La Bamba, or the Things I’ve Learned from Watching Movies in Class

One of the love-hate elements of substitute teaching at the high school level is that the classroom teacher often leaves films for subs to watch with students.  

In my opinion, leaving movies as the lesson plan doesn’t reflect especially well on the classroom teacher because it often communicates one of two things.  Either the teacher views the substitute as incompetent and incapable of moving learning forward, or the teacher was caught without emergency lesson plans when he or she came down with the winter cold.  The exception is highly specialized classes such as band, choir, or theater.

One such day, I found myself supervising a band class.  Fortunately (in this case), the lesson was to watch Phantom of the Opera.  I watched, rapt, until the bell rang.  But the movie wasn’t over!  So I stayed by myself for at least thirty minutes after the last period of the day to finish the film.  And then I went home and bought it.

So on the other hand, I love movie lesson plans because it’s easy and I get to watch a lot of films I would never watch otherwise.  

Another day, in a different town, in a dingy basement classroom, we watched West Side Story.  Classic movie posters adorned the walls, and halfway through the day, as the film droned on for the third time, I found myself studying the posters more than the watching the movie.  

This was during the school year right after I earned my teaching license, and my brain was itching to do something more academic than glorified babysitting high school students.  In the basement classroom, I was suddenly inspired to watch all the Academy Award Best Picture winners.  In chronological order.  It’s been an ongoing project ever since.  You can track my progress on my personal blog.

This project eventually morphed into a Classic Film and Literature elective when I later taught full-time.  A hit with my students and a joy to teach.  I’ll be selling the curriculum and materials on Teachers Pay Teachers shortly.  You can check out my TPT shop here.

And finally, my most humorous movie watching experience was the time (or times actually), I was asked to show the movie La Bamba, an old (to my students, anyway) 1980s film about the musical star Ritchie Valens. The first time, I showed it to a Spanish class of English-speaking students.  We watched it in Spanish with English-speaking subtitles.  

Weeks later, the film appeared on the lesson plan again. In a different school.  In an entirely different town and district.  This time the students were primarily Spanish-speakers, so we watched it in English with Spanish subtitles.  

La Bamba documents the fascinating backstory of Ritchie Valens, one of the three musicians killed on the Day the Music Died, tracing his life from migrant worker to star to the day he boarded that plane in a snowstorm.  It brings to life the song of the same name and adds a rich layer of context to the music of Don McLean.

It has since become one of my favorite films, both for the riveting personal story and the language I learned while watching it.

For a rather obscure film (for modern audiences), it is apparently rather effective at engaging Spanish learners and speakers!  It helps that the culture of the story is relevant to the language.  

It’s better than simply watching Cheaper by the Dozen with the French option switched on.  Yes, this happened to me one day.  And as funny as Steve Martin is being dubbed over in French, there’s some disconnect between the story and the language 🙂

So, while watching movies in class is not always the best use of time, this substitute teacher isn’t complaining too much.  I’ve discovered many new favorites, and whole new love of black and white films.

Stay tuned for more subbing stories in the coming weeks!


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