Thinking Like a Filmmaker: Notes on Visual Literacy Learning and Civic Engagement

with Florence Neale1

Introduction: “Okay, folks, it’s time to think like a filmmaker!”

What does it mean to think like a filmmaker? More specifically, what does it mean for third graders to think like filmmakers? This question is tackled regularly at Amherst Cinema, through the See-Hear-Feel-Film (SHFF) program. SHFF began at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York in 2001. The curriculum, developed by Anne Marie Santoro, a program designer and producer of educational media, is designed to teach visual literacy skills to third graders 2. SHFF uses short films from around the world to help third graders “become more active, thoughtful viewers of visual media; understand how to write with clarity, confidence, and joy; improve their creative expression and storytelling skills; lead more examined lives” ( In the fall of 2011, SHFF came to Amherst Cinema, a non-profit, member-supported movie theater in Amherst, Massachusetts. In its first year, the program reached 18 schools and 991 students across the Pioneer Valley, and in four years, now reaches 24 schools and 1300 students.

A key element of the work at Amherst Cinema is the relationship built between the third grade participants and the educational facilitators who lead the groups. This narrative is drawn from three years of SHFF work at Amherst Cinema, through reflection journals and participant-observation notes compiled by students from the University of Massachusetts Amherst who work as educational facilitators at the Cinema. Work as an educational facilitator represents a unique opportunity for university students to connect classroom learning with civic engagement. Drawn from UMass Amherst students’ experience, this essay shares how SHFF is organized, what role it plays in youth learning, and how civic engagement can contribute to greater community connection.

Young people and visual media learning

Who are young people in the process of cultural production and what are they learning? With its emphasis on filmmaking and storytelling, See-Hear-Feel-Film (SHFF) teaches young people valuable visual literacy skills, including the ability to make sense of, produce, interpret, design, and understand how visual images function in a broader social context 3. When exploring the fear and fascination that often accompany new media use, Drotner and Livingstone argue adults debate “the cultural values that society should promulgate to its children” 4. Making sense of visual culture can help young people, their schools, families, and communities make better sense of the mediated world in which they live. Visual literacy intersects with cultural studies in a shared effort to explore the mechanisms of cultural production and cultural practices 5. Exploring this intersection invites us to see “the ways in which meanings are established, negotiated and circulated” 6. To focus particularly on youth is to make complex sense of their role as active audiences. The cultural studies approach to studying children “begins from the assumption that audiences are indeed ‘active,’ but that they act under conditions that are not of their own choosing – and to this extent, it challenges the tendency to equate ‘activity’ with agency or power”7. Young people are part of the structures and systems within which they live and have input in making sense of those structures and systems. When given the opportunity to share their input, young people may be able to see themselves as active agents and take greater ownership and control of their learning.

Young people learn through the visual, yet this can be easily taken for granted because it is something with which we are so familiar. Because of the overload of messages, Serafini writes, “we often take for granted the ways in which visual images play a role in our daily decisions and experiences. We have become desensitized to how visual images affect our thinking and how we view ourselves”8. Children learn from the media and Davies notes that learning is expected to be useful, including the education of “established codes and value of their society, whether to reinforce or subvert” [Davies, Maire Messenger. “Reality and Fantasy in Media: Can Children Tell the Difference and How Do We Know?” In The International Handbook of Children, Media and Culture, edited by Sonia Livingstone and Kirsten Drotner, 121-36. London: Sage, 2008.]. For young people, learning from the visual provides a framework that invites them to see the structure and multimodal organization of visual messages. Serafini writes that to more effectively develop students’ skills, “teachers need theoretical, curricular, and pedagogical frameworks from which to draw upon” 9. This is what SHFF provides: a theoretically-grounded project that works within third grade curricular expectations and includes students as active learners in the process. It draws directly from students’ comfort with the visual even as they may struggle with traditional literacy. Many of the participants are recent immigrants and English language learners, so traditional reading and writing are often alienating to them. Through SHFF, visual literacy is an entry point to traditional literacy practices.

