Non-fiction and documentary film is a great way for students to begin to understand the world around them. We see this in the historical documentaries by Ken Burns and science documentaries like the BBC series Planet Earth.
But films can do so much more than list historical facts.
Docs like I Am Not Your Negro can help students begin to understand other people and their cultural experience. The idea of listening to the perspectives of others is an important skill that seems to be missing in contemporary American culture, and one that can be nurtured through documentary films.
Documentaries can also help students understand the truth of their inner lives. In much the same way that someone might journal or write a personal essay, documentary films like Tarnation and Sans Soleil can often be explorations of personal experiences.
I’ve written before about how teachers can use fiction films and film theory to teach literature. But the weight of a film being “based on a true story” is even more impactful when it comes in the form of documentary. Watching documentaries can help spark important conversations in the classroom, inspire students to think differently about themselves and others, and help them begin to understand that their localized experience is but one in a vast chorus of experiences around the world.
These are some of my recommendations for films to screen with high school students. Because some of them contain mature subject matter, you might want to preview them first, and ask for parent permission to screen them.
Politics & Culture
Fahrenheit 11/9 (USA, 2018)
From director Michael Moore, this persuasive essay style of doc explores our contemporary political scene, and uses powerful testimony and visual evidence to critique not just conservatives, but even the liberal establishment.
I Am Not Your Negro (USA, 2016)
Based on an unfinished book by James Baldwin and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, this film pieces together excerpts of Baldwin’s writings, speeches and TV appearances, and historical footage to create a powerful examination of race in the US.
Art & Creativity
Exit Through the Gift Shop (USA, 2010)
Street artist Banksy is known for his clever political statements around the world, including the most recent self-destruction of one of his artworks that was sold at auction. This doc explores the nature of art vs commerce through the eyes of a shopkeeper, Mr. Brainwash, searching for the anonymous street artist.
Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry (Germany, 2012)
Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei is known around the world for his powerful imagery, sculpture and installations. But what is the role of an artist in society, and how can art become a political statement? When he bumps heads with the Chinese government, we see how far he is willing to go.
History & Civics
Regret to Inform (USA, 1998)
A Vietnam War widow journeys to the place in Vietnam where her husband was killed decades ago. This personal journey explores the impact of war on women in the US, and also on the lives of Vietnamese war widows. This powerful doc goes beyond textbook facts and dates to reveal the human impact of war.
Night and Fog (France, 1956)
Director Alain Resnais explores the holocaust through archival footage which contrast with peaceful settings of the European countryside nearly a decade after WWII. More than a historical documentary about genocide, this powerful film explores human nature and how time allows us to forget the unforgettable.
Tarnation (USA, 2003)
This frenetic personal essay explores the shocking life of a man who reflects on his family history, revealing some unsavory actions by his grandparents. This is a damning examination of mental illness and our inability to understand the powerful effects it has on the lives of families.
Sans Soleil (France, 1983)
Chris Marker’s expansive personal essay explores some of his favorite themes like memory, culture, place and ritual. A film for advanced art, literature or philosophy students, this film pushes the documentary genre into new territory.
This article was originally published in the International Literacy Association’s magazine, “Literacy Today”
The power of literature to provoke thought, evoke emotion and address important social issues are all reasons why poetry, essays and novels are at the heart of ELA curriculum. By adding cinematic works to our literary canon we can expand the concept of literature and make analysis skills meaningful and relevant to our students.
The best way to build empathy for other people is to listen, and I feel that one of the most engaging ways to do this is through authoring and publishing digital stories.
Most teachers have little experience with these types of projects, so I led a group of teachers on a trip to Guatemala this summer where they learned the art and technique of producing video documentaries. Inspired by the Humans of New York blog, teacher participants interviewed the Mayan people of Guatemala to understand their lives and culture.
At the end of the trip, I produced an ebook that documents our experience, includes the finished projects, and details the lesson for the documentaries so you can do a similar project with your students.
I'm passionate about all kinds of storytelling and how the act of creating and publishing stories has the ability to open hearts and minds. This article explores my ideas about storytelling and empathy and can give you a better sense of my philosophy of teaching and learning. It was written by Nicole Krueger for the ISTE member magazine, Empowered Learner in 2018. See the full article below. Photos by Allen Zaki.
This article originally appeared in PBS Teachers Lounge
Teachers rarely get out of their classrooms, and although we like hanging out with kids, it’s important to collaborate--and, yes, have fun--with grownups. Some of my most inspirational professional growth has happened at conferences, and I’ve met some of my best friends by attending these events. After years of attending conventions as both a presenter and attendee, I thought I’d share a few tips about how to make the most of your conference experience.
It took several months before one of my high school students told me the story of what had happened on our class field trip.
In November 2016, the day after the election, I took a group of 20 students to Indianapolis for the National High School Journalism Convention. During the trip one of my students was using the gym when a mom asked him if he was in town for the marching band convention. When he told her that he was there as a student journalist, she called him a “lying pig like CNN” and promptly ushered her children away.
This story first appeared in EdSurge
When was the last time you wrote an essay? When was the last time you read one other than for grading?
Now think about the frequency with which you read online articles, blogs, social media posts or listen to podcasts that inspire you or provide new information and perspectives. When did you last watch YouTube to figure out how to do something complicated, from cross stitch to car repair?
If you’re like me, you’ve done much of your reading and learning through some kind of digital publishing platform—because it’s easy, accessible and often free. Whether text, video or something else entirely, each of these mediums encompasses a form of writing.
By telling their stories through multimedia, students develop skills in critical thinking, writing, research, and collaboration, as well as owning their learning and effecting change.
This story first appeared in Edutopia.
Perceptions of people and events are very much dependent upon who you are and what your experience has been. Events in Ferguson and Baltimore, among others, highlight our misunderstandings of each other, and how the same facts can be interpreted entirely differently. What's worse, people of color and underrepresented groups are defined by journalists covering these events, who themselves don't reflect the ethnic composition of our country as a whole.
Michael is an award-winning media arts teacher, speaker and consultant in Los Angeles.