Integrating Short Films into Russian Language Courses

This post is written by John Lyles, Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian, Department of Modern Languages & Literatures.

My project idea has its origin in my Fall semester evaluations.  I am a new hire (Fall ’11), and when I took over second-year Russian during my first semester, I did not want to make any radical changes until I had a better understanding of the textbook, my students, and the way the course worked.  One aspect of the course was 3-5 minute oral presentations every unit.  My section leader, Sasha Prokhorov, spoke with me about the various ways I could go about handling these, and I chose to have my students present on a given topic in front of the class.  Given the number of students in my sections, this would take upwards to two days.  Plus, even during the semester, my students complained about the difficulty of memorizing a page-and-a-half of narrative text about themselves, their families, or their home towns.

The majority of my evaluations featured some kind of complaint about these presentations.  In response, I decided to go a different route in the Spring semester and have my students work in pairs, write dialogues, and then perform them in front of the class.  The benefits of a performed dialogue include the use of more conversational, every-day speech and intonation, the ability to be creative, and dividing the work between two people, to name a few.  I had had success with the occasional dialogues I had my students write and perform in class in the fall, so I thought it would be a good alternative to the presentations.  There would still be a formal written component, but it would be more exciting for everyone.  It was Sasha who suggested videotaping these dialogues and putting them up on our youtube channel.  From there, it was an easy decision to have my students perform the dialogues only for me, rather than in front of the class, but then have them watch all of the dialogues online as part of their homework and write up a short summary of one of them.

My students took to the dialogues immediately, and they quickly began showing off a flair for the dramatic, some interesting creativity, and a natural desire to play the same characters in more than one dialogue.  What if, I thought, instead of having each dialogue a stand alone performance (albeit, one related to each unit’s grammar and vocabulary), I had my students create a semester long dialogue, a part of which would be shot with each unit?  It is from this that my idea for the project sprung.

Second-year Russian students are going to make a movie next fall.  The task is somewhat daunting from my perspective, but my plan is to create several skeleton plot lines from which my students can choose.  I won’t tell them what to do, but I will give them a story arc – a beginning, middle, and end around which they can fill in the gaps with their own energy, excitement, and creativity.  They will know from the beginning that the first scene they shoot during the introductory unit will need to set up the next scene, and the next, through unit four of the textbook.  They will need to think about character development, plot lines, setting, and props, all while writing and creating text in Russian, using the new vocabulary and grammar from each respective unit.

The challenges are many, but I think the pay off will be still greater.  Students will not only have something else to get excited about, but they will have greater motivation to learn the new vocabulary, work on their pronunciation and intonation, and remember what they learned from unit to unit.  Videotaping each group will also give them a concrete representation of their hard work and knowledge that they can show their family and friends (if there is time, I will have my students create subtitles for their films).  At the end of the semester, I will hold an awards ceremony, a mini-Oscars, if you will, in which awards in various categories will be handed out based on the votes of the other Russian section faculty.  And by awards, I mean real trophies for “best actor,” “most creative story arc,” etc.  If my current students are any indication, next year’s group will enjoy this project as much as me!