Volume III - 1995-1996

The Creative Connection in Movies and TV: What "Degrassi High" Teaches Teachers
by Jim Ward and Suzanne Lepeintre

       Jim Ward has degrees in drama and ESL from the University of Hawaii and has studied film in Tokyo. He presently teaches in the Intensive and Academic Programs at the University of Washington, where he writes text materials which incorporate film in the ESL classroom. He has presented at numerous conferences.

       Suzanne Lepeintre is an instructor in the Intensive English Program and the Academic English Program at the University of Washington where she is currently working on integrating the Internet into ESL curriculum. She is also studying for a Ph.D. in English focused on computers and literacy.

       Video drama made for the ESL classroom is boring. While there is an abundance of it available for use in today's speaking and listening classes, few of these videos deal with contemporary, relevant issues. The situations presented lack meaningful context and fail to relate to the lives of students. Because they are made with the intention of teaching a lesson rather than telling a story, ESL video dramas lack the reality and originality that spur creative discussion and inspire the imagination. In response to the failure of "made-for-ESL" video, we have developed a set of criteria to enable teachers to choose video "outside of ESL"--real film, the stuff of tv and movies, film which sparks classroom creativity and inspires students' imagination.

Risque but Successful

       For years, intermediate listening classes at the University of Washington Intensive English Program endured the tedium of well-known ESL video dramas and workbooks. Out of frustration, teachers started turning to television and movies. In many ways, TV was an instant success. Episodes were often more risque but also more relevant. The realism of TV shows became a catalyst for the students' imaginations, pushing them to explore how they knew the world around them. They loved it!

A Need for Teaching Materials

       There was a problem, however: with TV and movies, there were no materials. And here we discovered our task: find something good, something enduring, and create materials for it. And yet, not just any TV show would do. Buying a film or TV series and developing classroom materials would require time and money. That tempers enthusiasm for picking just any run-of-the-mill show. Choosing a film in which to invest so much effort is not easy. It has to be topical, timely, episodic and exciting. We wanted a show that realistically portrayed American culture, yet not something so culture-bound it could not be understood. There were so many things to consider, we hardly knew where to start.

       Although programs like "Rosanne" and " The Cosby Show" made our classes entertaining, the culturally specific humor failed to spark meaningful discussion and the clever one-liners didn't provide students with the nuts and bolts language they needed. We continued to search for an appropriate series through a haphazard method of trial and error. It was in this state of excitement and mild confusion that we happened one Sunday afternoon upon "Degrassi High." Made in Canada, this PBS (Public Broadcasting System) series had won awards for its portrayal of the life and times of a diverse group of students. We liked what we saw.

Gripping the Imagination

       Uncompromising and powerful, it gripped the minds and imaginations of students and teachers alike. Here was a drama series, we felt, that cried out for classroom use. PBS put us in touch with the distributor. We purchased 12 episodes and began to write our own materials. That was two years ago. Today, 30 teachers and a thousand students later, "Degrassi High" remains a powerful classroom tool. Why? Because it is a film with a story that wants to be told rather than a lesson that needs to be taught.

Suggested Standards

       Because of this positive response, we feel "Degrassi High" could help set a standard for teachers to use in selecting video drama for their own ESL classrooms. We would like,therefore, to share what we feel is good about the series to help other teachers avoid a time-eating, hunt and peck, trial and error method of searching for an appropriate TV show or film. If our goal with film fiction in the ESL classroom is to inspire imagination and spur creative discussion, we must begin to look at films and judge them on the basis of authenticity, both in the content and the production.

       First, before committing to a video drama, teachers need to ask important questions about the content. A film for the classroom should be well written, socially relevant, and complex. Is the story well written? A good film script is not merely plausible, it compels us to continue reading or watching. Realistic dialogue and situation, along with three-dimensional characters with whom students can feel a strong identification combine to create an accurate portrayal of the target culture. Such a picture of character, family and culture should naturally touch on universal themes which allow students to relate to the story on a variety of levels.

Is the film socially relevant?

       Good content requires a straightforward presentation of topics and concerns to which students can relate. "Degrassi High" covers such heavies as AIDS and safe sex, drugs, teen pregnancy, sexual abuse, sexism, and divorce. Students of Degrassi High also deal with the more personal issues of dating, first love, trust, breaking up, living away from home, study habits, friendship, peer-pressure and self-esteem. Stories and characters which evolve around these subjects provide a framework for discussion and exploration that can benefit both teachers and students. When students can connect issues to their own lives, they are given the impetus to express their feelings and share their ideas. Such films encourage students to examine their own values--they nudge them forward and invite them to speak up for what they believe.

If it is socially relevant, is it also adequately complex?

       A complex presentation attempts to treat all human beings with equal respect, regardless of ethnic and cultural differences. It includes positive stories and images of women and minority groups. In "Degrassi High," we see interracial couples, people with AIDS, teenage mothers, single parents, and the homeless. Complexity, as it is stated here, is important because it allows students and teachers the opportunity to step into the shoes of people who are different. It asks for authenticity in the presentation of a world that is gray and not black and white. It rattles our brains and emotions a bit by not giving us easy answers. It forces us to view characters and issues from a variety of perspectives, and allows and encourages us to discuss and explore. A good film is provocative in that it leaves the viewers with unanswered questions. It sparks their imagination by turning them inside-out and letting them see the world with new eyes.

