Project: Screenplay

I just finished a successful, intriguing, enjoyable unit with my writing lab class, and I’m just busting to share a little bit about the experience, how and why we did it, and the results.

It all began near the end of the persuasive essay unit, when I was glancing ahead to see what else I had scheduled for my writing lab kids. As I perused the syllabus, my eyes swept over the answer: expository writing. I groaned a little inside. We were just wrapping up a research-heavy, academic jargon-heavy, crisp logic-heavy writing project. The thought of assigning some boring, report-like paper about facts seemed just a little too dull for this particular group. [Background: My writing lab kids are my absolute favorite class. They’re a mixture of English fail-outs, aspiring authors, English language learners, and “I just took this class for the heck of it” misfits. Coming from grades 10-12, they are a peaceful, curious group who will follow me pretty much wherever I ask them to go as writers. And many of them have major talent. I knew something else was in order.]

So, I created a Writer-Interest Survey with loads of different options for them to pick from for their next unit. We discussed, debated, voted, and debated some more. In the end, screenplay writing (you know, writing scripts for movies) was the clear winner. They really wanted to write their own short film scripts. So I said, “Ok. On Monday, we’ll start learning how to write screenplays.”  Having absolutely no idea how to teach screenplay writing, I knew I had a weekend of research ahead of me. I was blessed enough to stumble upon three fantastic teaching resources for screenplay writing. Using them as my scaffold, I went to town on planning a five-week screenplay unit.

RESOURCE ONE: Good ol’ Google. As it turns out, if you simply type the title of your favorite major motion picture along with the word “screenplay” after it, you can find the full script for most movies out there. [My search query was “Jurassic Park screenplay.] There are many online databases devoted wholly to collecting and making available screenplays that have seen success. Of course, you have to wade through these to find quality samples, since many of these screenplays are reproduced by amateurs. However, when you find a good one, it’s an invaluable resource, especially if you can pair it with the actual film clip.

RESOURCE TWO: Script Frenzy Young Writer’s Program. I discovered something wonderful in my quest for screenplay tips, and that’s Script Frenzy. Apparently, this program is open to all who wish to participate–it’s a challenge to write a complete, 100 page screenplay in the month of April. This is a challenge for adults (more specifically, crazy adults), but there also happens to be a modified program for students that’s accessible all year round, including a complete workbook with really nice teaching supplements. I can’t say enough about how awesome this completely free resource is. Here are two links to get you started:

Click for SCREENPLAY FORMATTING

Click for SCREENPLAY WORKBOOK (HIGH SCHOOL LEVEL)

RESOURCE THREE: Make your own Movie Poster! I also happened upon a fantastic movie poster generator on the web that allowed my kids to create super-cool, authentic looking promotional posters for their screenplays. You have to fiddle around a little bit to get the best results, and only .jpg files can be loaded as the main image, but once those two things are out of the way, students can come up with amazing results. Particularly when they take their own photo with a digital camera or scan in original artwork, the final result looks great. Here’s a sample poster I’ve made for your viewing pleasure… Click on the image for full-view.

Cool, huh? Try it by clicking HERE for the movie poster generator.

As the unit went on, we did all kinds of cool things: character development, realistic dialogue, avoiding cliches, identifying and blending genres, using media skills, applying a specific formatting style, how to construct a satisfying plot, time management, mimicking masters, finding inspiration, and action writing. And the students loved it. Whether they were penning comedies or psychological thrillers, they were all quite “into” their stories. Last weekend I had literally an armful of pages to take home–almost every student had met my daunting ten-page requirement. One boy even made a full-length, amazingly artistic trailer for his film. Some of my favorite film concepts were:

*A crochety old man, denied a discount at McDonald’s, seeks revenge by patronizing other various fast food establishments.

*An imprisoned man develops a close relationship with a fellow inmate as they attempt to make a jailbreak.

*The ghost of a teenager tries to come back to the living world, but only one friend can see him.

*A man struggling with mental illness decides to live his life through the identity of a deceased friend from childhood.

*An exchange student simply can’t handle the irritating antics of his host family.

Once again, I have had proven to me the fact that when students are doing something that they are interested in, they outperform even the highest expectations. During this unit, I wished I was in my own class so that I could do the project. It was so touching to watch them excitedly buzz around each other’s writing, asking “What are you gonna put next?” or “You know what I can picture here? Let me tell you…”  Next time I teach this unit, I might work in an actual film component as well. I highly, highly recommend trying out some screenplay writing. It may not be a very traditional thing to teach, but it makes reaching the state language arts standards as easy and light as a song. 🙂

P.s. If you’re in the Milwaukee area, Collaborative Cinema is another cool opportunity related to screenwriting. We had a guest speaker come in from this program, and he was great.

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