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Multimedia Moment: Exploring Actuality Films in the Classroom

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This post was written by Tom Bober, the Library of Congress 2015-16 Audio-Visual Teacher in Residence. In the coming year, Tom will be writing regular posts exploring different aspects of audio-visual materials in the Library’s collections and their use in the classroom.

Film can be challenging to work with in the classroom. There must be a convenient way to show it to students. It takes a specific amount of time to view, and students often gain from multiple viewings. The benefits of analyzing a film in class must be worth the time spent with these resources.

The movement of film allows students to look at interconnected moments and interactions between people and place that cannot be seen otherwise. A teacher may ask students analyzing a photo, what they think happened before or after that particular moment, but with a film, students can see it. The unique benefits of film can lead to more interconnected observations and reflections and deeper questions.

One type of film that can demonstrate this is an actuality film, which depicted daily events. The first actuality films, created by Thomas Edison’s film company among others, were shown in the mid 1890’s. They were immediately popular and remained so for the next ten to fifteen years. Unlike a documentary film, these actualities do not tell a story but give a brief view of a moment. The actuality films that survive can provide historical and cultural context for that time period. Several actuality films in the Library of Congress’ collection show moments on city streets like Herald Square in New York or Market Street in San Francisco.

Champs Elysees. Edison Manufacturing, 1900
Champs Elysees. Edison Manufacturing, 1900

Paris' magnificent avenue, Champs Elysees - from Place de la Concorde to Arch of Triumph, Paris, France. Underwood and Underwood, 1900.
Paris’ magnificent avenue, Champs Elysees – from Place de la Concorde to Arch of Triumph, Paris, France. Underwood and Underwood, 1900.

Comparing a 1900 film of the Champs Elysees in Paris with a photograph from the same year may provide a context to explore the benefits of studying these films. Students can use the Primary Source Analysis Tool to document their observations, reflections, and questions. Select questions from the Analyzing Primary Sources and Analyzing Motion Pictures teacher’s guides to guide student analysis.

As students compare the film to the still image, they may notice that the film depicts the pacing of the traffic, the interaction of the horse and carriages, bicyclists, and pedestrians, and the ebb and flow of street congestion. It pairs nicely with the photo which shows the detailed attire of the people of the day.

Students can watch multiple films to look for patterns or differences between the films. Comparing street views, for example, students may notice the changes in transportation: automobiles; horse-drawn trolleys; and electric trolleys. This could encourage further questions and exploration around related topics such as the invention of the automobile or the economics of transitioning technologies. These actuality films can be used by a variety of grade levels. While younger students may be comparing “then and now,” older students may be studying the growth of cities in the late 19th and early 20th century or the rise of industrial America.

Searching historic newspapers can help answer questions students may generate during their film analysis. Chronicling America provides access to historic newspapers often created at the same time as the films. For example, students can use newspaper advertisements and articles to continue learning about the transition from using horses to using electricity to power trolleys.

Other actualities depict a variety of topics such as “cattle breeding, fire fighters…calisthenic and gymnastic exercises in schools…parades, swimming, and other sporting events.” These films can add cultural depth when studying events during this time period, give a rich historic view to analyze, and encourage students to visually explore in a way they cannot with other sources.

Please share your successes in teaching with historic films.

Comments (2)

  1. This is what I am looking since,and it will help me extremely as a teacher.
    As a teacher, I want use with this audio visual aids which can help the teaching and learning goes smoothly but we lacks the material and support from the authority.
    Which advice will you help me with in order to achieve my aims?

  2. Having access to technology and accessing films and video on that technology can be a challenge in the classroom. Even without a projector, films can be viewed on a computer screen by groups of students. In addition, many primary source films available from the Library of Congress can be downloaded. When playing, they will not be subject to slow internet speeds or internet filters.

    I’ve also found that inviting in my administrator into the classroom to watch students analyze historic film using the analysis tool mentioned in the post can give them a positive perspective on how audio-visual materials can be used in the classroom.

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