Young people are exposed to a great deal of visual messages, but this does not mean they pay attention to all of them. What they may be missing is a focused attention on developing the ability to interpret and analyze messages10. The global reach of digital media “has been instrumental in recontextualizing children’s media practices” both for active users and creators of media as well as those who are audience to the myriad texts and images available 11. Film is a potent visual medium, especially for young people. Both capturing a youth audience and capturing a valid representation of youth on screen are tasks of utmost importance for the film industry 12. If given the opportunity to see on film people like them, or people whose struggles are akin to their own, young people may gravitate to cinema as a way to work through their own identity projects.

Despite the importance of the visual – and of visual media – there is little research on what is learned. As Drotner and Livingstone observe, “children’s media cultures have come to assume a central position in many public debates regarding cultural values, social norms and expectation for the future. The same cannot be said for research” 13. Jerslev writes that questions about who watches youth films and how young people experience youth films have not been researched. Buckingham points out that to make the most comprehensive sense of the complex interactions between young people and the media, research needs to explore multiple levels of the context of young people’s environments. This is what Amherst Cinema and SHFF aim to do: provide third graders with the opportunity to learn about movies and storytelling while also approaching traditional literacy from a position of support and alternative entry.

How the program works

I (Allison) was first introduced to the See-Hear-Feel-Film (SHFF) program when the education director, Jake, approached me with the opportunity for my students to act as educational facilitators in its first iteration.  SHFF draws on volunteers from the local community as well as from the surrounding 5-colleges. Since the fall of 2011, participation as an educational facilitator has been a key part of my advanced Communication courses and it is an experience that students consistently evaluate as positive. Over the course of three years, UMass Amherst students have contributed significant organizational and structural improvements to the running of the program. SHFF represents a rare opportunity for University students to feel the impact of their classroom learning immediately and recognize that their voices and contributions matter.

The full curriculum for third grade students is taught over the course of five units, two of which take place at the cinema. The remaining three take place in the students’ classrooms. In the first unit at the cinema, students watch two short animated films. The films, Trompe L’oeil 14 and My Life with the Wave 15, are used to teach the students that films are visual stories that come from one’s imagination and that film production is an intentional process. Trompe L’oeil, at just four minutes long, tells the story of a worm who (appears to) live in the country and when his home suffers a disturbance, the “camera” pulls out and the viewers see that the worm actually lives in an apple that sits on a cutting board, in front of a picture of the country; the cutting board rests on a table looking out a window onto a cityscape. My life with the wave is the story of a boy who visits the ocean and brings a wave home with him, only to be convinced by his parents that the wave will be happier back at the beach. A particularly salient point about this film is that a 12-year-old boy created it, only about 3 years older than the third grade students attending the cinema.  Students learn story structure and create poems and then develop a storyboard for their poems.

The participants are led in a discussion about both films after they are shown, during which they answer questions about the films and discuss relevant film vocabulary. Through this early discussion, the youth participants shift from passive attendees to active participants in the process of analysis 16.  Participants then have a popcorn break, which always proves thrilling: they enjoy the snack, move around the theater, and can engage the facilitators.  The participants are broken up into small groups of 5-8 with 1-3 volunteers per group, depending on the number of participants and volunteers present. They are led in a creative activity where they build a poem using word association: one participant says a word, then the peer beside them says a word they associate with the previous word, and it continues in this way around the circle. This process allows the participants to begin thinking creatively. Then they plot out a movie, similar to the films watched, through a storyboard construction. Each group receives a title, such as Our Life in an Enchanted Forest or Our Life with a Lightning Bolt, and each participant receives one piece of the storyboard to complete, by constructing one sentence and one drawing to put together a story.  The groups then present their stories to the rest of the class.  Jake also shows them a piece of the storyboard for the movie Ice Age, to show that what they are doing is actually an important part of making real films.  Each participant receives a journal when they leave to continue their writing activities on their own time.

