Jaws and literacy: Engaging pupils with film scores

Ben James Connor

Ben Connor is a Primary school teacher in Lancashire. Teaching since 2010, Ben has taught from Year 2 to Year 5. Since September 2018 he has been English subject leader and SLT at a school in Bolton. In his spare time he writes articles, and leads workshops mainly focussing on Music and English, sometimes a combination of the two.

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Image Credit: Jaws, Universal Pictures // Originally published on 7th December 2016. Image Credit: Jaws, Universal Pictures // Originally published on 7th December 2016.

Think tension. Think Music. Think a knife and a shower curtain. Think a rocking boat and glinting teeth...

When teaching my pupils about tension in narrative, I turn to film scores. We’ve all been there: a darkened cinema, the heavy breathing of a potential victim, the slow building music, an increase in heart rate. The scene reaches its climax and the victim is caught by the ghost/vampire/serial killer/rabbit. Now play the scene without the music. Does it have the same impact? Does your heart beat in quite the same way? Why does a building “duh duh…duh duh” have us sprinting for the shore?

I use film a lot in class: to inspire writing, to develop understanding, to structure reading skills, to aid pupils in understanding characters, to hurriedly finish a "Our emotions are influenced by the scene, but equally so by the soundtrack."class novel. But only recently have I realised the impact of backing music and how we can relate that to building tension. Sometimes as a viewer we don’t understand the way we are being manipulated by the film’s producer. Our emotions are influenced by the scene, but equally so by the soundtrack. The same can be said for stories. It is not natural for a reader to delve into why a book makes them feel a certain way. Readers, especially early ones, are along for the ride and it’s up to the author to tweak their heartstrings. How do we open our pupils’ eyes to the tricks authors pull?

This year I have a ‘lively’ Year 5 class. They get involved with everything, throw their hearts into it. The noise, at times, is astounding. But it is easy to create a buzz of excitement: in my eyes, the ideal class. In developing their Comprehension skills, they have loved the use of film. I employed the Titanium David Guetta video (borrowed from Literacy Shed), and they have been hooked since. I’ve used film to develop their understanding of character, but more so to develop an understanding of author Choice.

Sometimes when looking at a Long Term plan, especially for a new class, I have a feeling of dread. Some topics, especially in Maths, leave me cold and it takes all of my energy to design engaging, thought-provoking lessons. Upon looking at the Long Term plan my eyes alighted on ‘Adventure Stories’, and immediately the ideas started to flow. Who doesn’t love a good adventure?

We have been reading Cogheart by Peter Bunzl for our class novel. My class are gripped, desperate to hear the next chapter. Audible sighs and gasps abound. One thing that authors like Mr. Bunzl do really well is to build tension in their writing. To build a good adventure story, first the children needed to understand how to do this. There are lots of ways to introduce the idea of tension but the one that jumped to my mind was the use of film, in particular film Music. The use of music to build tension is obvious in many films, and lots of them use music in this way (if sometimes badly). The first classic film score that came to mind was John Williams’ Jaws, and I built my first lesson around it.

YouTube link

My class sat, eyes closed, waiting to hear something. I played the first deep, spine tingling notes, and then stopped. Eyes open, children began to share vocabulary: Scared, worried, nervous, concerned. Some immediately recognised the theme tune, but others were unaware of this cinematic classic (What are their parents doing?!). I asked them to focus on their heartbeat and other physiological responses: breathing, pulse etc. I played the same section again but allowed it to continue further. Then stopped. My class responded again: hearts beating faster, pulses beginning to race, breathing deepening: all because of a few bass notes. I continued to play the piece: pauses, sudden noises, the crash of cymbals.

When I stopped the recording I asked the children what this had to do with our topic of adventure stories. How would a film about a shark aid us in writing effectively? We decided that the reason the Jaws theme tune had such an "What better example of tension could we use than the delightful Planet Earth II?"impact was that we knew instinctively that something was going to go wrong: A sense of foreboding. Not only that, be we had an inkling about when that something was going to happen as the music was building slowly to a crescendo. However, with this particular theme tune there are moments of calm, where the mind is tricked into thinking the danger has passed. Relating this to writing actually came really easily for my pupils. Just by including those two techniques, ‘a sense of foreboding’ and ‘deceptive moments of calm’, writing could automatically become full of suspense.

Finally, we needed stimuli for our writing. What better example of tension could we use than the delightful Planet Earth II by the BBC? Every episode is full of near-misses and deceased creatures. We watched Iguanas vs Snakes with rapt attention, gripped by the travails of a baby iguana, horrified by the cruel intentions of the gang of snakes. Drawing on examples from other texts (Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve in particular), we saw how the author can create a sense of foreboding. Sentences like “The Iguana stood peacefully on the beach. Little did he know…” allowed the narrative to quickly change pace and provided that sense of foreboding we were looking for. The moments of calm came from the points in the footage where the Iguana is seemingly safe, only for it to be bagged by a heap of writhing snakes, then seconds later skimming the sand in a bid for freedom.

This mix of music, footage and text provided a firm foundation on which to build our narrative pieces, which have turned out to be the best writing so far this year. VAK (Visual Audio Kinetic) may be a dead duck, but a mix of media can provide children with an understanding of topics which seem alien at the outset. So there you have it: Sharks, Iguanas, Snakes, tension and suspense (with a little bit of writing thrown in).

Do you use film scores in your teaching? Let us know below.

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