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Using Films in AP Human Geography

by Mary Lynn Everhart
Bethel High School
Hampton, Virginia

A Lens for Examining the World
This speech is a token of my deep love and respect
for Koro Apirana, my grandfather.
My name is Paikea Apirana
And I come from a long line of chiefs stretching all the way
back to Hawaiiki where our ancient ones are
the ones that first heard the land crying and sent a man.
His name was also Paikea and I am his most recent descendant.
But I was not the leader my grandfather was expecting
and by being born I broke the line back to the ancient ones.
It wasn't anybody's fault. It just happened.
But we can learn. And if knowledge is given to everyone,
we can have lots of leaders. —Transcribed from Whale Rider, 2002

Using films in the classroom is a great way to teach, and there are a host of reasons to use films in the AP Human Geography classroom.

Teachers can use films to explain, elaborate, describe, or demonstrate concepts. Films can prompt discussion or research, or serve as an introduction to a unit. They can provide a method for directing student learning to a particular discovery. They can be used to validate and give life to concepts.

Not only are films visual, which is important because our students live in an exceptionally visual time, but they are also comprehensive and contextual. They show the big picture. Films are all-inclusive. Films place themes of human geography within real-world settings. Films develop ideas. Students can see the roots of motivation for ethnic conflict, migration, or cultural and economic change.

While there is measurement in the maps we use and the data we examine, there is also a great amount of humanity in the issues connected to the concepts displayed on those maps. Films encourage students to contemplate humanity on an individual scale, in situations where birth rates are high, conflict pervades, revolutions germinate, and women struggle.

In the speech for the grandfather from the film Whale Rider, Pai shares her own female perspective on leadership when she competes to be chief against the wishes of her grandfather and against tradition. This film, like many others, offers students the chance to make critical concepts personal, emotional, and sometimes humorous, thus adding another dimension to how and what students learn.

Steps for Teaching Through Films
The Introduction or "Hook" It is critical to "set the stage" for the film. Tell students something about the film, where it was made, who plays in it, why it was filmed, and why the class is watching the film. Watching with a purpose is just as important for students as reading with a purpose. Investigate and emphasize the physical landscape of the film's setting to help orient students to the location. The location for filming occasionally is not the same as the setting for the film, and knowing when this occurs is critical for accuracy. Also, challenge students to look for a specific piece of information in the film that requires them to be conscientious observers. Some films may require some history or explanation about an event or person portrayed in the film before viewing. Often films are based on books that can be used in combination with film to enhance student learning. For instance, students could easily read Whale Rider, written by Witi Ihimaera, before the viewing to add another layer to the learning experience.

While Watching the Film
Always monitor the class while showing the film. Generally, when the teacher is interested, students are more interested in the film. Modeling the behavior you want students to exhibit can make the viewing a better experience. Sometimes I ask students to take notes, but this is my least favorite strategy to use while watching films. A more effective method is to ask students to make two separate lists -- one of physical characteristics and one of human characteristics -- to direct their focus on the content of a film, not just the entertainment. For instance, when my students watch Whale Rider, I ask them to make a list of gender-related issues in the film. In which situations is Pai's gender a problem? Also, stopping the film during the viewing to discuss a critical event, provide explanation, or direct students' attention to an event in the film can be effective.

During debriefing, students should review the film and share their reactions. You can use guiding questions, but first listen to what the students think about the film without any prompting. Give students time to formulate their own opinions about the film. Afterward, ask students to compose questions about the movie. Ask what questions are left unanswered for them. What questions did the movie inspire? Ask students to predict what might have happened by providing "what if" scenarios. Have them speculate about the impact of an event or concept in the film. Did any events in the film relate to their own experiences?

Concluding Activities
A scored panel discussion can be used to debate the concepts illustrated in a film by having students support opposing perspectives on an issue discussed in the film. For instance, have students speculate about the future of the Maori culture. Suggest to students that the island would make a great location for a vacation resort. Divide the class and ask one group to develop arguments that promote development and the second group to develop arguments that oppose it. Have students discuss the impact of economic development on the people and physical landscape of the island. Ask students how each character in the film would likely respond to the economic and social changes resulting from the impending development. Require students to support their arguments using evidence from the text and other documented resources.

Use a mind-mapping exercise to organize the events of a film, either all of them or just events that provide evidence of the concepts being studied. This is also a good strategy for reviewing the movie before participating in a scored discussion or responding to essay questions. For more information on mind mapping, see:

Mind Maps: A Powerful Approach to Note Taking
JCU [James Cook University] Study Skills Online: Mind Mapping

Essay questions can help students recap the concepts from the film. The questions for the film Whale Rider address issues of cultural landscapes, gender issues, and folk culture.

Whale Rider -- Discussion Questions

  1. Describe the cultural landscape seen in the film. Give specific examples of how the landscape expresses the folk culture of the island.
  2. How does the conflict between the grandfather, Koro, and Pai's father, Porourangi, express a threat to the Maori culture?
  3. Discuss the cultural forces that compel Pai and her grandfather to believe and act as they do in the film.
  4. Based on the events of the movie, compare the role of men and women in the Maori culture. Cite specific incidents where gender was a catalyst for conflict.
  5. In the film, the grandfather makes a reference to wanting his son to help his people. In what ways do you think the Maori people need help?
Whale Rider -- Project Ideas
  • Research the Maori culture and identify its origins and diffusion. Describe how the Maori culture compares with those of its closest neighbors. How has the Maori culture been affected by Western culture?
  • How accurately do you think this film reflects the lives of modern Maori people? Support your answer with research about the culture, government, traditions, and current issues related to this group of people.
Whale Rider

Connecting the concepts from the film to the textbook is another way to use film in the AP Human Geography classroom. Ask students to locate in the textbook (provide page numbers) the concepts illustrated in the film. Have students record what the author says about the concept. If more than one human geography text is available, students can compare their findings by creating a matrix of responses in different books about the same concept.

