Teaching Bias with Movie Trailers

posted Sep 29, 2014, 2:56 PM by Kevin Roughton
What would it take to turn Jaws into a Disney movie?

A whole lot of bias in the presentation.

Teaching bias to middle schoolers is difficult. They get the general concept but learning to look for it and, more importantly, recognizing how it can recolor a document is a challenge. I think it comes from the fact that to look for bias you have to have a deep understanding of the source material and our kids simply don't have that. It is very hard to "read between the lines" of a text when literally just reading the lines is a difficulty for some of them. 

So, lets take something they do have a deep knowledge of and use that as our source. Lets use movies!

There is a small community of creators on YouTube who like to take popular movie trailers and turn them upside-down. Using nothing but clips from the movie and a new soundtrack they manage to make innocent movies like Finding Nemo look like a horror film, comedies like Mrs. Doubtfire look like a slasher film (easily my favorite) and thrillers like Jaws look like a Disney family movie. Showing these recuts along with their original version shows the kids that just by altering the point of view you can completely change the understanding and meaning of a document. 

So, where's the history?

While I'd normally use something like this as the hook to a lesson; here I use it as the closer. The lesson itself is a Close reading about Charlemagne. Students are given an article to read about him. They answer a series of simple questions about his actions and conclude by deciding if he was a hero or a villain. Invariably the class is split half and half. The left side of the class thinks he is a hero. The right side thinks he is a villain. I act stupefied by this split and ask them to explain how the other side could be so wrong. Sometimes (like today) they inject the word bias into their conversations. One student pointed out that the reading was too short and "seemed biased because it only mentioned the bad stuff he did." This brought looks of confusion to the other half of the room who didn't see it that way at all.

How does one explain such a clear split?

Easy - they weren't reading the same document.  In one, the word choice makes him out to be a hero, in the other a villain.

Both cover the same basic events of Charlemagne's life (becoming king, conquering the barbarians, and reunifying the former Roman kingdoms), just with different descriptions and focuses. While obviously extreme this method of introducing bias is very powerful. They can't wait to read the second document when they find out there were two. This opens the door widely to discuss how bias can completely alter our view of a historical event or person. 

That's why I hit them with the trailers. I guarantee they'll go away talking about them. They'll go home and tell their parents who will surely ask "Why would you be watching that in class?" It may take a second but they'll surely remember that they were learning about bias (at which point they will probably tell them about how I "tricked" them with the two papers.)

It is a wonderful, memorable lesson that really is just a deep reading lesson in disguise. No matter how you adapt it I highly recommend using recut trailers to show bias. 
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