Showing movie clips or short television episodes to reinforce a concept is effective in helping students remember and understand what they are studying.
by Chad Cain
My name is Chad Cain and I teach U.S. History and Government in Evansville, Indiana. I have been using the Twilight Zone in my classes for two years (the length of my teaching career) and I have found it to be very useful in several ways.
I find that using Rod Serling’s work in my classroom is very satisfying because of my students’ reactions to the stories and the knowledge that his legacy is being furthered as another generation falls in love with The Twilight Zone.
Many of the episodes also happen to be historically instructive, directly and indirectly. It goes without saying that these experiences have been positive and have led me to want to spread the word to other educators about the possibilities of using Rod’s work in the classroom.
First, I must address the concern of many teachers in today’s world: state and federal standards. I would ease those concerns by simply stating that the kids in the classrooms of America today have been influenced by television more than any other generation.
I find that most of my history students know more about World War II than any other topic in American history. Why? Because there is an entire genre of movies on the subject. These students also have the History Channel, which some of my colleagues have dubbed the World War II channel, because of its heavy emphasis on that topic.
I find that showing movie clips or short television episodes to reinforce a concept is extremely effective in helping students remember and understand what they are studying. Social Studies lends itself very well to the use of video and audio materials. Songs are also a great teaching tool. Because the Twilight Zone’s stories are so varied, many episodes can fit into several different classes.
Here are several examples of episodes that I have shown to my class, how they pertained to the subject matter, and the results.
Time Enough At Last
This episode is an excellent tool for showing the fear that the American public felt about a possible nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It’s a perfect fit in the U.S. History curriculum when discussing the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, or the effects of nuclear weapons. The students love this episode because of the classic ending—Burgess Meredith’s glasses break and he is doomed to a life without his beloved books. This episode stirs a lot of discussion afterward—leave it to Rod Serling to gain the full attention of the class!
The half-hour episodes are also beneficial because in many schools the periods only last 45-50 minutes. We can watch an episode and get in a full discussion of the topic within the allotted time.
The Shelter is another good example of the fear of nuclear attack in America.
The Obsolete Man
This episode about a nameless totalitarian state that executes those deemed useless to society, is a great one to show when discussing fascism, communism, or totalitarian government in general.
In either History or Government class, this episode can be used as an attention-getter to be followed by a discussion of the pros and cons of such systems. It can also spark discussion about topics such as Constitutional rights, current events, and the state of our government today.
Another example of fascism and the rise of totalitarianism can be found in the episode He’s Alive. This is an hour-long episode, but it would be easy to skip through some parts or simply show one or two scenes from this one, particularly the scenes in which Hitler is sitting in shadow while instructing his heir apparent in the ways of inciting mobs.
Dust and I Am the Night–Color Me Black
I use the endings of these two episodes to spark a discussion of one of my favorite topics: capital punishment. Many students have a very limited perspective on this subject. Both of these episodes show that it’s not as easy as “an eye for an eye” sometimes.
One of the brilliant things about Serling’s stories is that he was not afraid to tackle difficult and complex social problems. In fact, he spent his entire career tackling these subjects.
Of course, any discussion of topics such as this along with others such as abortion, should be handled very carefully. They can easily turn into shouting matches rather than debates.
The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street
This is one of many episodes that could be used in a Sociology class. Human behavior, in all its forms, was one of Serling’s favorite topics and figures in any number of episodes.
Maple Street is particularly good because it shows how a small group of people can go from civilized neighbors to a crazed mob in just a few short steps.
The first time I saw this episode was on New Year’s Eve 1999—at the height of the Y2K scare. I couldn’t believe how poignant and timely this episode was in the year 1999.
To be sure, there are other Twilight Zones that can be used for more than just history class.
To find some really nice lesson plans and discussion questions pertaining to using the Twilight Zone in the classroom you can go to the Cable in the Classroom (1) / Cable in the Classroom (2) website. I have selected a few that work in my classroom, sparking interesting and educational discussions.
The simple act of showing a TV show from the Golden Age of television can be a lesson in American culture after World War II. Most students have never heard of an anthology series and possibly have never even watched a show in black and white.
That may sound preposterous, but itís true.
I truly believe in the teaching power of the Twilight Zone as well as Serling’s other works. If watching these episodes inspires one or two students to start watching them on their own, then I have successfully contributed to both the legacy of Rod Serling and to society as a whole.
I never knew the man, but Iím sure that he would be thrilled to know his stories are affecting the education of students here in the 21st century.