In the second unit at the cinema, students watch Going back home 17 and The color of paradise 18 to learn how conflict and characters are created in a story. Students learn about internal and external dialogue, then develop and act out a “sequel” to one of the films viewed. Going back home tells the story of a little girl who must move from her city home to a country home in preparation for a new baby, a move she is not happy about. The clip watched from The color of paradise focuses on a young blind boy who waits for his father to pick him up from school. While waiting, the little boy recognizes the sounds of an animal in distress and is able to save a baby bird from the claws of an approaching cat.

In Unit Two, neither film is in English. The projectionist reads the subtitles so the participants can focus on the action in the films instead of trying to read. The Color of Paradise is set in Iran and is in Farsi; Going Back Home is in Danish.  Participants are asked to guess what languages are spoken in Iran and Denmark prior to viewing the films.  Jake uses a beach ball designed with a globe to show participants the geographic location of the films. The third grade students are also taught about conflict and the difference between inner and outer dialogue.  They learn that in film it is possible to feel one thing and say another.  After a popcorn break (which the students remember fondly from their previous visit), they are then again broken up into small groups of 5-8 with 1-3 volunteers per group. The groups are assigned the task of coming up with a sequel to one of the films viewed in class. The sequel scene must include some type of conflict and inner and outer dialogue.  Certain participants are given lines to speak that are spoken aloud by the character, and other participants are the character’s “thought bubble” and speak aloud the inner thoughts of the character, which are meant to conflict with what the character is saying out loud. The students then present their scenes to the rest of the class.

Youth participants

The youth participants always appear excited to be at the theater. For many, it is their first time in a movie theater and, by Unit 2, they like returning to the space. Occasionally the participants are a bit fidgety when they arrive at the theater.  They have been on the bus for a long time, are excited to be in a movie theater, and are excited to do something different from the regular school day.  They go from sitting on the bus to sitting in the theater, which can be a bit stressful.  Jake is cognizant of this and allows the young students to get up and stretch if they seem overly restless.  This environment is so different from their classrooms, much of their excitement is expressed physically. Especially in the spring, when they see a volunteer they remember from the fall session, they are visibly excited.

The day of the week, the weather, and with whom the participants interact are factors in their activity and behavior.  In general, if it is a Friday the participants are much more energetic and excited for the weekend.  If the weather is bad, the participants tend to take a little longer to focus their energy.  If the students are interacting with the university facilitators, they seem to want to work to impress them and be seen as “cool” by the older students.  The youth participants practice their social skills with the university facilitators, seeking common ground and opportunities to share.  They enjoy chatting and the popcorn break is an important time for bonding.  If the youth participants have a substitute teacher, they are less likely to be attentive and focused. The participants behave differently if there is more than one school at the program on the same day; they appear to be more respectful of each other since they are interacting with students they do not see on a regular basis.

The various demographics of different classes/school districts also appear to influence the experiences and behaviors of participating youth. In general, See-Hear-Feel-Film (SHFF) reaches out to underserved, at-risk youth, with a large population of recent immigrants and English language learners.  Because some students move and switch schools with high frequency, they may attend multiple sessions at the Cinema within a year.  SHFF also reaches out to students with special needs, especially ADD and ADHD learners. The opportunity for non-traditional learning is recognized as  beneficial for students who do not “fit” the regular classroom curriculum expectations.

There are fewer youth participants from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and when they are in the cinema, the undergraduate facilitators and participant observers note differences that emerge. These students, coming from highly focused (and better resourced) schools, were better prepared for the program and more knowledgeable of film terminology, as well as slightly more advanced in their basic reading and writing skills and general vocabulary.  Some of these participants dropped hints about their level of privilege, mentioning possessions like iPhones, tablets, or video game consoles.

