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Teach Your Children Well--With Movies


Somewhere around 1 a.m. each morning, when his wife and kids are asleep, Jim Frieden tiptoes from his bed to his computer, where he types away for hours. By day, he's a litigator with a solo practice. But by night, he's insomniac and film critic, filling a Web site with his thoughts on movies from "Gone With the Wind" to "Gattaca."

On a recent afternoon, in the Friedens' cozy Pacific Palisades living room, where a comfy leather couch sits right beside a big TV, 15-year-old Alex rolled his eyes knowingly.

His dad, he says, is going through "his midlife crisis."

In fact, it was Alex's response to movies as a child that more or less inspired, a Web site started by Frieden and his wife, Debbie Elliott.

The Teach With Movies site gives parents and teachers a guide to films that are entertaining and thought-provoking for kids.

"Debbie and I used to just wander around Blockbuster and be unable to find the right movie at the right time for our kids," said Frieden, 53. "Then three months later, we'd think of it. You think of a movie you'd like to show them, and it's hard. You're trying to remember what's in it, if there's anything too intense. That's where we help."

The Web site does not review every new movie that comes out. Instead, it specifically recommends about 200 films that the Friedens believe have special value. They include the highbrow ("Europa! Europa!," "La Traviata") and the not-so-highbrow ("Cool Runnings," "Antz"), along with minimum-age recommendations, themes that the films address, possible problems (such as swearing or violence) and questions to get kids talking about what they've just seen. There are suggestions aimed at teachers, and others aimed at parents. A click on a topic such as suicide yields specific movie suggestions ("Lust for Life," "Romeo and Juliet," "Courage Under Fire"). And lest anyone think the couple is in favor of educating by movies alone, many of the movie descriptions also list relevant books for adults and children.

The Frieden family realized the power of movies as a teaching and talking tool after Alex saw the movie "Gandhi" when he was 9 years old. In his fourth-grade class, he was learning about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Mahatma Gandhi, his parents explained, had been one of King's central influences.

Wide-eyed, Alex asked to see the movie again and again, Frieden said.

"And each time he would come back with questions. He got so interested. It was such an educational experience for him. It exploded things for him."

Hearing this account, teenage Alex looks at his father and gives an oh-brother sort of shrug. Still, he says he remembers the movie's powerful images--of protesters engaged in acts of civil disobedi- ence being shot at by police. "I don't see things like that living here in the Palisades," he says. "It was a different way of looking at things."

Sitting next to him on the couch, Frieden nods his head. "You see, that's important," he says. "We need to be able to say to kids, 'These things happen.'"

Talking about big issues comes naturally in this house, where everyone is articulated and opinionated and ready with arguments. All the movie watching has helped, Frieden says.

"Gandhi" was just the beginning. Soon the Friedens were pondering the Cold War through "Dr. Strangelove." And when watching "Strictly Ballroom" inspired Alex and his younger brother Justin, 10, to take up dancing, their parents knew they were onto something.

"We probably watched it 10 times, and then Alex said, 'I think I can do that. I think I can do flamenco,'" says Elliott, a former dancer.

Three years ago, when Frieden and Elliott launched the Web site, the idea was to reach out to other parents. But teachers and film buffs now also frequent the site, as do librarians and home-schoolers. They come from all over the world.

Recently, a teacher from Ohio asked them to include "The Patriot." A visitor from the Jewish studies program at Tulane University said he'd read the study guide on "Hester Street" and had some suggestions for fine-tuning the questions. A Christian motivational speaker from London asked for suggestions of movies that discuss adultery.

The most recent tracking numbers show the Web site's pages being visited 170,000 times in a month.

What makes it stand out, visitors say, is its detail.

Peggy Hamilton, a retired engineer from Richland, Wash., stumbled across the site recently, when she was looking for movies to show her daughter Rachel, 8, before a family trip to India. She wanted to know whether "A Passage to India" would be appropriate, and the site answered that question and more, she says. "It was bang on. It gave me everything I needed to know," Hamilton said.

"It had a lot of historical information that I could share with her ahead of time," she says. "It sure helps if you know something about a movie before you see it with your child. And I get tired of previewing everything. You only have so much time."

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