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Teachers College, Columbia University
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Reeling in Students

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Ellen Livingston

Ellen Livingston

Ellen Livingston is exploring the power of documentary film in social studies education

By Zoe Singer

Social studies may be unique in requiring students to not only participate, but actually care about topics under discussion and develop an informed opinion.

Ellen Livingston, a student and instructor in TC’s Social Studies and Education program, sees documentary film as an ideal tool for provoking such engagement.

“Meaningful education should have a strong affective component,” she says. “People become involved in causes not just because of knowledge, but because of feeling and experience, and film is a great way to do that.”

Yet while classroom film use has increased dramatically since the days when teachers booked the school’s crotchety film projector, Livingston’s doctoral research indicates that educators may be shying away from good material.

Like, for instance, the infamous Rodney King video.

“People, particularly African-American people, have always known there’s a problem in the relationship between African Americans and the police, so it’s not that the brutality in the video was absolute news,” Livingston says. “It was more that people saw this video and it made them angry, so they expressed it in a very dramatic way. And that’s what film can do.”

Educators may be leery of tapping into students’ anger. But to Livingston, a society that confronts such issues in the classroom is far less at risk for doing so in the streets.

A former journalist who often covered education, Livingston came to TC to earn an M.A. One of her professors, Margaret Crocco, who is also Coordinator of TC’s Social Studies and Education program, subsequently tapped her to write a chapter for “Teaching The Levees,” the award-winning curriculum keyed to the Spike Lee documentary on Hurricane Katrina.

Since then, Livingston has written discussion guides for Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a stirring 2008 documentary by Abigail Disney about how women in Liberia rose up to end that nation’s civil war, and Let Freedom Swing, a collection of educational videos combining the study of American democracy with a focus on the democratic character of jazz.

At TC, Livingston has been teaching a course called “Teaching about Africa Using Film.” To create lesson plans on apartheid, her students have located clips from 1960s South Africa in which people express diametrically opposing viewpoints. As with all of Livingston’s work, the class is questioning “the mythology that documentary films show the whole truth because it’s all caught on camera.” But as future teachers, they’ve got an even more immediate interest in the historic footage.

“It’s interesting stuff,” Livingston says, “and something they can use in the classroom.”


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