Reading Media: How are Students Watching?


In teaching media and communications in high school for nearly 12 years now, the meaning generated by popular media such as film and television always seems to be a barrier for students. Unlike English studies, which students embrace as legitimate, the conversation of television programming, mainstream film or popular music, continues to be viewed as entertainment. It’s undeniable that we are entertained when watching Luke Cage dismantle thugs on Netflix or when a squad of cowboys bring justice in The Magnificent 7, but within all of this, its urgent to ensure that meaning is extracted.

Recently in conducting an interview for a teacher resource that I developed titled “The Catholic Film Reader” for the Catholic Curriculum Corporation, I had an opportunity to conduct an on-camera interview with Anne Lancashire, professor emeritus of English and Cinema Studies at University of Toronto. In chatting with Dr. Lancashire (who single handedly developed contemporary cinema studies at the UoT in the early 80s), we exchanged similar stories of students’ refusal to look at popular media beyond entertainment and within the realm of the political. However, as Dr. Lancashire notes, popular film lives out of the political conversation.

Here’s a video below of Dr. Anne Lancashire addressing this very notion.

When it comes to our students, are we teaching them to read when they’re watching or listening for that matter?

Recently I took Grade 11 and Gr. 12 Communications Technology students to a screening of Antoine Fuqua’s re-make of The Magnificent 7. The opening film of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, its premiere and consequentially marketing was grounded in the conversation of diversity. The goal of the screening was to challenge the students’ respective and understanding of genre filmmaking and whether or not the film was as progressive as the folks at TIFF proclaimed.

The students read the film as forward thinking for these main reasons:

1. The leader/hero was a black man; whereas the typical western has a white hero.

2. There was a strong heroine who was not afraid to fight like a man.

3. There was an indigenous person who was a hero.
From the student lens, deeper reading can take place.

1. Yes, although Denzel is the leader he becomes entrapped within the “black man as mentor ” role that’s typical of action cinema. Because of his life experience he’s both father and teacher. This is evident in films such as the Lethal Weapon series, Rocky series and Denzel’s most recent Antoine Fuqua collaboration The Equalizer. Furthermore, it’s really Chris Pratt’s white hero who sacrifices himself (literally) to protect his friends and the innocent townspeople. In this, the idea of black heroism is not as deep as marketed.

2. Yes, the female heroine holds a gun and uses it with proficiency. However, she in dress and camera framing is a continuous subject of attraction. As such, although she uses a rifle she is very much sexualized and positioned within the male gaze of both camera and cultural context.

3. Significantly, much has been said about the progressive narrative of indigenous representation in the film. However , at deeper reading, the narrative is still trapped in stereotype. From being a pun of ‘savage’ jokes at dinner and comedic references to “scalping” at a card game to being predominantly voiceless, the character is still trapped within a characterization of action. Not much is known about him, other than his loyalty and warrior ability. This character really represents a lost opportunity for the filmmakers to place the frame of the narrative in a unique voice. Rather than merely being a support to the team, this character could have retold the story in flashback and spoke about how the the narrative impacted him. Instead, his sole purpose was to jump rooftops like a comic book character and shoot bow and arrows with the proficiency of an Avenger or Justice League member. Like Tonto of The Lone Ranger, the character is nothing less than a “trusty sidekick.”

As noted on the Media Smarts website under Common Portrayals of Aboriginal People,
“For over a hundred years, Westerns and documentaries have shaped the public’s perception of Native people. The wise elder (Little Big Man); the drunk (Tom Sawyer); the Indian princess (Pocahontas); the loyal sidekick (Tonto)—these images have become engrained in the consciousness of every North American.”

