From Page to Screen: Moviemaking Enhances Literacy

"The Prince says: 'I can't believe my people are dying. I should go and get my friends and all the food there is in the kingdom, and lock the doors to my castle and we shall survive.'

These are the words a group of high school juniors used to interpret the opening paragraphs of Edgar Allan Poe's short story, The Masque of the Red Death.

The students' highly sophisticated rendering of Poe's dense, descriptive language showed an understanding of complex literature not often found in a large urban high school.

This achievement in literacy is a result of innovative technology that engages the students in moviemaking projects, leading them deep into the core of the texts. The technology tools are iMovie and Story Space, the latter created through an ongoing collaboration of personnel from Northwestern and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).

The high school juniors at Roberto Clemente Community Academy High School are studying works of Poe, Shakespeare and other classical writers in a class taught by Steven Fransen, an energetic instructor, who challenges his students to interpret difficult texts in their own words.

After reading The Masque, students gathered in small groups at classroom computers and used iMovie to create one- to two-minute movies to illustrate their understanding of the story. This TV generation of students took to the task eagerly, sketching out original storyboards, downloading and importing appropriate images from the Internet and editing them into a coherent piece that summarizes the plot or theme of the story or the main events from a particular character's perspective. The students learned to use the technology through trial and error, with intuition and from each other, with Northwestern learning sciences PhD student Ken Rose and project coordinator Claudia Hindo on hand to guide them as needed.

"These collaborative iMovie projects encourage the students to learn much more than simply the use of new technology tools," says Hindo. "The project is more about increasing literacy than the students realize."

For example, one student group wanted to illustrate in their movie the idiomatic phrase "hanging by a thread." At first, they were extremely literal in their Internet search for images and found nothing that fit their interpretation. Next they tried searching with words like "hanging," "noose" and "gallows"— still, not the right images. When encouraged to think more abstractly, they interpreted the author's metaphor to mean "mentally close to the edge," so they tried "rock climbing" and "falling" and retrieved results more aligned with their intended image.

"The technology itself forces the students to go beyond their literal interpretations of the text," says Rose. "They have to interact with the text and internalize its meaning in ways that reading it alone or even producing a more traditional type of literature project, such as a report, usually would not require of them."

"With the iMovies, many students also gain the ability to use allegorical images, metaphors and sound effects to convey the interplay between ideas, words and pictures," adds Hindo. Once the storyboards are complete, students lay down a soundtrack, add titles or narrative and create special effects.

Over two years of research with Clemente students, Rose and Hindo have discovered that the iMovie tool encourages students to apply their own creative solutions to assignments, often going beyond the scope of what the teacher had intended. (The two Northwestern researchers will share the results of their classroom work at the annual International Conference of the Learning Sciences in Santa Monica in June.)

"Making the movies is very motivating," says Hindo, "especially showing them off to other students, teachers and parents." Students are encouraged to keep in mind that the product will serve as a teaching tool to audiences who have not read the work.

After the Poe project, the class tackled Macbeth and learned another, more sophisticated technology tool, Story Space.

The class was divided into five small groups, each corresponding to a particular act of the Shakespearean tragedy. Each group chose meaningful quotes from their assigned acts and paraphrased them in their own words. For example, Shakespeare's words

"Make all our trumpets speak, give them all breath. Those clamorous harbingers of blood and death."


"Let's blow the bullhorns, to give Macbeth the sign of his impending death."

"Where we are there's daggers in men's smiles; the near in blood, the nearer bloody."


"Where we are, men who pretend to be friends plot our death. The nearer we are to our relatives, the nearer we are to death."

After Hindo videotaped students reading the two quotes, the students used iMovie to make mini-scenes of the quotes adding audio and visual effects.

Activating Story Space with chess-like player pieces brings iMovies of Macbeth to life. From left, alba Gomez, Francesca Rivera, Carnell Lyons, Janet Kim, ben Garcia and Claudia Hindo. Photo by Jim Ziv.

The next stage of the project involved putting all the scenes together into Story Space, a dynamic, interactive technology created collaboratively by Janet Kim, a UIC computer sciences graduate student; and two computer sciences faculty, Northwestern's Ben Watson and UIC's Tom Moore.
Louis Gomez, Northwestern's Aon Professor of Learning Sciences and head of the Clemente research team, describes Story Space as a large chess board because it is a grid of cells with "player" pieces that affect the cells in specific ways. The grid serves as a table of contents, in this case for Macbeth, with each cell containing a video clip of the two quotes and related visual and text images.

As Kim helped each group transfer their clips into Story Space, Fransen engaged the rest of the class in interpreting Shakespeare's Sonnet 116.

Asked the meaning of "Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments," one student paraphrased, "Don't let me stand in the way of true love." Another kid asked facetiously,"Was Shakespeare a hopeless romantic? He's always talking about love or death!"

Once all the iMovie clips had been imported into Story Space, it was time for the entire class to interact with the technology and "play" the movie. Students tapped cells with the peg-shaped player pieces to activate such functions as enlarging still images for emphatic effect and moving images around, analogous to the "copy," "cut" and "paste" functions in word processing. Icons on top of the pieces — X, arrow, magnifying glass — identified other functions, "delete," "undo" and "zoom."

Unlike iMovie, which plays a movie in only the way it was created, Story Space has infinite possibilities for manipulation, creativity and audience participation. Rose and Hindo see the benefit of both technologies, however, in increasing the quality and depth of students' literacy. They believe that the design of the iMovie projects and the features of the software tool itself encourage a type of engaged learning not often documented with traditional classroom activities.

Fransen sees implications for these technologies beyond the classroom. He would like to involve his students in service learning projects — creating a film about gun violence, domestic abuse or AIDS awareness and sharing these films with a nearby elementary school. He would also encourage students to create oral histories and share their stories.

Over the course of these projects, the students learned a great deal of literature, became proficient in applying creative solutions to assignments, worked collaboratively, searched strategically and communicated effectively about complex processes — and they had a great time!

A School Within a School
The research described in this article was conducted as part of a larger school reform effort at Clemente High School called the Mathematics-Science-Technology Academy (MSTA), a small school initiative within the Southwest Side neighborhood high school.

MSTA's objective is to develop programs that provide rigorous instruction in mathematics and science, with strong support from the language arts and social sciences, and a focus on the infusion of technology.

The MSTA is a project of the Center for Learning Technologies in Urban Schools (LeTUS), codirected by Professor Gomez. "We have found that students in a small school setting outperform their peers on a number of dimensions, so we are now working to develop small schools throughout Clemente High School," says Gomez.

By Lee Prater Yost
By Lee Prater Yost