Minority Film Institute

University of Wisconsin - River Falls

July 12, 1996

NEH Minority Film Institute Begins Run

By Jennifer Wagner DeNoma
UW-RF News Bureau

High school teachers from Wisconsin, Minnesota, New York, New Jersey and Florida attending a film institute at UW-River Falls came for a singular purpose: to learn more about film and ethnic studies in their English, social studies, history and literature classrooms.

"Cinematic Representations of America's Ethnic Minorities," running from July 8 to Aug. 2, is funded through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and is featuring nationally recognized minority scholars, writers and filmmakers as guest presenters. The UW-RF seminar is the only NEH institute in the nation addressing minority representations in film.

The teachers come from a diverse mix of rural, urban and suburban settings in public, private and parochial schools.

Jasmine Griffin, a teacher of global studies at a private, all-girl Catholic school in New York City, sees the institute as providing a bridge "to get away from rich, white men's history to a new, integrated curriculum that recognizes the culture and contributions of all Americans." While she has not approached film academically before, she appreciates the opportunity to learn film techniques through a minority medium.

The setting of the institute at UW-RF was an added incentive. "If you have ever been to New York City in the summer, spending time in a beautiful, small town in Wisconsin is like heaven. I'm really excited about being here and learning all I can from this institute."

A Miami teacher, Diana Maniscalco, saw the institute description in the NEH summer catalog and thought it would provide her with the knowledge she needs to add film study to her English classes that already integrate history, music and literature. Her high school is almost entirely comprised of ethnic minorities, 85 percent of whom are African-American, Jamaican and Haitian. Maniscalco recognizes the potential of film as a powerful method to teach students about social and cultural issues.

"If I can show a movie instead of assigning a long reading assignment to teach a particular subject, the movie is more likely to spark their interest. Then it's easier getting them to read."

Maniscalco, who immigrated to the United States from Communist Cuba at the of age four, feels a special affinity with her Haitian and Jamaican students, many of whom left for the United States under appalling political, economic and social conditions. "My experience with these students is they are my nicest and most motivated students. They are really motivated to learn about American culture and live the American Dream."

Joyce Brown, a South Milwaukee teacher, believes that film can be a very effective device for teaching multiculturalism. "As an African-American teaching in a public school, I recognize that the curriculum in all disciplines are not diverse. Kids today live in a visual society, and they often learn better visually than through reading. The best resources are visual aids. This institute for me is like a dream come true, and I think it will help me become an even more effective teacher."

Other teachers-such as Kenneth Kratt of Spring Valley, David Peterson of Phillips, Harold Tiffany of River Falls and Guy Blondey of Mayville-come from decidedly more rural, white Wisconsin high schools. UW-RF Professor Laura Zlogar, institute facilitator, says when the participants were selected for the institute, some attention was focused on getting a diverse mix of participants.

The program, developed and facilitated by UW-RF English Professor Carole Gerster with assistance Zlogar, combines the perspectives of ethnic film and literature scholars, historians, and filmmakers themselves to examine ways film has and continues to interpret multicultural diversity in the United States. Participants are being introduced to various methods of cinema study by examining the features of both narrative and documentary film, filmmakers' intentions, similarities and differences between literary and film texts, and film content as historical and cultural documents.

The participants are developing a curriculum unit on a subject of their choice that will help their students to be more critical of a film's accuracy so they can determine its value. The teachers will then implement their new curriculum during the 1996-97 academic year, and will meet again next summer to present their projects and evaluate their effectiveness. Some will present their materials and related writing assignments at the UW-RF annual fall writing conference for secondary teachers.

One of the main intentions of the institute is for the teachers to go back to their own schools to mentor their colleagues in film use. Janice Stendel, a history teacher in Sun Prairie, a Madison suburb of predominantly white students, says the vision of the institute and that of her school district are the same. "My principal was very excited and supportive of my attendance at the institute and wants me to share my knowledge with other teachers next fall."

State Rep. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) attended a reception welcoming the participants to UW-River Falls on Sunday, July 7. Of the institute, Harsdorf commended the University's commitment to secondary education. "It's great to see our University here be so involved in opportunities for high school teachers, and to see the number of states represented in this endeavor. It only exemplifies how our University is so progressive in providing training opportunities throughout the teaching profession."

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