Post – Screening:

With the aboriginal voices as the focus of the screening conversation, a Skype call was held with Elizabeth Edgar Webkamigad (Baawaating Family Health Team Manager) with the goal to ground the indigenous representation of the film to colonial history and the impacts of discrimination in Canada. As an indigenous woman, mother, educator and mental health professional, Elizabeth’s Skype call, which took place directly in the movie theatre, challenged students to be empathic and also aware of the stereotypes that exist both within the Canadian cultural landscape and importantly within popular culture. The conversation forced students to recognize that the representation of the indigenous character in the film is layered and rooted in real history.

Here is an excerpt from the Skype call.


In the end, its urgent to ensure that real conversations are taking place and that students within media-based courses are not just watching; that they’re reading and making viable connections. These connections shape who we are and how we see the world.

Posted in Media Literacy and Pop Culture, Movies and Television | Tagged ,

Coming Soon: The Catholic Film Reader

The Catholic Film Reader  Proposal

With sincere thanks to the Catholic Curriculum Corporation for their forward vision to fund a project that speaks to critical literacy through the mediated lens, The Catholic Film Reader will be released later this fall/early winter. The resource looks at popular Hollywood cinema through a societal and political lens, while making connections to the core Gospel values of: Faith, Service, Courage, Justice, Reconciliation, Hope, Love and Community.  Considering that students are readily and excessively interacting with media and visual texts through mobile technology, it really is the perfect time to create a teacher and student centric resource that allows for movies to be screened in class for meaning.

As I am currently adding the finishing touches on the resource, before final submission, and I’m thrilled at the idea that teachers can leverage The Catholic Film Reader to engage students in deep conversations about narrative, culture, faith and identity. Geared towards Gr. 9 – 12 Religion classes (but suitable for Gr. 7 and Gr. 8 as well), the films explored are both entertaining but deeply provocative as well.  From Gravity to E.T. and The Hunger Games, the resource, will provide novice teachers with a framework to teach film as it needs to be taught: as a  medium for popular conversation around shared and lived ideas. We need critical citizens and this resource promises to be the “why and how” of  reading film through a academic framework.

Speaking through a production lens which I also specialize, the technology is meaningless without story. Recently, I took my 5yr old daughter and 3yr old son to see Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot. Embedded within the Hollywood spectacle of hyper – CGI graphics and defying musical score,  was a story of female empowerment , rebellion and a revisionist approach to science. Women, as the film tells us, can “do” science too. That “doing” is at the heart of the story. Within the world of science, where the female busters are framed as “frauds,” by their male counterparts, a critical reading of the film is urgent . As we walked out of the theatre , my children and I talked about meaning. We talked about what women do today and the “glass ceilings” they continue to break and how the film is connected. Although, they are young, at a very basic level, they understand that “girls can be Ghostbusters too.” Now, as a Catholic educator, it is important to take that conversation and embed our faith.

Excitingly, embedded within The Catholic Film Reader, which will be available to schools across the province as a Desire 2 Learn import and in PDF form, are expert voices in both faith studies and film criticism. As such, the resource has been produced in great collaboration and promises to be a viable educational entity. Film is more than a classroom “filler.”

I’ll be presenting The Catholic Film Reader for the first time at When Faith Meets Pedagogy on Friday October 28. Please join me for a conversation about film and faith.

Here’s an example of some of the excerpt voices included in the resource. Along with these videos, the resource provided interactive lessons and learning activities.

Stay tuned for the official release . I’ll share once it’s available on the CCC website later this fall / early winter.

Warm and special thanks are extended to Linda Vandeven (London District Catholic School Board),Melinda Ferrara (York Catholic District School Board), Susan Nigro – Perrotta (Toronto Catholic District School Board), Stefania Lista, Dr. Dru Jeffries and Dr. Anne Lancashire, who made incredible and valued contributions to the project.

Posted in Gospel Values, Media Literacy and Pop Culture, Movies and Television | Tagged , , , ,

Targeted Skills Development Matters


As a high school teacher, I can openly assert that much of the conversation around assessment is grounded in a post-secondary conversation. The culture of assessment in high school, for the most part, is still focused on a self-proclaimed awareness of what is needed and expected in university or college. As such, assessment is cemented in content; what students supposedly need to know in order to be prepared for their next educational step.