Films That Can Be Used in AP Human Geography
These are only a few of the films that fit the topics and concepts outlined in the AP® Human Geography Course Description. Many others can be added to this list.

  • City of Joy (contrasting cultures, rural-to-urban migration, corruption, poverty). See:
    Lesson Plan -- City of Joy
  • A Day Without a Mexican (migration)
  • Gandhi (history, culture, self-determination, colonialism)
  • Good Bye Lenin! (diffusion of culture, east/west divide)
  • Hotel Rwanda (ethnic conflict) -- The Frontline episode titled "Ghosts of Rwanda" provides background for the film:
    Frontline: Ghosts of Rwanda
  • I Dreamed of Africa (gender issues)
  • In America (migration, population, AIDS)
  • The Motorcycle Diaries (political, culture, development)
  • My Big Fat Greek Wedding (culture)
  • The Secret of Roan Inish (folk culture) -- For a review by Roger Ebert, see: Rogerebert.com: The Secret of Roan Inish
  • The Snow Walker (diffusion of disease, contrasting cultures)
  • The Story of the Weeping Camel (agriculture/herding, nomadic life and customs, folk culture) -- For a review, go to:
    Wbur.org: The Story of the Weeping Camel

    National Geographic has a Web page for the film:
    National Geographic World Films: The Story of the Weeping Camel

    National Geographic also provides a lesson plan for using the film:
    Xpeditions: Lesson Plans --Weeping Camel: Finding Ritual in Our Daily Lives
  • Whale Rider (gender issues) -- The film's Web site:
    Whale Rider
Tips for Using Films in the Classroom
  • It is not necessary to show a film in its entirety. With Good Bye Lenin! I show only an excerpt, such as the part where the mother is scheduled to come home from the hospital after having a heart attack. The son and daughter go to great lengths to re-create the East Berlin of the mother's memories (while she was in a coma, the Berlin Wall fell and the ensuing changes occurred), but they have a difficult time when the West continues to make unwelcome inroads into their world. It is rated R for language and sexuality. While I cannot show R-rated films in my classroom, I can and do use appropriate excerpts because the movie has much to offer about the communist system in Eastern Europe and the diffusion of Western culture. Also, English subtitles in this film give it an added dimension for students. To hear an NPR review of the movie and a discussion of the impact of globalization, refer to:
    NPR: "Good Bye Lenin"

    Although The Motorcycle Diaries has much to offer students, it too is an R-rated film because of language. Teachers need to take this into consideration before deciding to use this film, which documents Che Guevara's road trip through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela as a young man. The human and physical landscape is breathtaking, showing a face of South America that students may never witness: the people, their lives, and their history. For NPR's review of this movie, see Film Looks at Twentysomething Che Guevara
  • Teachers may choose to show only excerpts from A Day Without a Mexican, not because of its rating, but because this movie tends to be a bit repetitive, and showing only selected parts may be more effective. This film is a bit controversial and will provide opportunities to talk about a multitude of immigration issues -- legal versus illegal immigrants, employment, immigration policy, culture, and more -- while entertaining students. NPR provides an interview with the director and cowriter:
    "A Day Without a Mexican": A Latino Mocumentary
  • Including supplemental materials can enhance the film experience for students. For instance, the New York Times article linked to below discusses the building of the Mongolian Millennium Highway. Students can read this before or after viewing The Story of the Weeping Camel. Reading this article after viewing the film will augment students' understanding of development, transportation, and infrastructure issues in less-developed countries. Or students could read the article before viewing the film to contrast examples of folk culture seen in the film. You can view the New York Times article at:
    Nalaikh Journal; Mongols Go from Camels to Jeeps and a Superhighway
Internet Resources for Using Films in the Classroom

The Geography of Film Theater
For a scholarly geographic perspective of films, visit this San Diego State University Web site. You'll find a collection of essays and other resources that examine the geography of films.
The Geography of Film Theater

Greatest Films/Film Search Help
This page, found at the Greatest Films Web site, has eight search tools all in one place for locating information about films.
Greatest Films/Film Search Help

Internet Movie Database
This Web site is a one-stop location for all of your movie needs. It provides a variety of information about old and new films.
Internet Movie Database

Mid-Continent Public Library
This Web page connects films based on books to the name of the book and the author.
Mid-Continent Public Library

Teaching Psychology Through Film, Video
On this Web page, Raymond J. Green provides information for using films in the psychology classroom that can easily be adapted to other disciplines.
Teaching Psychology Through Film, Video

Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute
Located at this site is a compilation of units titled "Geography Through Film and Literature" that provides a comprehensive look at understanding geography through film in the classroom.
Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

("Pai's Speech" from Whale Rider. Dir. Niki Caro. South Pacific Pictures, 2002. Used with permission.)

Mary Lynn Everhart teaches world geography and AP human geography at Bethel High School in Hampton, Virginia. She has been a geography teacher since 1998. She earned her graduate degree from Old Dominion University and her undergraduate degree from Christopher Newport University. She is a member of NCGE and Virginia Geographic Alliance. She also is a reviewer for the Green Teacher Magazine and a reader for the AP human geography exam. She has completed the APHG training with Martha Sharma in 2003 and has attended several national workshops for APHG teachers. As a teacher fellow with the Virginia Center for the Teaching of International Studies since 2002, she has participated in several professional development summer institutes and facilitated 2 workshops for teachers. She is currently a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards candidate. She has contributed to the Geography Teacher magazine.

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