Weather Forecast


New Willmar Senior High class has students exploring racism, disability, gender roles, loss through movies

ABOVE:Sara Kallhoff, from left, and Nathanial Swoyer, both seniors, take notes Thursday as teacher Lyle Hovland discusses society's views on heroes and villians.TOP: Actors Christian Bale, left, and Heath Ledger appear in "Dark Knight." Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- The psychology of Batman and the Joker was up for discussion last week at Willmar Senior High.

Eighty students, mostly seniors, signed on this term for the class co-taught by communications teacher Amy Grussing and social studies teacher Lyle Hovland. The class has been popular enough to fill two sections, one this winter and another in the spring.

Before the class is over, students will have discussed and written about issues of racism, disability, gender roles, and loss in the first-ever Psychology and Film class at the school.

Last week, the students watched "The Dark Knight," the latest in a long and varied line of Batman movies. Other films on the class list include "Shutter Island," "Seven Pounds," "Crash," "Up," "Avatar" and "Men of Honor." The students have parental permission to watch the R-rated movies on the list.

"The Dark Knight," was the first of three movies from director Christopher Nolan. The others are "Memento" and "Inception."

Grussing asked the students to look at the themes and cinematic style Nolan used in each movie. "Look at the story lines," she said. "Look visually at what's happening."

Hovland addresses psychological and sociological issues for each movie.

Regarding "The Dark Knight," he said, "We are going to look at the psychology of superheroes."

Hovland said he thinks class discussions have been eye-opening for some students.

"We talk about people in our building and how they see things," he said. During discussions of race or disability, he has asked, "Are you really looking at how you treat people?"

If any of these teenagers signed up just to watch movies, they've had a surprise.

Among the questions they answered about "The Dark Knight:"

- "In your own words and reflections, define Superhero."

- "Do super heroes live positive psychology's vision of a good life?"

- "When is violence acceptable?"

- "Does "The Dark Knight" exhibit a mild form of antisocial personality disorder?"

Each film they watch is accompanied by an assignment packet that requires students to discuss and write about a variety of topics. They look at the psychological motivations of characters, directors' techniques and the cinematography. They are expected to share their thoughts in class, and they have kept journals.

Grussing said the two teachers have never worked together before, but they have similar teaching philosophies, and it has gone well. They envisioned watching movies as an entire class, then splitting the class between two classrooms for discussions.

However, they found that both they and their students preferred to stay in the theater and have large group discussions. If they are working in small groups, the theater is large enough for them to fan out around the room and avoid bothering each other. Hovland and Grussing circulate answering questions.

Last week, the students worked on their assignments in groups of 3, 4 and 5 around the theater. Students in the class said they have enjoyed it and learned to watch films differently.

Senior Tyler Willis said the class has a lot of "reflective writing. "

When he watched "Shutter Island" with relatives, he said, he was able to share with them what he'd learned in class.

"I'm glad they have it," he said. "It's interesting having a variety of different students put together."

Giovanna Martinez, also a senior, said she notices things in movies that she never did before. The class "makes you think" she said. "Mr. Hovland and Mrs. Grussing make you see it differently."

Valor Gorans, a senior, said she was attracted to the class because of the teachers and the psychology component. All students must have taken Hovland's Psychology 1 course before the film class.

"A lot of things we learn are applicable to our lives," she said.

Many of the students said they had expected the class to be demanding; some said they've worked harder than they thought they would.

Their teachers say the same thing. Eighty writing assignments is a lot to grade, they said, especially when both teachers need to grade each paper with an eye toward their subject areas.

Hovland and Grussing are pleased with how this first term of the class has gone. They are taking notes, too, about things they may adjust for next term.

Both teachers praised the students and how they conduct themselves during films and the discussion sessions.

There is no talking during a film, and there's no telltale glow to indicate kids checking text messages. A student caught using a cell phone loses a full letter grade, and both teachers said, "We haven't seen one," the teachers said in unison."

The teachers have discovered "some serious film junkies" in the class. Hovland said he knows of a student who had blossomed in the class. "This is his niche."

Jennie-O donates $28,000 for Willmar Senior High

WILLMAR -- Jennie-O Turkey Store has donated $28,000 to the Willmar School District to install a new sound system in the Senior High theater.

Jennie-O's corporate headquarters are in Willmar.

The sound system at the school was installed when the school was building in 1994 and is in need of a complete overhaul.

Willmar Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said the school district did not have the funds to pay for the project. "Jennie-O was kind enough to be a good neighbor and help us out."

The improvement will aid classes, theater presentations and other events, Kjergaard said.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340