Here’s the problem: The post-secondary experience that many high school teachers experienced may not be the experience that is presently taking shape. “Preparing” students as educators might proclaim may not be grounded in authentic practice. In a culture where the notion of “traditional” is beginning to evaporate a major universities, its time to re-assess how, why and what we assess at the high school level.

Today’s Reality: To fully prepare students for post-secondary, whether it be college of university, is to ensure that an understanding of content does not overshadow the need for transferrable skills. We need to ensure that students are active learners, innovative and are able to collaborate, self-regulate, communicate effectively, organize etc. As such, the learning skills that are often overlooked in courses (and let’s be honest  – a second thought on the provincial report card) need to be intentionally taught and evaluated. I wonder how many students really know what those learning skills are. More pressingly, how many class teachers speak to those skills or can make reference to Growing Success as a resource to contextualize meaning?

To “prepare” our students is to ensure that skills (not just content) is intentionally taught. A student who can self-regulate and is organized can work to gain content knowledge at their own level. Equally, being a “master” of content does not mean that a student can effectively collaborate – an essential skill within a global and connected economic and social landscape. These skills matter.

Take for example this true life incident: I stand in line at Canadian Tire. Ahead of me is a gentleman who is growing frustrated with the teen cashier. The teen, rather than addressing the costumer,  openly ignores him so a conversation with a visiting high school friend can be concluded; the big talk was Gr. 12 exams. Once the gentleman  loses his patience and gently asks for the cashier to concentrate on the task, the employee chooses to be rude, indifferent and continues to hold a side conversation. The man looks at me in disgust as he bags his own items and walks away. The cashier continues with the conversation as I approach. 

This is the problem! This high school student, working as a cashier, could not self-regulate. There was not only immaturity on display but importantly an inability to understand time and place. 

In her writing titled Targeted Skill Development: Building Blocks to Better Learning, Dr. Maryellen Weimer notes amongst the challenges of teaching at the post-secondary level is the need to manage content delivery with “targeted skill development” and also acknowledges that “few learning skills develop well without explicit instruction.” Now, these skills may differ from those on the Ontario provincial report card, but the need to address skills are paramount. How can we assess them if we are not intentionally and strategically targeting them?

The End is Really the Beginning: Now that the much needed summer break is on the horizon, it’s important to disengage, refresh and approach each new school year with a professional goal. For me as a new department head, I want to be an authentic instructional support. To do so, I have to ground my own goals in the reality that skills matter. Perhaps, this is just the beginning of my next annual learning plan.

Happy Summer!

Posted in 21st Century Learning, Education, Educational Leadership, Uncategorized | Tagged

Streaming Scream: Why Horror Matters


Scream returns to Netflix weekly. This alone is an annoyance. A show like Scream is perfectly binge worthy. I indulged on the first season over two very late nights and looked forward to the continued narrative of a small town, with seemingly perfect people, living the brutally violent and exploitative consequences of terrible social misgivings. In essence, the series, like the films that inspired it, makes for a perfect lesson in genre.

Why does the horror genre matter?

Perhaps the must urgent of genres (and one grounded in rich cinematic history –                 Dr. Calagri, Nosferfatu and really all of German Expressionism), its seems to have blurred into “pulp” rather than the critical conscience is deserves. This is what Stanley Kubrick was striving for with The Shining. To ensure that the horror cinema was truly horrific and grounded in the real of our everyday. As shared by Barry Keith Grant, in Screams on Screen: Paradigms of Horror, “Horror movies aim to rudely move us out of our complacency in the quotidian world, by way of negative emotions such as horror, fear, suspense, terror, and disgust. To do so, horror addresses fears that are both universally taboo and that also respond to historically and culturally specific anxieties.”

