REEL LEARNING: Helping Kids Grow from Media Saturated to Media Savvy
By Barbara Greenleaf
There is a great deal of excellent educational material widely available on film today. And no wonder, since everyone agrees that our youth are now accessing information far more readily through visual media than through the written word. The nonprofit organization Avoda Arts was formed specifically to take young people's connection to the world through photography, film and the visual arts and apply it to their Jewish education.
One example of Avoda’s fresh approach is Reel Learning, a series of short, Jewish-themed films aimed at students in middle school through college. The goal of Reel Learning, the organization says, is to use the moving image to “communicate content, build literacy, elicit critical response and inspire an appreciation for the arts." According to the organization’s director, Debbie Krivoy, Avoda Arts seeks to reach young people in their own visceral language, and, through it, teach the media literacy skills that will turn them into critical thinkers. “What we are saying is, ‘When the lights go down, don’t zone out; look upon this as a time for really powerful learning.’"
That Krivoy has long been engaged in curriculum design and teacher education is evident in the program’s outstanding Educator’s Resource Guides. At forty pages, the Guides are packed with historical background, tips on analyzing the filmmaker’s techniques and message, topics for discussion and suggestions for going further. Krivoy says, “We saw a need in the market for short films that teachers could utilize in one classroom session; accompanied by written material that would empower them; and that were afforably priced." Avoda seeks out films of 40 minutes or less for Reel Learning and sells them, with the guides, for only $95 for unlimited classroom use. “I love the fact that these films are short," says David Iskovitz, religious school director of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, New Jersey. “If you show something that’s 90 minutes, the kids get too restless."
Engaging and appropriate
No one gets restless watching Reel Learning’s Pigeon, which, in only eleven minutes, tells an engrossing Holocaust-era story that lends itself beautifully to a discussion of how music and image heighten emotional impact; what is the role of symbols in art; and what the film tells you about the period. Cheri Ellowitz, director of education at suburban Cleveland’s The Temple-Tifereth Israel, says, “I assigned Pigeon for sixth grade studies on the Holocaust and made it part of the curriculum. It’s such an amazing film, and the teachers find the Reel Learning guide useful and insightful. We’re always looking for films with a deep message, but they have to have content that’s appropriate for children. So often a film starts out to be very promising and then there’s a scene that disqualifies it for classroom use. That’s not the case with Reel Learning."
David Iskovitz has shown Reel Learning’s Song of Hannah, a documentary about the poet Hannah Senesh, as well as Pigeon, which he reserves for eighth graders. “Many of our youth are so attuned to video games and everything that’s on their phones that I find we need a little glitz," he says. “These kids don’t even want to watch something in black and white. I have a hundred students in the 8-12th grades who come every Monday night, and we use all the media we can find to engage them. We show a lot of films."
Encouraging young filmmakers
Knowing this audience well, Avoda is always on the lookout for highly engaging material. In another innovative twist, they are encouraging young, independent filmmakers to provide it. Avoda posts calls for submissions at film schools throughout the U.S., Canada and Israel, on internationally known web sites and in selected publications. Once they've chosen a film, they become its educational distributor. Says Nicole Opper, who made Song of Hannah, "Avoda is really to be credited with reaching out to those of us just getting started. They're creating an access point for media artists who would have no other way to get into the Jewish educational world. I'm proud and honored to be part of their program. Avoda is revitalizing Jewish arts." David Iskovitz couldn't agree more, stating, "Avoda is youthful, hip and has a bead on what's going on."