       Equally as important as the script or content of a film is the production. A story is only as good as the teller. Make sure that the film is well acted, has dramatic tension, is episodic and has redundancy of meaning. Here again, teachers will want to ask important questions before they make a video selection.

Is the film well acted?

       Good acting makes us believe in the character. Each of the actor's movements and gestures, the tone of his voice, the speed with which he speaks, the pauses he makes and the accents and dialects he uses--all ring true. Bad acting makes us feel uncomfortable and embarrassed because we don't, we can't, believe in the character. When Joey and Dwayne fight in the Degrassi High boys' restroom, far from embarrassing us, they have us on the edge of our seats. Good acting makes us forget everything except our concern for the characters and what will happen to them.

Does the film have dramatic tension?

       Dramatic tension is conflict that exists between characters, within characters, and between ideas and emotions. Like good acting, it makes us forget everything but the moment. In classroom techniques like video-drama, whose over-riding purpose should be to provide communicative urgency, making students forget about the language and listen to meaning is crucial. Powerful drama achieves this aim.

Is the film episodic?

       Episodes are small scenes, sketches, climaxes, and dramas within the larger story. Within each 30 minute episode of "Degrassi High," multiple story lines interweave to create many short, two to four-minute sketches. Each sketch is a chapter with a beginning, middle and almost an end--parts of a puzzle which add to a sense of excitement, that tantalize students and make them want to know what happens next. Episodes are incremental. As story and characters grow and continue, students build schema from ever-expanding context, the I + 1 that allows them to acquire form by understanding content. Episodes, by their very nature, create natural breaks, places to pause, reflect, discuss and internalize.

Is there redundancy of meaning?

       Well directed films provide numerous avenues through which we, the audience, can understand a story. Location and scenery, sets and costumes, movement and gesture are some of the many variables that retell the tale and help us to fill in the gaps when our ability to exploit verbal language has been exhausted. If we don't understand it one way, then we can get it another.

       Good video is everywhere but little of it has been made accessible to ESL students. This article is an informal argument in favor of creating textbooks for films, rather than films for textbooks. With the criteria presented here, we hope that teachers will be able to go out and mine the richness of films that already exist. Only then will students get excited about learning language. A teacher's purpose may be to teach language, but the purpose of film in the language classroom should be to tell a story. Learning how to select a good story--so that students can begin to use and explore language in a meaningful way--is the first step.


       The "Degrassi High Text" is a result of many hours of collaboration between Jim Ward, Bill Preston and numerous instructors at the University of Washington. It is written for intermediate and advanced ESL/EFL students. Twelve units correspond to the twelve episodes of the video. The "Degrassi High Text" is still unpublished, but the following rough outline and brief description of a typical unit (Episode 2) might provide instructors with some ideas of how they might organize their own texts for an appropriate video.

Episode 2: BAD BLOOD, Part 2


PART ONE: Before you Watch

1. Setting the Context
2. Sharing Your Knowledge
3. Guessing Meaning from Context
4. Preview Questions
5. Building Vocabulary
6. Listening for New Words and Expressions
7. Making Predictions

       This first section sets the context for the major social issue or topic in the episode and allows students to activate their background knowledge on the issue, set some basic learning goals, preview some important words or expressions, think about some key questions relating to the episode, and make predictions about what they will see and hear.

PART TWO: After You Watch

1. Understanding Detail
       Exercise 1: Putting Names to Faces
       Exercise 2: When Did it Happen?
       Exercise 3: Who Is It?
       Exercise 4: Who Said It?
       Exercise 5: True or False?
2. Understanding New Words and Expressions
3. Discussing Characters and Stories
4. Writing About the Episode
5. Listening for Ideas Exercise
       1: AIDS Workshop Exercise
       2: Condom Machines: Pro and Con
6. Using Language challenging statements with So? Introducing excuses, explanations, or refusing invitations with structures like "It's just (that). . "

       This section contains language skills exercises designed to check students' comprehension of specific details in the episode, such as identifying important characters, events, and conversations, including work on understanding new vocabulary and expressions. These more discrete, focused skills exercises lead into broader group activities dealing with more complex issues, like describing and summarizing main storylines and subplots, and looking at some functional aspects of language from the episode.

PART THREE: Going Beyond the Video

1. Focusing on Culture Activity
       1: Expressing Anger Activity
       2: Michelle and BLT Activity
       3: Calling People Names
2. Focusing on Values Activity
       1: Telling Lies Activity
       2: Blackmailing Someone
3. Discussing Issues
4. Connecting to Community
5. Journal Writing

       Activities in this section are aimed at extending and expanding students' understanding and experience of the specific episode, requiring them to reflect on the issues raised and relate them to their own experience, values, and culture. There are also suggestions for follow-up activities that can be explored within the students' own community.


The Cosby Show. National Broadcasting Company. New York.

Degrassi High. Public Broadcasting Service. WGBH, Boston.
Degrassi High is owned and distributed by Direct Cinema Limited of Los Angeles.

Rosanne. Columbia Broadcasting System. New York.

NOTE: The following sources offer additional information useful to teachers wishing to develop the use of video in the ESL classroom.

Stempleski, Susan. (1987). "Short Takes: Using Authentic Video in the English Class." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (21st, Westende, Belgium, April 12-14,1987).

Stoller, Fredericka. (1988). "Films and Videotapes in the ESL/EFL Classroom." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (22nd, Chicago, IL, March 8-13,1988).

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