This is where Scream the series continues from the the under valued Scream 4, Wes Craven’s opus about the degrading sensibilities of Generation Z and social media induced celebrity. As in season one where it all begins with a recording of Audrey, a teenage lesbian bullied online and in person for her sexuality, season two begins with the continued obsession of streaming, social media and the need to be seen and heard

Historically and Culturally Specific Anxieties:

Perhaps more than anything, the Scream television series is concerned with our shared cultural need to document all aspects of our lives. The killers documentation and need to stream (as with Scream 4), like Barry Keith Grant notes, aims to “rudely move us out of our complacency.” Although the killer is directing their own narrative of death the audience as with Noah’s insensitive pod-cast about the killings of season one, does exist. This is the explosive problem of our time. We have a shared obsession with seeing and being seen. From Facebook to Instagram and You Tube reaction videos, we are documenting and sharing at an excessive rate. Its that documentation and disconnect from aspects of reality that the killer is grounded in (their reality grounded in horror is painted with blood and violence).

The Classics:

For an exercise in the fear and anxiety of the horror genre, watch or revisit the following.

  • George A Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead
  • John Carpenter’s original Halloween
  • Kathryn Bigelow’s horror/western hybrid Near Dark
  • Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan
Posted in Media Literacy and Pop Culture, Movies and Television, Netflix | Tagged , ,

Why I take my Kids to the Movies.


Imagine this scene:

A five year old girl and her soon to be three year old little brother argue outside of a movie multiplex. The brother argues that Alice can’t be a ship Captain because she’s a girl. The sister asserts that he didn’t understand the message of the movie. “Alice can do anything… girls can do anything. There’s no such thing as impossible.” The sister then goes on to make a critical connection between Alice and Judy Hopps in Zootopia  (who’s parents displaced her within a gender bias framework – my words –  not hers). The conversation continues as we drive home and I  moderate the ideas shared. Not only do we talk about Alice Through the Looking Glass and Zootopia but the importance of being respectful of people, to be aware of others’ feelings, to appreciate difference and to embrace and advocate for equality.

This is why I take my kids to the movies!

If you were to meet my kids, they will share reflections on many of their hobbies, retell family adventures and undoubtedly express their love of the movies. Now, this is a love like another other interest that began with a parent (I’m to blame in this case.) It’s a cinephile world that I selfishly integrated them into at a very young age. For each child, the exposure to the theatre experience was abnormally young. My daughter was nine-months old when she sat through her first theatrical film and my son equally the same age.

In there time going to movies, the experience has transitioned from “junk food buffet,” to cultural experience. Now, don’t get me wrong, we still indulge on the sweets, but their ability to watch with etiquette, understand visual literacy, decode meaning (at a very basic level) and ask many questions (I stress many), reinforces a growing maturity that speaks to their generation (Generation Z).

In fact, I assert that their growing understanding of media literacy is of great importance; comparable to my daughter learning how to read, write and work with numbers. For some people I know and passively interact with at the movie theatre itself, they are bewildered that my children can sit through an IMAX 3D movie like Alice Through the Looking Glass with very little fuss. In fact, upon the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens I took my two year son to a matinee and other attendees commented on how surprised they were to see him calmly watching the film. The only time he became vocal was at visual and auditory cues of Kylo Ren; understanding the base value of his character being evil like Darth Vadar. Quietly, many questions were asked and I tried my best to give meaning that he would understand.

Visual Literacy:

Considering Generation Z is the generation born into technology and who have lived in a time where the internet always existed (and is a human right under the United Nations), the need to appreciate the importance of visual literacy, digital storytelling and the constructive nature of media is urgent. Like working through Guided Readers, young people must interact with mediated stories in an active way and learn how to read them. The experience can only be active, if parents deeply engage their children in meaningful conversation. We as parents must appreciate that media artifacts are littered with privileged perspective. At a time when Donald Trump garners all eyes and ears with his cultural profane sensibilities (or lack thereof), real conversations must be had, even if only a very small seed of understanding is been planted and begins to root. 