In their reflection journals and participant-observation notes, university student facilitators make note of dramatic differences between these youth participant groups, especially those who struggled in under-functioning schools. These students still know a considerable amount of film terminology, because even though some had never been to a movie theater before, they watch TV and movies at home.  These participants often have more difficulty with reading and writing skills, and do not discuss expensive possessions like those mentioned by groups with greater socioeconomic privilege. Over the course of three years, several local hardships, including a severe and unexpected October snowstorm (2011), Hurricane Irene (2011), and a school shooting (2013), had grave impact on young people’s lives and home security.  One boy had been abducted during a school shooting the previous semester and educational facilitators were made aware so as to be more sensitive to his needs. Participants of lower socioeconomic status convey a stronger sense of independence and autonomy in their daily lives, sharing details about walking home alone from school, being from divorced families, or having exceedingly overextended parents.  Some of the topics that emerge in conversation have included the struggles of being separated from their parents who are incarcerated and those who remain in home countries, sending their children to live with extended family members.  All of the participants openly discuss their lived experience and willingly bring both school and home experiences into the guided conversation at SHFF.

Overall, the youth participants are always very excited and eager during the program. They occasionally are so excited to be in the theater, they forget to pay attention and are chatty during the films or when Jake is talking.  Jake is always particularly aware of the students with special needs who struggle with focus, and works with the volunteers to support these participants.  Youth enjoy more freedom during SHFF than in their regular school day, and they especially enjoy the creative freedom.  Jake makes it very clear that no idea is “wrong,” and the participants respond well to this inclusion.  When a response is off-topic or tangential, Jake skillfully reigns in the comment and ties it back to the subject. The third grade students consistently feel respected and valued in their experience.

One area of concern that emerged is the tendency of boys to dominate the girls in small group activities.  For example, when it was time for girls in a group to say their sentence as part of the storyboard project, male peers would talk over them and tell them what to say in their sentence.  This had the effect of making the girls more timid in their active participation.  In their reflection journals and participant-observer notes, university student facilitators comment that the boys tended to add plot twists and action to the stories while the girls tended to focus on adding characters.  Boys introduced violence to the stories, occasionally wanting to kill off the characters the girls created, which upset the girls who also tended to focus on creating happy endings for the stories.  Ultimately, a rule was established that no killing could happen in the stories.

College facilitator role

Universally, the college-aged educational facilitators who participate in SHFF express that it was one of their best experiences at UMass.  Many said they wish there had been opportunity to participate in the program earlier in their college career, since some were graduating and did not have another chance to volunteer.  Others said they would be coming back to the program to volunteer again.  For some, participation in this program led them to change their career path to one that works more closely with children.

One of the things undergraduate facilitators learned was the importance of media literacy for young children.  They could see the youth participants were learning the basics of how movies are constructed and that this would be important knowledge as they grew older.  They were impressed with Jake mentioning the name of the director to the participants since this taught them that movies are created by people, which is the first step to understanding how media are constructed. The facilitators learned leadership skills through guiding the groups of participants and watching Jake, whose sustaining passion and ability while administering the program was impressive to them.  Facilitators also mentioned gaining an appreciation for the knowledge and understanding of third graders.  Many seemed to expect the children to have very little knowledge about films and to not be very observant film viewers; however, they were impressed by the participants’ knowledge and observational skills. The facilitators mentioned surprise at the difference in the knowledge between the participants of different schools and towns.

Having university-aged educational facilitators is excellent for this program. The youth participants look up to the “big kids” and really enjoyed connecting with them, particularly during popcorn breaks.  Sometimes the facilitators would mention being nervous going into the program because they had not worked with kids before and did not know what to expect. However, after their first sessions, the facilitators mentioned a growth in their confidence and an eagerness to go back and continue volunteering. They mentioned affection for the participants and that they thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to work with kids.

