Saturday, June 6, 2015

Pass the Popcorn: the Use and Abuse of Film in History Class

Somewhere about at the Civil Rights movement or the first nice day in April, whichever comes first, is when my students first begin to suggest that we watch the film Forrest Gump in class. By the time we get to the escalation of the Vietnam, the requests have escalated as well. "It's historic!" they plead.

No offense to anyone who loves this movie, but Forrest Gump is NOT a good movie to show in U.S. history class.  It tells the story of a man during historic periods, which is not the same thing as informing us about the historic periods.

The amount of time I have devoted to showing film (usually clips of no more than 15-20 minutes, but sometimes longer) does go up as the school year goes on. Not because the days are getting warmer and the students are getting antsy or because I am tired of teaching, but because the films show LIVE footage. I remember once showing a film clip about World War I and students noticed right away, "Hey, it's the actual people."

We don't have films of George Washington. Not till the invention of film do we get.... well, films! So any event occurring before the turn of the 20th century or so are going to be still footage or dramatizations. Ken Burns has demonstrated the power of applying film to still pictures. And films like Glory demonstrate the power of a well-done dramatization. But there is something about seeing actual footage of people and events we are studying that makes history come alive. That's why I like documentaries like Eyes on the Prize (Civil Rights) and Vietnam: A Television History so much.

But the issue of actual footage vs. dramatization is just one of the first in a series of considerations I'd like to raise in this post about how, when and why to show video in class.

The first question we have to ask ourselves as educators, when deciding whether or not to show a film in class is where the film falls on the continuum below:

This is why Forrest Gump doesn't make the cut. It is 2 hours and 25 minutes. That is a LOT of class time for a few scenes about Vietnam. (Not to mention a few scenes that are not exactly school-appropriate.)

The second question we have to ask ourselves is whether the film is at all interesting for kids. If it is informative, but it puts them to sleep once the lights go down, there is little point.

While I don't think the first question we should ask ourselves when we make educational choices is, "is it entertaining?" we are kidding ourselves if we think this doesn't matter. And with so many video choices out there, why wouldn't you find one that was as entertaining as it is informative?

So if you put these two questions, like I did below, you might ask yourself where a film falls in this diagram. Ideally we should only be choosing films in the top left corner.

The questions above focus on what kind of video to choose. But we should really take a step back and ask ourselves,

Why use video in the first place?

a. to replace a lecture.
b. to give yourself a break.
c. to give the students a break.
d. to illustrate something in a concrete, visual way that would be difficult to teach in another way.

While the ideal answer is "d," answers a, b, and c can be acceptable reasons from time to time. We've all been there. The reality of teaching is that sometimes you are just overwhelmed and a great 10 minute video can give you a ten minute break. Your students are just as likely ready to take a break from you. Films/videos can provide much needed variety in the classroom. But rather than think about "negative" reasons to show a video, such as "I need a break," consider some positive ones. There are lots of things that films can do that you can't.

#1 Pictures can be worth a 1000 words

Sometimes, for example, a picture is really worth a 1000 words. For example, in an earlier post on Vietnam, I provided the link to this video of the Cu Chi Tunnels used by the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong. It is only a minute and a half, has catchy music, subtitles that explain what students are looking at, and gives a great overview of the tunnels. You could be the most fantastic teacher in the world and still not be able to describe the tunnels the way this video can.

Here's another example of what film can do. In an earlier post about Rockefeller, Carnegie and the Gilded Age, I offered the link to this video clip about income inequality. It is not quite six and half minutes long, and explains a series of charts and graphs that are pretty mind blowing. Again, it would be a challenge for you to explain this on your own.

There are SO many amazing videos, documentaries, shorts, etc. out there online that you could probably find one for every single topic in your class. I don't recommend that, but my point is that there is a lot of great stuff out there.

#2 Humanizing History

But there is one more thing a video can sometimes do better than you can, and that is making history come alive. There is a reason why kids are always clamoring for Forrest Gump (besides trying to get you to show a movie for 3 days). They like it. They like the story, they like the characters. Characters and stories make us care about history. There are lots of ways to incorporate character and story into our history classes besides showing movies, but showing movies is certainly one of them. And it doesn't have to be a full-length feature Hollywood film either. The 3 1/2 minute excerpt, "Honorable Manhood," from Ken Burns' The Civil War will go a long way towards humanizing the sacrifices made by soldiers. Before Burns' series on The Roosevelts came out, I would "humanize" Theodore Roosevelt by providing students with background on his life and reading some of the letters he wrote. But now we have Ken Burns again: see my earlier post on Roosevelt where I describe the useful links from Burns' series.  Be careful that you don't OD on Ken Burns. There are stories out there (hopefully not true) about teachers who just pop Ken Burns DVDs in and hit play, day after day.