Our Next Movie:

Without shame – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle 2: Out of the Shadows.

We’ve been watching the 2014 reboot recently and some interesting questions have emerged.

They include:

  1. How can the Ninja Turtles be good if they’re  violent?
  2. Why does each Ninja Turtle look different?
  3. Why does Mikey smile while on the billboard at the end of the movie?

Now, I just have to come up with suitably age appropriate answers. Considering its a Michael Bay production, that may be a problem. 


Posted in Film Theory, Media Literacy and Pop Culture, Michael Bay, Movies and Television, Star Wars, Uncategorized | Tagged , ,

Thinking 1st. Skills 2nd. A Media Lit Reflection


I often write and speak openly about the need to engage in a deep and critical conversation of media studies. Undeniably we all engage with media within a rapid and evolving milieu. Although this is truly the case as evident with the continued demand and growth of mobile streaming, gaming and social media, there seems to be a lack of focus on critical studies and more a flavour for “creation” and digital skills. On the surface, I can appreciate the appeal of digital technology from this “hands on” perspective. Students love to “do” and as teachers the exercise of integrating technology to “engage” students if fruitful.

Importantly, within the media literacy conversation and when looking at a tech- integration framework that is sparking and overly simplistic App culture, the focus on digital skills is displacing the need for authentic media literacy as critical study. Twitter is littered with this evidence; tools being used but for what meaning? Our shared focus needs to recognize that media literacy, like all other forms of literacy, must be engaged with in deep ways. As an entity that defines and shapes our collective experience more than any other mode of value sharing, why aren’t we actively talking more about all things media? Why as the most urgent mode of communication is broad-based media literacy not given its due? Simple: because its so accessible on the surface –  its meaning is devalued.

The conversation must go deeper!

Just last night as the culmination of student learning, over 300 people attended a showcase of student original short films, movie trailers, commercials, animations and print media at a Cineplex theatre. The event titled Ignite, an end goal that all students work towards throughout the course of the year, spoke to and celebrated the true convergence between media and digital literacy. The two differ but must become aligned. As illustrated last night within a dynamic and shared experience, the students learned not only technical skills that are transferable but more pressing the ability to shape meaning and narrative through a critical understanding and application of media pillars that include; race, gender, identity, class, ethnicity etc.

The conversation must begin with literacy!

Making film and other media products in an active and meaningful way is to be well-read. This was proclaimed last night by Canadian director Jerry Ciccoritti – the event’s keynote. In his address to students and members of the audience, Jerry spoke of the need to be a “film buff” before being a filmmaker. Like him, the students must be well versed in form, genre, language and style etc. This begins with an active and intentional conversation around, not just media artifacts like film and television, but recognizing that our shared experience is all based in narrative. Our daily interactions are opportunities to be critical participants and extract meaning. In many ways, life is very much a mediated canvas; it’s constructed. It comes together in different pieces, within diverse perspectives, is shaped and experienced.

Conversations must be had!

Today in my Gr. 10 Communications Technology class we had a rich conversation about horror cinema through the lens of Wes Craven’s Scream (1996). Excitingly, the film was a completely new experience for the students as its grounded in the everyday and not a fantastical narrative as evident with films such as Insidious and The Conjuring. Something like Scream, grounded in the tradition of Halloween (1978) and Nightmare of Elm Street (1984) speaks to a domestic (as in nationhood) conversation around horror as a genre exploitive and reflective of lived anxieties and fears. As such, in speaking to students about Scream, their reactions to Wes Craven’s meta lens spoke to their keen interest in wanting broader conversation.

Not just a horror film for fun, we looked at the text as Craven’s interruption and reflection of the genres preoccupation with male driven violence; violence that is an extension of archetypical American values of manhood. This is to say that maleness as murderer in a slasher film like Halloween is indicative of the displacing nature of the American social space.