Strengths and struggles of the program

Jake is the main strength of the program.  He is highly praised and is excellent at working with the youth participants. He works very hard to remember all of their names, which models a great deal of respect. Though he’s seen all of the films he shows during the programs many times, he always appears excited about and interested in them, which inspires the participants. Observing Jake leading the participants during the discussion was inspirational for strategies to use while leading the small groups.  Jake is also able to recognize when a part of the program needs to be changed, and is open to suggestions to that effect from the volunteers. For example, Jake changed the titles of the stories the participants create from My Life in an Enchanted Forest to Our Life in an Enchanted Forest, in response to the suggestions and observations of the volunteers; this leads to a better sense of collaboration and teamwork in the creation of the storyboard.  Based on suggestions, Jake now hosts post-workshop debrief sessions and added in the beach-ball globe so the youth participants could make sense of where the films they were watching took place.

The program is highly praised by all of the UMass students. They say that they want to volunteer again and that it was one of their best experiences at UMass. They loved working with the youth participants and they felt the third graders learned a lot during the program. Many UMass students said that this program made them see the importance of instituting media literacy in schools as a regular part of the curriculum. Working as an educational facilitator becomes a key entry on their resumes and a salient conversation point in their job interviews.

Many of the towns who have children who participate in the program have a high population of bilingual/English-as-a-second-language residents.  Specifically, many participants spoke only Spanish or Spanish as a primary language.  Since this program is oral and print dominated, there were occasionally problems with participants who could not speak or were not comfortable speaking English. While SHFF offers an alternative entry to traditional literacy, greater support for English language learners would be beneficial.

While most attention is paid to student behavior, there are concerns with teacher behavior in the theater as well. The classes whose teacher had prepared them using the guidelines Jake provides were much more knowledgeable about filmmaking and much more observant while watching the films. When the teachers were involved and engaged during the presentation the participants followed their lead and were more eager as well. However, teachers who were more controlling, who told participants how to behave and what to say when creating their stories, led to an oppression of the students’ creativity, which undermines the point of the program.  Some teachers appear to use the time at the Cinema to do their own activities, which can be distracting to both youth participants and facilitators.  A desire has been expressed for teachers to be more proactively involved in preparing their students for their time at the Cinema as well as staying actively involved themselves.

At the start of its fourth year, SHFF suffers from its own popularity; university students, who once made up the most consistent and well-structured cohort of volunteers, are now often sidelined because of the transient nature of their school schedule.  SHFF runs from September through April and follows the public school calendar, which is not equally matched by the university schedule or student availability. Sometimes the university students are only able to observe, which, while valuable, does not give them the hands-on experience they crave.

Conclusion: Next steps

The third graders who participate in See-Hear-Feel-Film learn that they are active, not passive, viewers.  They leave the program with an understanding of basic film terminology, including animation, projectionist, inner/outer dialogue, geography/different cultures as well as an understanding of conflict, both between people and internally. They learn that sometimes you can think one thing and say another.  These young learners develop understanding of creativity and storytelling, the similarities and differences between books and movies, as well as basic aspects of stories and how they appear in films and movies.  The program gives them an outlet for creativity in writing and illustration that they may not get in their regular classroom because of limited time and curricular expectations.  The participants learn collaboration with each other in creating the stories, and develop confidence in public speaking during their presentations.  Ideally, this will extend beyond the third grade and into other areas of learning.  A continuation of the program could be beneficial for students to see how their learning can extend beyond the movie screen.  Participants leave the program excited about their work and sad that it is over.  They leave saying they want to create movies of their own and want to write in their journals; the learning is so integrated into the creative experience, they do not even realize “learning” has occurred.  Their creativity is sparked by the program and they are excited to continue their explorations.

