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Writing in Darkness: A Survival Skill for Critical Thinking

...just imagine them scribbling away. (photo by Severin Dostal)

No need to feel sorry for me on this count, but between yesterday and today I’m spending about ten hours in a theater as part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s pre-fest screenings. But I’m doing a lot more than just passively sitting there and having fun or letting my opinions brew. I’m writing—rapidly, constantly, and, one would hope, thoughtfully.

For me, taking notes while watching movies has become second nature, so much so that I feel strangely unmoored when I go to a matinee with my kids and let my hands reach for the popcorn instead of becoming ink-stained. But it wasn’t always like that. Note-taking under these circumstances is a practice that required a certain amount of self-training. Yet it’s been so incredibly valuable that I can’t help thinking how great would it have been if someone had taught me this when I was in school?

Just as when we’re taking notes on lectures or from books, the note-taking process in a darkened screening room—or classroom, or library—doesn’t only capture data and details for use later on: it helps us focus sharply, mindfully, on what’s being presented to us. And arguably this kind of fully conscious “reading” of a text is even more crucial when it comes to moving image media because we’re not conditioned (or taught) to think hard about what we watch while we’re watching it.

With this in mind, I’d like to suggest that during-viewing note-taking be worked into the curriculum somehow. Is it something that media specialists could team up with classroom teachers to accomplish? Is it a skill that’s aligned, or could be aligned, with AASL or CCSS standards? I’m not sure. I just know that it’s a practical habit that over time has come to shape my viewing itself, so that I now process movies, video, and TV differently, observing more and noting my own reactions more even when I’m not taking notes. In short, the benefits carry over. Big time.

...just imagine them looking at a screen. (photo by Zack Clark)

So here are some items that I’ve found helpful to jot down and which also increase my active participation in moving image media:

  • Questions about things that simply aren’t clear
  • “Want to know more” notes about background information
  • Verbatim dialogue, in quotes, for excerpting later on
  • Stars/asterisks next to important moments or ideas as they occur
  • Precise details for future discussion or written work

And in terms of some practical tips and applications, you might want to consider asking students to:

  • Keep a backup pen or pencil handy—not in case one breaks or runs out, but because dropping a writing implement in the dark is a pain the neck; they won’t be able to find it
  • Use a “quiet” notebook with pages that are easy to turn; a steno pad can be ideal
  • Use a form of shorthand whenever possible—think texting
  • Be continually writing—when “nothing much” is happening, have them note the production values that they otherwise might not concentrate on, such as music… or just note their own boredom
  • Be okay with using lots of paper, at least initially: handwriting in the dark can be all over the place, and they’ll want to turn a page rather than accidentally overwrite any text
  • Not get disheartened by their own illegibility—it happens; coach them to write the same thought twice if need be, as insurance
  • Not just focus on what happens, but their own subjective responses and reactions
  • Observe little details that they might not recall later—colors, sounds that make an impression, body language; whether with features or documentaries, audiences tend to recall only major narrative developments or dramatic images while less splashy but often revealing elements fall between the cracks
  • Put ideas in their own words immediately. If a joke or a sarcastic comment occurs to them in the middle of viewing, they shouldn’t count on memory alone to “hold that thought.” Instead, explain that taking notes is a way of capturing all the stuff they might lean over and say to a friend; or describe the process as recording their own silent DVD commentary track

Finally, students should know in advance that they may end up “using” only a fraction of what they record; like any type of prewriting, the purpose is to gather all the relevant details by casting as wide a net as possible. Also, as with any habit of mind, the key idea here is practice. After all, being proficient at taking notes in class that doesn’t equate to the same skill during a screening. That’s because good educators deliver material in a way that’s intended to be logical, hierarchical (main idea first, details second) and clear.

Movies on the other hand, are usually meant to be visceral—we’re hit by all kinds of information, some of it incomplete or intentionally mystifying (that’s part of the fun). What’s more, moving image media creates a multimodal experience. We need to watch and listen—and each of these different modes may in turn have simultaneous “tracks” of information: music and dialogue, or multiple things occurring visually, such as in the foreground and background.

But of course it’s this very complexity that makes the ability to notice, record, and evaluate all this stimuli so valuable. It’s also why an action governed by our eyes, ears, and hands can become, over time, one that exercises our minds most of all.

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About Peter Gutierrez