Within this thinking, Craven openly critiques the violent nature of maleness in multiple scenes in the film and empowers the females to take control of the narrative. This is especially evident in the characterization of Gale Weathers (portrayed by Courtney Cox), who as a reporter covering the story of murder in a small American town, has mediated power. She constructs meaning as a reporter – the story is told through her lens. This is significant, as Hollywood narrative is typically driven through a male gaze. Within the meta (self-aware) text of Scream, the media voice is female. Equally, unlike other horror films where the female victim is saved be a male hero, two woman stand as heroes at the end. Both victimized but not passive or defeated. This is only one reading of the film, but speaks to gender within contextualized in narrative but lends to a greater conversation about female equality and gender displacement. This is media literacy.

Start Reading!

As with this example of Scream, we have to shift the conversation back to media literacy. Yes, my students have grown in their technical skill (as evident in the examples below), but they are thinkers first.

Posted in Film Theory, Media Literacy and Pop Culture, Movies and Television, Technology Education | Tagged , ,

Do you watch Canadian film? You should.

a master class

Last week I was schooled by award winning Canadian director Jerry Ciccoritti.

If you teach film / media or proclaim yourself a cinephile then Jerry Ciccoritti is a name you should know and recognize. If not his name, you surely recognize his diverse and prolific body of work  His television directing credits include Networth, TrudeauLives of the Saints, Shania Twain: A Life In Eight Albums, Dragon Boys and most recently the hilariously sharp Schitt’s Creek with Eugine Levy. His feature films, influenced by his deep appreciation and knowledge of cinematic history include Blood and The Resurrection of Tony Gitone. In all, his voice within the Canadian film and television space matters

Over a lunch last week where we chatted about television , cinema and education, one thing was pronounced; he knows what the hell he is talking about when it comes to history, criticism and unsurprisingly production. From topics ranging from the American Golden Age of Television to challenges with the Canadian narrative, I sat over lunch and and received a master class in both cultural and cinematic studies. Importantly, one note struck a specific cord and reinforced much of my classroom teaching. Humbly is was a quiet vindication of sorts; having messaging aligned with such a creative force as Ciccortti.

The Canadian narrative struggle, why homegrown productions tend to be challenged when it comes to audience, is because Canada unlike the US lacks a creation myth. “Blood on the streets” as Jerry noted was not spilled in Canada. As such, key mythic images and values have not been constructed and ingrained within our shared cultural psyche. Underlying a canvas painted with multiculturalism,  exists a broken thread that does not binds us. Unlike America where mythic images of the west and notations of patriotism are embedded within a shared thinking, the Canadian narrative is not uniformed or even fortified.

This is why a Canadian film conversation matters. A myth of sorts needs to be discovered in either form or style. As such, organizations like Reel Canada which offers fantastically rich educational resources or the NFB with their Campus for education are paramount. They matter so the conversation can be had. Although we do not have a shared myth, we as Canadians do have shared stories. The stories, define who we are as individuals and help build and navigate conversations around identity, community, and nationality.
From the education lens, it all comes down to intentionality. If you teach media , the arts or humanities, how intentional are you in providing for a Canadian discourse? It should be of urgency to dialogue about who were are and are not. I’ve been prophesying this in my own right for sometime. From 2002 – 2006, I curated both a Canadian film society and short/feature film festival in the Niagara region. A challenge in a region known for tourism and cultural assimilation. The goal with these grass root initiatives was to challenge a shared sense of the mainstream. Films like Goin Down The Road, Mon Oncle Antoine and Ararat tell real Canadian stories ; not blockbusters with international stars but intimate portraits of experiences that are uniquely Canadian.

In the end this is a deep conversation; layered, complex and contentious. In the era of Batman v. Superman and all things Fast and Furious, little Canadian films do matter. I suppose, we all just need to pay a little more attention.

Thanks to Jerry for the master class.

Posted in Education, Media Literacy and Pop Culture, Movies and Television, Uncategorized | Tagged , ,