One of my favorite films to show in a class--hard to describe as "entertaining" because it is so sad--I mentioned in my post on the Holocaust.  It's called I'm Still Here and you can read about that here.

Long vs short films

That last film I just mentioned runs about 47 minutes and can be edited to fit within a class period. But this raises questions about how long any film that you show should be. As I mentioned above, there are lots of videos that run as little as a minute or two. Anything less than 10 minutes long fits easily into standard class periods. (I have taught on a block schedule, in the past, and 80 minute periods give you a lot of flexibility!) But what about using longer films? Whether or not to use longer films depends entirely on the film and your purpose in showing it. I would suggest the following points to consider:

  • Cost-benefit analysis: is the film worth taking up a whole period? or a whole period for a few days?
  • If the film takes an entire period, or almost an entire period, is it memorable enough that you can hold off discussing the film until the next day? Are you showing the film on a Friday? If so, will students remember it until Monday?
  • Would it be better to discuss it right away? If so, can you cut parts of the film out to allow more time in class to discuss it? Or would that leave out something important from the film? Should you pause the film part way through to discuss?
  • How will you handle student absences? If you postpone discussion of the film until the next day, can the students who missed the film watch it on the day you discuss it? (i.e. in the library or in the back of the room on a computer with headphones?) Can students watch the film at home?

Full-Length Feature Films

While I wouldn't show Forrest Gump in class, that doesn't mean I wouldn't ever show a full-length feature film. Like many U.S. history teachers, I have used the film Glory with much success. My own 7th grader has just watched the film in her history class. It is a great movie for middle school or high school as long as you cut out the early gruesome shot of a soldier getting his head blown off. That, and some of the swearing makes it rated "R," so you either have to edit those parts, or get permission from parents. And if you teach high school, make sure they didn't already see it in middle school, or it would be repetitive. There are other useful feature films. See the links at the end of this post for suggestions.

Keep in mind you don't always need to show a whole feature film. There may be a part of film that is useful. For example, there is a good 20-30 minute clip towards the beginning of the 1975 film, Hester Street, that I have used as a way to discuss the challenges of being an immigrant to the U.S. in the early 20th century. (In case you are interested, the clip begins when Yankel, a Russian Jewish immigrant, arrives at Ellis Island to meet his newly arriving wife and son, whom he hasn't seen since he emigrated just after their son was born. It's about 15-20 minutes in from the beginning of the movie.)

If you use a fictional film, consider some of the questions below. I raised these questions in an earlier post about the recent film Selma. Since I wrote that post, I have seen the film. And here's my take for history teachers: we could go on and on about the questions below. And that might be a really interesting activity for our students and worthwhile. But Selma is 2 hours and 8 minutes long. The episode from Eyes on the Prize that covers the march from Selma is 55 minutes long--easily trimmable to fit a single class period--and most importantly, it shows the Real Deal. I thought David Oyelowo was wonderful as Martin Luther King and the scenes on the bridge were filmed beautifully. But why not--in a history class--show the real Martin Luther King and the real marchers? For another, similar view about this, see this commentary about Selma. If you are looking for a copy of Eyes on the Prize, a lots of public libraries own it. If yours doesn't, see if it can be ordered from another library.

Questions to ask about a fictional film

1. How historically accurate is the film?
2. What inaccuracies are there and do they matter?
3. How does the film compare to a documentary about the same subject? Is the documentary more informative? Is the documentary "boring?" Will students see the feature film as "truth" and then question the story told by the documentary (keeping in mind that documentaries, just like history books, also have their own "versions" of history and leave certain points out and others in)?
4. Who will students respond to more, the real historic characters? Or the actors? Does that matter? Is this more of an issue with historic events that have occurred after the invention of film? e.g. We might find Daniel Day Lewis believable as Lincoln because we don't see Lincoln in film, versus Martin Luther King who we have seen a lot? Or even consider a character like John Adams, played by Paul Giamatti in the HBO miniseries on John Adams, who we haven't even seen in photographs (unlike Lincoln)?
5. When we internalize fictional accounts of history, what is lost? what is gained?
6. What larger questions does this raise about who "owns" history? How do the stories and versions of history we tell ourselves shape our understanding of the past?

Worksheet or no worksheet? What are your students doing during the film? 

