How Reading the Movies in Middle School Saved My Sanity

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I jumped from teaching first grade to teaching middle school. 

In one day. No…..but really.

In one fell swoop, I moved from morning meetings and consoling Oliver over the fact that Sara stole his pencil – which she hadn’t, it was on the carpet…like it always was – to hormones. Just all the hormones ever created.

I have to say that my first-grade classroom rocked. Coming into teaching from a theater background, I excelled at read-alouds and getting kids to delve into character and plot analysis. We read novels together and I wrote Readers’ Theater (RT) scripts that were chock full of enough second-tier vocabulary words to make the PD advisor weep tears of data-driven joy. I authored the scripts myself because my theater-snob brain often found the ones on the internet to be somewhat dull and contrived; they didn’t have the punch and fire I wanted for my class.

When I moved to 7th grade, my favorite, fool-proof Readers’ Theater glory days came to a screeching halt. One – because I now taught over a hundred kids as opposed to twenty-five, (let’s not delve into THAT right now) and two, because the thought of organizing a meaningful Readers’ Theater unit for that level was something that sounded just shy of a nightmare. 

I plugged away with them reading novels and poems and biographies. And while classes were still fun and full of meaningful discussions, I didn’t feel the level of connection and camaraderie that I had felt among my elementary students. They were connected to me, but not nearly as connected to each other. I realized that RT had given my former classes lasting social and academic benefits.  They had become better listeners, better collaborators, more supportive of each other, and exhibited greater abilities in analyzing character – and therefore human – behavior.

Armed with this knowledge and a small helping of general terror, the great Movie Magic project was born.

I didn’t have the time (or to be honest, the willingness) to sit down and write Reader’s Theater scripts for middle schoolers. Few things sounded more daunting. So one night while I was watching a movie and ignoring the papers I should have been grading, I realized one thing;

……Movies are written to hold our attention.  

Even the attention of the insanely hormonal, often insecure, teenager. 

One of the primary goals of screenwriters is to keep us engaged while exposing us to all of the explicit and implicit information they need us to know in order to get their stories across.

My students sometimes balked at plays that were written decades (or more) ago and found it difficult to truly dig into the text on a deep enough level to become the characters. But movies – the right movie is handcrafted to evoke emotion, force us to use our inference skills to decipher motivation, make connections, use context cues…every skill of reading comprehension is embedded within the art of cinema, and it is an art that kids are already connected to.

A Google search led me to a treasure trove of free movie scripts available online at all levels. After printing one out, choosing selected scenes for performance and creating groups and a game plan, I went into class with a renewed sense of excitement over what this lesson would yield for my oh-so-many students.

The excitement on their faces at the announcement that we were going to spend the next couple weeks acting out the movies was incredible.  The word “movie” for them felt both familiar, and like a fantasy, at the same time.

As much as they had enjoyed reading plays in class, movies were – for them – full of more vibrancy; more of the impossible becoming real. 

There were some hiccups and learning curves along the way; group dynamics and casting are more complex at the teenage level.  Luckily with pointed guidance and some anticipation of the problems that could arise (those first classes were the guinea pigs….sorry guys), they were well equipped to solve most of the problems on their own. Which is absolutely beautiful to behold – the fodder of rapturous teacher fantasies the world over.

The enthusiasm that the kids showed during that first project was beyond inspiring.

I watched as kids that never spoke in class suddenly realized that they were funny, and watched the rest of the class sit in shock and joy at the formerly ‘silent kid in the back of the class’ become a hysterical caricature that stole the show.

I watched the kid that was always late, come in on time, with his script ready, every. Single. Day.

I saw kids kindly acquiesce to each other over who went first, and even who got to play what role and who got to be the group leader (after the first round, I let the students decide on casting for the subsequent scripts).

I heard students from different grade levels and classes talking about the project during passing periods and at lunch, excitedly discussing their roles and who they were working with.

I realized that the classroom culture, as a whole, subtly shifted more in the direction of collaborative kindness. Even when we were not engaged in RT projects, students – over time – became better at working together in general. By semester’s end, they had been in a cast with every one of the students in the class and learned to work with them all. They had learned to compromise – and laugh with – each of their classmates.

I witnessed my kids engage with text and character and plot in a way that they hadn’t previously and, more importantly, I witnessed them making connections to other things they that were reading. The world of history started to become less about facts and numbers and countries they may never see, and more about the dramatic choices of people as individuals.

These things didn’t happen overnight. Nor would I ever say that theater is a panacea that turns a roomful of crazy ravenous monsters into those picture perfect classes that bring you apples and curtsey as they enter your room as I’ve heard tell of in lore gone by.

But it did increase all of my classes’ engagement levels, performance on reading comprehension assessments, ability to collaborate, levels of self-sufficiency, and general feelings of morale and confidence.

It gave the kids one more thing to feel that they were good at. It brought art into the core subjects of reading, writing, and history, and it turned our time together into a time that we all looked forward to.

The part that blew my mind was that it was way easier than I thought it would be. And I didn’t have to spend ten hours writing a thing.

Happy teaching, all you amazing people. Here’s to ending every day with a smile.


If you would like to see the step-by-step info on how I turned movies to RT scripts (and how to access and use them for free, legally. That’s important….don’t go to teacher-jail), as well as how I create groups, handle casting, day-to-day rehearsal plans and reflection/homework activities etc, all that info (and more!)  is available for FREE, send me a message!


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Ebony A Mills

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Hey! I am a tacher of ELA, Drama and History with a passion for getting kids to push their own limits through the realms of performance and public speaking. I'm always working on ways to help teachers incorporate the arts into any and every subject with reusable lesson ideas through my fledgling company,  Geniused Education. Native of sunny California; graduate of UCLA and Boston College; teacher of all things literary; performer of all things comedic; singer of all things jazzy (....secret lover of all things nerdy)

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