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Showing a Movie in Class? Help Your Students Develop Active Viewing Skills

Have students write their own movie review with this fun lesson plan and worksheet.

Jeff Knutson | December 7, 2021

The words "movie day" probably evoke fond memories from our own childhoods: Teachers rolling out the TV/VCR cart; the classroom lights flickering out; everyone scooting their desks to get a better view or a seat near a friend; and, if we were lucky, maybe even the smell of freshly microwaved popcorn. Today, when it comes to watching movies in school, the technology has changed (no more squinting to see a tiny TV in the corner!), but our students love movie days just the same -- if not more.

There's magic in the shared experience of seeing a great story unfold on the screen, together, in the same room.

Sometimes showing a movie in class is just the right call. Some movies can help illustrate big, complex ideas. Others help us explore detailed topics in ways that just aren't possible otherwise. And the best movies help us enrich students' learning about the much wider world outside of our classroom's walls.

And to top it off, classroom movies are a great way to help students practice their media literacy skills. Active viewing is a skill that doesn't always come naturally, but it's something all students can practice and learn. And in today's media-saturated world, kids need all the help they can get when it comes to different ways of thinking about what they're seeing on screens of all sizes.

Movie Review Lesson Plan: Help Your Students Become Active Viewers

Use this lesson plan and worksheet to help your students practice their active viewing skills, no matter what movie they're watching! We've designed this lesson and activity for middle school, but it could also be great for upper elementary or even in a high school class. Feel free to adapt this lesson (and the included Google Doc movie guide) to suit your specific needs.

 Tip!

Need help choosing a movie? Common Sense Media has reviews and age ratings for over 10,000 popular movies! Even though the site is aimed at parents and families, it can be a very helpful guide in selecting the right movie for your classroom.

Before selecting any movie for your classroom: Be sure to use your professional judgment, along with any guidelines your school or district may already have in place. You know your curriculum, your students, and community best!

Concerned about copyright? Guess what? You're probably okay! Check out our article Teachers’ Essential Guide to Showing Movies and Videos in the Classroom for more information about how U.S. copyright law applies to movies in classrooms.

Prep for teachers

Objective: Students will be able to build active viewing skills and write a movie review.

  • First and foremost, preview any movie before you show it in class. It might sound obvious, but this is such an important step! You'll be able to see if the movie's appropriate, but also whether it's a good fit for your students' learning. You'll also be able to find some key scenes to discuss (see below for some tips on this).
  • Make a copy of the Write a Movie Review! handout. Before distributing to your students, feel free to customize the handout to your class's needs. (Note: You'll probably want to add a bit more space for students to write in their answers.)
  • Review the lesson plan and talking points below (including the active viewing definition) for yourself before class starts.

 Tip!

As you pre-screen the movie, make note of some key scenes where you'll pause and discuss with students. 

Looking for some examples? Check out our SEL movie guides for the movies Inside Out, Whale Rider, and Minari where we've already listed some important scenes for discussion, along with time stamps for each. Keep in mind that we've provided a LOT of examples for these films. You might end up with fewer -- anywhere from two or three to more than a dozen scenes is just fine! Do what feels reasonable for yourself, and what's best for your students' learning.

In the classroom

Essential question: How can active viewing help me write a movie review?

Hook (5-10 minutes)

Before you start the movie, ask students if they've ever seen or read a movie review -- if so, where did they see it? Was the review from an expert, a journalist, or professional movie reviewer? Or maybe was it written and posted online by an everyday viewer sharing their opinion? Some students may have already written their own movie review somewhere!

Then ask students: What makes an expert's movie review different? Are they just going on a "gut feeling"? Or are they doing something that makes their reviews better or more informed?

After entertaining students' ideas, explain that, when professional movie critics rate and review a movie, they usually go on a lot more than just a gut feeling. They're doing something called active viewing. They're not just saying if they thought the movie was good or bad. Professional movie reviewers also explain -- in detail -- why they thought it was good or bad (or somewhere in-between).

Hand out the Write a Movie Review! graphic organizer

Give students copies of the Write a Movie Review! handout (or if you're using the digital version, copy and distribute them online). Explain to students that they'll be watching a movie in class, but also practicing their active viewing skills at the same time. By the end, they'll have everything they'll need to write their own review of the movie.

Active viewing, defined:

Ask your students: What do you think "active viewing" means? As a class, review the elements that help define active viewing that appear at the top of the graphic organizer.

Active viewing means:

  • Watching with a purpose
  • Paying attention
  • Taking notes
  • Asking good questions about what you're seeing

And it also means doing these things before, during, and after you watch.

 Tip!

Depending on how much scaffolding your students may need, consider adapting the handout to remove these elements so students can fill in the blanks on their own as you review in class.

Before you watch:

Help students jot down some key information about the movie before you start watching. Ask them to think about why these things might be important in thinking more deeply about the movie.

You can also preview the rest of the handout with students before you start the movie -- mainly the "While You Watch" section, so they know what to look for while watching.

While you watch:

Start the movie and enjoy! Be ready to pause at key scenes so students have a bit of time to process, or even discuss, what they're seeing. During these pauses, you might even encourage students to think about whether they'd like to choose the scene as something to write about (or draw!) on their handout.

As you pause, reflect, and discuss, you might even consider rewinding and rewatching a particular scene. Some scenes in movies are truly worthy of a second look for students, especially in light of something that comes up in discussion that some students may have missed or want to see again.

After you watch:

Give students some time to process and think about what they've just seen before diving into any discussion or reactions. The "After You Watch" questions on the handout are a great start, but feel free to bring up any other relevant questions specific to the movie you're using. Be sure to give students plenty of time to look back at their notes and reflect.

Encourage students to wait before giving the movie their star rating. Remember: Active viewing takes place before, during, and after the movie. Ask them to resist the urge to judge the movie before they've considered all of the active viewing questions, saving the star rating for last. This way -- just like a professional movie reviewer! -- they'll have fully considered the movie before giving it their official star rating.

Writing Extension!

Students can revise the notes they've taken on their handout, turning it into an actual, written movie review! Better yet, encourage students to share their reviews with an authentic audience -- classmates, families, or even online!

Looking for an online space where kids can share their movie reviews?

Common Sense Media has thousands of movie reviews written by kids! As an option, have students consider posting and sharing their reviews online with us!

Note: Be sure to follow your school or district's policies about students sharing content publicly online. Also, keep in mind that students will need to create accounts on Common Sense Media in order to share their reviews. Students under 13 years old will need a parent's or guardian's consent and help to create an account. But it's a good idea for all students -- even those over 13 -- to talk with their parents before creating new online accounts on any site.

Image courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.