Addressing Racism in America in the EFL Classroom through Film
In some EFL contexts, students may be relatively unaware or misinformed about the history of racism in the US. Specifically, over the last couple of years, I have had several friends from various countries pull me aside ask me rather sheepishly about racism in the US – most of them knew that it can be a difficult, uncomfortable subject, but as many of them were relatively unknowledgeable about the overall history of racism in the US, they weren't quite sure what to make of some of the racial tension that unfortunately still affects America today, and they didn't know how to react to it. Some countries’ citizens have very little contact with actual Americans and many of them base their understanding of Americans and American culture solely on a small amount of media, which doesn't always paint an accurate depiction of reality.
A great way to introduce history, culture, and the problem of racism in America is through a couple of well-made films about American in the 1900s that focus on racism and/or tell stories about black Americans. Many of these stories feature grossly overlooked pieces of history and culture, and we do our EFL students a great injustice if we skip over certain pieces of the American story and experience just because they are difficult subjects to talk about. Anyone can learn valuable lessons from these films, and EFL students can get an appropriate introduction to of some of the darker moments of American history.
Of course, sitting your 2rd
grade EFL class in front of Twelve Years a Slave
is probably not a good introduction to race relations in the US, but gently exposing your older/more advanced EFL students to some of the tougher issues in American culture may be very helpful for them in understanding the big picture of the American experience. Thankfully, film is a great way to introduce difficult topics in context before you discuss these topics in class. Here are 6 American movies that touch on the subject of racism that you might consider showing your class:
1. Driving Miss Daisy
2. The Help
3. Remember the Titans
5. To Kill a Mockingbird
6. Hidden Figures
There are, of course, many other excellent films that touch on these same issues, but I hand selected these since these movies are a little less intense and might be more appropriate for a student audience. Regardless, please preview any movie you intend to show your students yourself before you make them watch something to make sure that it’s a good fit for your class! Regardless of their level (unless they are very advanced students) you will likely need to find a version of your film with subtitles, especially since most of them feature AAE and/or heavy American Southern accents, which your students may be unfamiliar with or have trouble understanding.
Below, I’ve included a couple of activities you can do with your class before, during, and after the film to generate discussion and ideas for short essays:
Pre-viewing task: Watch the film trailer to one of the six films above and have your students write a short summary of the trailer and have them state what they think the movie will be about and how they think it will climax and resolve itself in the end.
TIP: As the teacher, view the film beforehand and create a list of important words with clear definitions from the film that your students won’t know – give them this list before you show them the film and give them any other additional contextual information that might be helpful for them. For some of these films, a short history of the time period or the location of the film may be helpful – for others, a short lesson on the topic (NASA and space travel for Hidden Figures
, baseball and American football for 42
and Remember the Titans,
respectively, etc.) before viewing the film will help the students understand the film more easily and at a deeper level.
During-viewing task: Have the students make a list of all the words they don’t know during the film. Have them send you their lists and compile the most frequent/important vocabulary words into a list with thorough definitions of those words. Discuss the terms in class. It is likely that there will be some historical or slang terms that they will not be familiar with – discuss these in detail.
Post-viewing task: After the film, have a discussion period about what you and the students just watched. You will have to come up with some questions yourself depending on which film you choose to show, but here are some sample questions that are broad enough to go with any of the six movies mentioned above:
Were you surprised by anything in the movie?
What was the main theme of the movie? What was the film’s message?
What lessons did the characters learn in the movie?
What did you learn about American culture in the 1900s?
What parts of the movie made them angry, sad, or happy? Why?
What was your favorite scene from the film? Why?
Afterwards, have your students write down short answers to the questions you discussed in class (you can present these questions on a handout that they can take home and complete on their own time), or assign them a short response essay to the movie by having them pick one or two discussion questions and elaborating on them in their paper. VariationsThe Sneetches:
For younger students, students at a lower proficiency level, or for students in schools that do not agree to let you show a film during class time, have them read Dr. Seuss’ children’s book The Sneetches
. Briefly discuss key vocabulary, but focus on having the students discover the themes of the story. What does the story mean? What lesson was Dr. Seuss trying to teach? How does this story mirror the real world? How can we fight against discrimination? There is also an animated short film version of the book that your students may enjoy (no subtitles, unfortunately): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPhOZzsi_6Q Addressing Racism in America in the EFL Classroom through Music
: Many schools are quite likely to take issue with playing content such as N.W.A’s “F*ck the Police,” Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” or “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” to address the situation of racism in the US, but music is a powerful teaching tool and there is a lot to be learned about American culture and racism in American rap music. “By the Time I Get to Arizona” contains enough content to fill several classes. While controversial, the song addresses some very important topics and the music video alludes to several important moments of the Civil Rights Movement, including the Civil Rights Movement protests, Rosa Parks on the bus, the 1963 Birmingham movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.,
and more. If your school is fine with you playing explicit lyrical content in class (perhaps in some select higher education EFL settings?) teachers can explain how and why American rap in the 80s and 90s was so groundbreaking, bold, and controversial, and perhaps create a dialogue with the students.
Public Enemy - “By The Time I Get To Arizona” : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrFOb_f7ubw
Public Enemy - “Fight the Power” : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kj9SeMZE_Yw
There is no official music video for N.W.A’s “F*ck the Police,” but audio/lyric videos can be found online,