Hopefully watching, of course. The question is whether or not you should give students A Worksheet. When discussing this with my own kids, they practically shouted, "no worksheets!" But there are good worksheets and not-so-good worksheets. The kind I would encourage you to avoid are the ones where students have to listen super carefully in order to fill-in-a-blank with a word narrated in the video. Or lots of short answers. What tends to happen here is that you see about half the class starting to write and then the other half realizes they missed the answer. They then turn around and ask another student, "what was number 3?" and then they all end up missing #4. Teachers usually give these kind of worksheets to ensure that students are paying attention. But they backfire when they cause students to have to write so much that they miss parts of the video.

If you choose not to give any worksheet or assignment, there is the concern that students will just tune out, or--once the lights go out--fall asleep. This is a very real problem (compounded by the lack of sleep most of our students get these days). It should go without saying that you have to pay attention to students while you are showing the film. While it might be a good time for you to update your grades or catch up on emails, you do have to look up every now and then to be sure students are on task. Worksheets do not solve this problem. In fact, in a dimly lit classroom, it can be hard to tell if they are taking notes on the worksheet you gave them or doing their math homework. 

Good videos that are carefully chosen will reduce the need for worksheets designed merely to enforce compliant viewing. There are some videos that are so good you really don't need to do anything to make sure students watch. But even if the video you selected is that good, you decided to show it for a reason. So it is a good idea to, at a minimum, to introduce the video by telling students what they should look for, or pay attention to, or what you will be discussing afterwards. The complexity of those things, the length of the video, and the number of points you want students to note will dictate whether you provide them one overall question or a few on a written handout/worksheet. Consider providing students with a list of questions at the beginning, instructing them to look over it before you start the video, and then have them write their answers afterwards. Or, if they are the kinds of things they will forget afterwards, you can pause the video at appropriate points to have students take notes or write their answers before resuming. 

A few final thoughts on the use of film in the social studies class:

Don't overlook the idea of using documentaries as background for you, the teacher, without even needing to show it to students. You aren't going to show all 9 episodes of Ken Burn's Civil War series to students (at least I hope you aren't). But you can watch them over the summer on a rainy day to give yourself some background info. (And then, if appropriate, decide on excerpts that you want to show students.) What's on my summer watch list? The PBS series, Latino Americans that I mentioned in my post on immigration after 1965.
Remember that you can use clips from movies, commercials and music videos as a "hook" for a lesson. For example, the title sequence for the 1962-1963 TV show, The Jetsons, would be great either for a lesson on 1950s culture or to set up a lesson on feminism (check out the stereotypical way the wife is portrayed). Or show a video of a Vietnam protest song. Or check out my lesson on how rock and roll influenced the modern Civil Rights movement here.

Where can you find good videos? First try the obvious: search Google and youtube. Ask other teachers. Don't just ask teachers you know personally--try asking on twitter! Use the hashtag #sschat, and ask if anyone has a video they recommend on whatever topic. Below are some links to websites where you can find good films. And don't forget your public library--great source for finding documentaries.
  • - Some of the problems with youtube (aside from some questionable copyright practices) is that you can have streaming issues, or you may be forced to show a few minutes of an ad that may or may not be appropriate. solves this.
  • - short ones, long ones, and everything in between. This is a good source for documentaries.
  • PBS - this is the link to the site for teachers. From there, you can browse by subject, age, topic, etc.
  • - Has a list of topics in U.S. history and names of feature films that go with them. At the bottom of the page you can link to the world history site, if you want movies for world history.
  • How to use Hollywood movies in the social studies classroom - a thoughtful post about using Hollywood movies judiciously in the social studies classroom. Plus the author William Campione includes a suggested list of full-feature films suitable for U.S. and World History.
  • - This page has links to mostly feature films (but some documentaries and made-for-TV films) about American history organized by period. I note ruefully that the site recommends Forrest Gump under the topic Civil Rights.  
Blogging about videos in the class has reminded me about the flipped classroom. That is one of the topics on my "things to look into over the summer," so stay tuned. But in the meantime, if you haven't already read about flipping the class, check out's Teacher's Guide to Flipped Classrooms as a starting place. And to see the videos made by two of the best social studies "flippers" out there, check out:
  • Hip Hughes video - in his words, "these lectures are designed for broad based conceptual review for studying for eager middle school students, worried high school students and lost college Freshman." They range from 4 minutes to 35, but most are in the 5-10 minute range.
  • John Green: Crash Courses in U.S. History - Green also has videos for world history, fyi. The ones I have seen are quite good overall, in that they are thorough, and historically accurate. The down side to them is that in the attempt to be short, they are DENSE with material and therefore really go too fast to be useful in class, unless you pause it every now and then. And they are better for high school than middle school. They are good for review.

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