Hidden Figures and the power of film as a teaching tool
Updated: Feb 20
I often use feature and short films, documentaries, videos, and podcast as teaching tools with youth, for professional development and in my college classroom at the Community College of Philadelphia. This week, I had the opportunity to watch the Academy Award Nominated feature film Hidden Figures with a group of elementary schoolers at William Cramp Elementary school due to a generous opportunity from Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. - Rho Theta Omega Chapter and the Ivy Legacy Foundation. Alpha Kappa Alpha’s Rho Theta Omega Chapter has been working tirelessly to get the film viewed by as many youth as possible during the months of February and March, and to date, they have screened it for over 2,000 youth K-12+ in public schools, after school programs, and other venues.
As I was watching the film with my friend Reggie Jones, who is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. – Rho Theta Omega Chapter and who collaborated with the Community School Coordinator to bring the film to William Cramp Elementary school, she and I kept chatting in the back about the various topics this film addresses and all the ways that one could use this film for both youth AND adults as a teaching tool. I’m sure if you’ve seen the film, this came to you too and I’d love to know how you’ve thought about it as a teaching too.
I’ve tried to capture some of our conversation in this blog and turn it into tips that you might use if you show this film (which, I highly recommend). In a previous newsletter when alerting people to this opportunity to have the film brought to their group, I shared these suggestions/tips for people to try. In this new post, in addition to sharing tips about the film, Hidden Figures, I’ve also shared general tips for using film as a tool in your work with youth (another blog post about how to use with adults for professional development is forthcoming!). I look forward to hearing about how you use film and other media as a tool. Thanks for taking the time to read.
Topics addressed in Hidden Figures (this is by NO MEANS a comprehensive list)
What does it mean to be the first at or of something? From being the first Black woman engineer at NASA to the first Black teen to de-segregate a public high school, women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities have had to be the ‘first’ in so many ways. What burden does that create for the individual? For their community? What opportunities exist? What strengths might be developed or enhanced? What first have your viewers experienced?
What does it mean to be a leader? In this case, it means finding the genius in uncommon, unfamiliar and unexpected places- not because it didn’t exist previously, but because of underrepresentation and the societal/cultural expectation that it didn’t exist. A leader recognizes that sometimes they must make decisions that may be unpopular, thereby making THEM unpopular with some, for the good of the work or project. What leadership qualities did you viewers note that stood out to them after watching the film?
What does it mean to persist in the face of adversity? These women persisted against racism and sexism, and it’s a good thing they did; their sense that they belonged, they deserved and were capable of being at NASA helped to create the space program we know today. And, these women had to stay focused at work even in an unfriendly and hostile environment. When have your participants persisted? What did they do? What might they change about how they persisted knowing what they know now, if anything?
Who are the hidden figures among us? Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is finally able to SEE Katherine Johnson, once he chooses to remove his blinders of racism and sexism, as he begins to understand from her perspective of what it means to be the only Black woman in the room, to not fit into the traditional (read racist and patriarchal) roles. How can perspective-taking help us to SEE and make those among us who are hidden become seen?
The importance of friendship and collegiality: There is a lot of talk about women in the workplace and how often women aren’t as helpful to each other as they can be. This film is a wonderful example of how women CAN be not only helpful but also intentional about not only advancing their own career but that of their colleagues too. This film also shows how important it is to have people in the workplace who respect you, who have your back and strong friendships and supports outside of work to persist in the face of challenges and to meet your goals. What support networks do your viewers have? Which ones are they a part of for someone else? How can they use their “social capital” to help others?
Stay relevant or get left behind: Dorothy Vaugh (Octavia Spencer) realized that she and her team of ‘computers’ were going to be replaced by actual computers, and so rather than let that happen, she learned a new skill and taught it to the people she worked with too! Times and technology change quickly. What does it mean to your viewers to stay relevant? What might it mean at school and/or in the work place? HOW would someone stay relevant?
The importance of diversity: Different perspectives bring diverse ideas and approaches to problem solving. Creating space for those with different ideas, skill sets and strategies creates valuable learning opportunities, promotes innovation and critical thinking for each of us. Katherine Johnson’s persistence and Al Harrison’s recognition of the importance of her contributions enabled the United States of America to turn around the World Space Race.
