among people who (believe they) disagree has been one element of that engagement that’s closest to my heart. Prior to the release of a film about political youth several years ago, I screened it within days for the progressive Roosevelt Institute and Grover Norquist’s conservative Americans for Tax Reform. Those screenings engendered strikingly different reactions, questions, and takeaways from attendees—and I wanted viewers to understand how people who brought different context to the film were seeing different films. We developed a live presentation format called “Reality Check” that became a part of the film’s eventual release.

An early design sketch for the digital version of the presentation format.

Reality Check re-versioned the film into a five-episode presentation, with participatory interludes in between episodes. During these sections, a live facilitator led “participants” through surveys where they shared their views about the film’s characters and topics raised in the previous episode — and then got to explore others’ often different reactions in real-time. Packed events at venues like Paley Center for Media were very well-received. But unfortunately the live events were not cost-effective, and benefitted only a cinema’s worth of people per event.

That was 2012. I was concerned about not only widening political polarization, but also an increasingly “siloed” media environment — where news, data, and even facts were commonly ignored. My small company Changeworx put what was for us considerable energy and resources behind developing the format for digital use. Yet there wasn’t an appetite, at least among film-related NGOs and funders, for financing a presentation format that would help people explore and understand others’ views. I was consistently told some version of “that’s not a priority,” and frequently that the country was in the midst of a “liberal revolution,” which made understanding non-progressive mindsets moot.

Then Donald Trump was elected President in 2016.

Suddenly, there was wide recognition that our lack of understanding across differences was at a crisis point. Journalists scrambled to report outside entrenched media bubbles on the coasts, published “how-to” guides with recommendations to widen one’s field of vision, and created everything from newsletters to plug-ins to better educate the public (several of which are noted here). J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land won awards and became bestsellers. And several people encouraged me to revisit exploration of our film presentation format as one potential answer.

The 2019 Tow-Knight Entrepreneurial Journalism Cohort. That’s me in the back row, third from the right. (Not Pictured: Emiliana Garcia)

As the first filmmaker to be a Tow-Knight Fellow, I’m in the midst of my own “reality check” as I explore how best to build a new venture that stays true to the initial inspiration, while also serving specific needs of potential users and utilizing a viable business model. I’ve re-identified with my print journalist self from high school, and taken on an identity as a “filmmaker/journalist” that I feel is important in an age when facts and truth themselves are under attack. I’ve embraced the “mini-MBA” aspects of the Entrepreneurial Journalism program, as creating a more sustainable career has already been on my mind for years in the context of the documentary industry, which often doesn’t function like a business.

Based on limited market research, I’ve decided to focus on building a product for the high school and college educational markets, where the hunger for tools that enhance engagement with media is palpable. I’ve assembled an Advisory Board of educators, technologists, and experts that includes, among others, Susan McWilliams (Politics Department Chair, Pomona College); Cynthia Farrar (Co-Founder of Purple States, formerly of Yale University); Alana Conner (Stanford Cultural Psychology Ph.D., former Editor of Stanford Social Innovation Review, now at Facebook); Jason Lenhart (Head of Technology, Barclays US and former VP of Product for Comcast); Jason Wishnow (filmmaker and TED’s founding video director); Christopher Henry (technologist and former CTO at IssueVoter); Jeff Gillis (author, improvisor, and an early Google employee who helped develop Google Analytics); and Peter Gerard (filmmaker, travel app co-founder, and former Entertainment GM at Vimeo).

Our goal is to launch a beta version, with a new name and branding, that’s ready for public use for the 2019–2020 academic year. It will assist educators in facilitating dialogue around films, by utilizing real-time data that helps students escape their bubbles and explore their own attitudes more deeply. Because students will be anonymously providing data linked to their demographic and psychographic information, it will address what I’ve been told by stakeholders are “toxic” and “restrictive” cultures on high school and college campuses — which one professor told me makes students afraid to share their views because “[the policing of] speech on campus makes me feel like we’re in the Soviet Union.”

By supporting educators efforts to help students understand each other, what we’re building — whether it’s eventually called a civic educational tool, platform, app, or other service — will enable more honest, constructive, and diverse dialogue. Creating deeper understanding in turn then helps build capacity for tackling our most challenging social problems, together. Indeed, what I’m building fits neatly into Tow-Knight Center Director Jeff Jarvis’s revised definition of journalism as a service: “To convene communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation.” Helping educators to engage a new generation of students more deeply through film not only serves that goal for their academic communities, but can help toward building the more civically engaged society we sorely need.

Journalism Innovation

Ideas, Experiments and Explorations in Entrepreneurial Journalism

Jonathan Goodman Levitt

Written by

Emmy-nominated filmmaker; Founder of www.changeworx.com | 2019 Tow-Knight Fellow @NewmarkJSchool | Fulbright NY Board Member | Mediator at MediateArt | Citizen

Journalism Innovation

Ideas, Experiments and Explorations in Entrepreneurial Journalism, from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY

Jonathan Goodman Levitt

Written by

Emmy-nominated filmmaker; Founder of www.changeworx.com | 2019 Tow-Knight Fellow @NewmarkJSchool | Fulbright NY Board Member | Mediator at MediateArt | Citizen

Journalism Innovation

Ideas, Experiments and Explorations in Entrepreneurial Journalism, from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store