The university student facilitators are initially intimidated by the prospect of leaving behind the familiarity of their own classroom and campus.  By junior or senior year, they are confident in their college routine and often nervous to move beyond it – even as they know they need work and internship experience for job and graduate school applications.  They are not fully aware of how to transfer the skills they learn to other professional opportunities. Undergraduate facilitators are emboldened by the opportunity to have a direct impact on their community and this is a valuable experience that takes them beyond campus.  Undoubtedly they learn a great deal from the experience, but do not necessarily have the skills or recognize how to apply that learning to other experiences.

Like much other work in media literacy, the impact of SHFF remains largely anecdotal and qualitative.  Those who participate in the work attest to its value and influence, but there is little quantitative analysis that measures what, exactly, the youth participants are learning. For both the youth participants and college-aged facilitators, this is an experience that takes them out of their regular classroom experience and solidifies their learning in an experiential way.  While the program is, thus far, universally appreciated by the college facilitators and the youth participants, but this does not prove long-term learning.  Specifically for third graders struggling with language and literacy development, SHFF offers an alternate route to learning, which is extraordinarily valuable.  However, we need to understand more deeply how these skills may or may not impact their experience and learning in the context of high-stakes testing that currently marks the face of public education.


  1. Florence Neale was the student researcher on this project
  2. Falinski, Joanne. “Program Evaluation Study: See-Hear-Feel-Film Program.” Pleasantville, NY: Jacob Burns Film Center, September 1, 2005.
  3. Serafini, Frank. Reading the Visual: An Introduction to Teaching Multimodal Literacy. New York: Teachers College Press, 2014.
  4. Drotner, Kirsten, and Sonia Livingstone. “Editors’ Introduction.” In The International Handbook of Children and Media, edited by Sonia Livingstone and Kirsten Drotner, 1-16. London: Sage, 2008.
  5. Buckingham, David. “Children and Media: A Cultural Studies Approach.” In The International Handbook of Children and Media, edited by Sonia Livingstone and Kirsten Drotner, 219-36. London: Sage, 2008.
  6.  Buckingham, David. “Children and Media: A Cultural Studies Approach.” In The International Handbook of Children and Media, edited by Sonia Livingstone and Kirsten Drotner, 221. London: Sage, 2008.
  7.  Buckingham, David. “Children and Media: A Cultural Studies Approach.” In The International Handbook of Children and Media, edited by Sonia Livingstone and Kirsten Drotner, 232. London: Sage, 2008.
  8. Serafini, Frank. Reading the Visual: An Introduction to Teaching Multimodal Literacy. 1. New York: Teachers College Press, 2014.
  9. Serafini, Frank. Reading the Visual: An Introduction to Teaching Multimodal Literacy. 2-3. New York: Teachers College Press, 2014
  10. Serafini, Frank. Reading the Visual: An Introduction to Teaching Multimodal Literacy. New York: Teachers College Press, 2014
  11. Drotner, Kirsten, and Sonia Livingstone. “Editors’ Introduction.” In The International Handbook of Children and Media, edited by Sonia Livingstone and Kirsten Drotner, 1. London: Sage, 2008.
  12. Jerslev, Anne. “Youth Films: Transforming Genre, Performing Audiences.” In The International Handbook of Children, Media and Culture, edited by Sonia Livingstone and Kirsten Drotner, 183-95. London: Sage, 2008.
  13. Drotner, Kirsten, and Sonia Livingstone. “Editors’ Introduction.” In The International Handbook of Children and Media, edited by Sonia Livingstone and Kirsten Drotner, 3. London: Sage, 2008.
  14. Panke, Ingo. “Trompe L’oeil.” Germany, 2001.
  15. Chavez, Jairo. “My Life with the Wave.” USA, 1998.
  16. Davis, Richie. See-Hear-Feel-Film: Amherst Cinema program promotes kids’ literacy, creativity. Amherst Bulletin, October 16, 2014. Avail:, accessed October 24, 2014.
  17. Horsten, Michael. “Going Back Home.” Denmark, 2000.
  18. Majidi, Majid. “The Color of Paradise.” Iran, 1999.