Things to Consider When Using Film/Video in General
What is your goal(s) for showing this film/video, etc.? Are you using the film to: Introduce a new topic? Reinforce a new topic? Or connect it to an idea/guest speaker or field trip experience? It’s important to decide what your goal is because you may decide you don’t need or want to show the whole (feature) film. Maybe you only need a clip of it depending on HOW you want to use it.
Age of your participants and their developmental needs (moral, social, cognitive, physical, emotional): Think about the various themes in the film you are showing and draw attention to them based on your audience. For example, in Hidden Figures, you might talk with older youth about the various careers not only featured in the film (engineers, computer scientists, etc.) but perhaps also the careers associated with making the film, such as graphic designers; someone had to make the sets and design the aeronautical equipment. The costumes in Hidden Figures require not only a love for fashion, but also a real knowledge of history. Teens are thinking about their future and many are often not exposed to jobs or careers outside of the typical teacher, doctor or lawyer options. One thing to try: have them count the number of (different) jobs listed at the end of the film credits and do research about it? I still don’t know exactly what a KEY GRIP is or what experience, skills or education I’d need to be one and I’ve seen hundreds of films and there’s always a Key Grip or two listed in the credits.
Length of the film and time you are allotted to show it: Hidden Figures happens to be over 2 hours long, which is a long time for some people, especially younger youth, and focus. So, could you show the film in smaller parts over a week and conduct other activities in between each showing to help connect the film and some of its key concepts? Perhaps they are learning about biographies, or about a science experiment or going on a field trip in between the clips.
Where are you showing the film? Are you showing it in a comfortable theater where the sound it perfect, the temperature is just right and there are no distractions? Well, good for you! Likely, you are showing it in a school cafeteria or gymnasium where the acoustics aren’t great. In that case, put the Closed Captions on; it certainly doesn’t hurt to have them on and helps young readers, too! Are your viewers sitting on the floor for 2+ hours? Will there be people coming and going in your space with the side door opening and closing throughout the screening? Think about what you might need to do within the constraints of your environment to make it a pleasant experience and also reduce distractions.
Pre- film preparation (for you/for your viewers): Perhaps you lead up to the film by reading about the overarching theme presented in it or one about one of the major characters. Perhaps you take a field trip to the location that the movie is about or where it was filmed. You may have different preparation to do than your viewers. I try to watch a film AT LEAST ONCE before I show it, usually twice and I write up all my questions, specific quotes I want to feature and even the exact time in the film when I might want to pause for a discussion. And, I go exploring for additional information. Did you know that the ending of Hidden Figures is different in the movie than the books it was based on? It would be interesting to discuss with your viewers why they think that is. This article about Hidden Figures, or this one, would be a good example of the additional information I would want to have at my hands when guiding discussion or projects resulting from a movie I show. Also, be sure to review vocabulary- don’t assume your viewers will know everything, especially if the film covers technical language or concepts; and give them the opportunity to make meaning out of context. If there is a complicated set of characters, perhaps create a ‘family tree’ of how they are related (or ask the viewers do to it POST the film as a check for understanding).
[endif]--During the film: While viewing the film with elementary school youth, they were given graphic
organizers to follow one single character throughout the whole story. I’ve also given students a ‘scavenger hunt’ with clues they can only find by carefully watching the film. You may also choose to pause the film at various points and clarify a vocabulary word, discuss a difficult scene or have participants write a paragraph predicting what will come next in the film of for their character.
Post –film: What happens AFTER you show the film? There are hundreds of different ways to debrief a film. Youth can do individual reflection projects, they can conduct interviews, work in small groups; you can go on field trips or even bring in guest speakers. Maybe the film you watch is about cooking; could you have a cook off or have the viewers make and try their own recipes. Be creative, but most importantly, be intentional. You chose to show this film/video or listen to that Podcast for a specific reason; don’t lose sight of why and be sure to create a full experience for your viewers.
Lastly, have fun! Maybe your viewers will be inspired to make their own films, maybe together you will all learn new skills, meet new people, take great trips. Let the magic of film carry you away
Contact information for Reggie Jones, MSS, MLSP, LCSW
Psychotherapist and Youth Development Training Consultant