Documentaries: Watch and Learn

“Miss, can we have a free day?  Like watch a movie or somethin’?”

In a course that consistently moves at the speed of light, slowing down for a flick is a frequent request.  Well, why not give them what they want while still managing to get what you want?

“Sure, class…let’s do just that.”  The teacher glides over to the DVD player as thirty sets of blinking eyes light up like fireworks.  Oh yes, kiddies, learning CAN be fun.

A meaningful and deliberately-planned documentary pick is a great way to energize the class under any circumstance.  As bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as they often are, our population of accelerated-level students have their days too…but calling a study hall day because they are unmotivated, or because you need time to grade, or because your lesson plans grew legs and hit the pavement, or because of high absences due to some blasted TLE…well, this doesn’t always do us justice with the time frame we are working with, especially since we have to compete with other breakdowns in seamless instruction (like district diagnostics, and ice cream socials, and testing, and end-of-course exams, and school-wide presentations, and…and…and…).

In fact, if you plan the lesson carefully, the documentary teaches itself.  Having a group-related activity to incline the group to problem-solve is crucial, for example.  Prior to the start of the film, set your intentions; let the students know what they are seeking.

Let’s use 180 Degrees South, a documentary I mentioned in a previous post, as an example.  Since this story concerns the preservation of the natural environment in light of a modernizing world, you could open class with a GP essay prompt such as:

  • Can a country preserve its culture nowadays when continually subjected to outside influences?
  • How far do we agree that, in spite of all the changes in society, traditional values always remain best?
  • How far do you agree that the pleasurable things in life are bad for you?
  • Is a world dominated by science a dream or a nightmare for future generations?
  • Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of industrial development.
  • Does the modern world place too much reliance on technology?

Perhaps have them talk it out first, activating what they know currently.  Then watch the clip.  Then write about it.  (Information gleaned from the above documentary can be used to argue a point in any of these essay topics.)

But first, it would be smart to model for students how such connections between information gathering and essay writing are made before expecting them to successfully engage in this type of exercise.

Use something familiar, such as Supersize Me, for example, alongside the prompt: “Consider the view that the key to good health is not medicine, but lifestyle.”  Most kids have at least heard about Supersize Me before, so you can probably get away with a quick summary.  Ask them to discuss how they would use this information in said GP essay prompt.  Lead them gently to the connection.  Then perhaps show them what a sample paragraph of this task would look like in its finished product…I usually draft up my own to ensure that it has all the right teachable moments, but if you want to put a few Supersize Me facts on the board and have them do a practice round, go for it!

Once they know what is expected of them, students can begin to set their sights on finding the answer that leads to the grade.  😉  Since we want the GP classroom to be highly interactive–where kids share and debate issues with one another in order to see multiple perspectives before drawing conclusions–let them do this practice activity in collaborative groups.  Have the groups present for added exposure to ideas.  After all, we know that our lessons are much more than ‘just a grade.’ 😉

If the group uses the documentary information as an example in favor of the prompt, have each student independently research an opposing idea to work against the prompt as homework.

See, kiddies?!  Learning IS fun!

They’d never believe us otherwise 😉

Well, I take that back, actually.  Lots of high school students were intrigued (and even moved to action) by the the Koney 2012 movement this past year, a message spread via documentary.  And with the ever-popular YouTube generation, it’s no secret that society, especially teenagers, like visual stimulation.

There are a million activities one could do with a documentary, and I’m sure showing educational videos in your classroom is nothing ground-breaking here.  But the purpose of this post is to share some “GP-relevant” documentaries along with your own idea of how to get our classrooms to come to life alongside them.

Here’s my own personal list of documentaries so far.  (I like to show a doc during the same week that I give an essay because, as it plays, I can conduct individual conferences with student writers as I grade.)  Please NOTE:  though documentaries are not rated, which means they don’t need parent signature to approve viewing, I’d be very careful to view each flick first to ensure the content is appropriate for your level of students.  In some of these, I skip scenes to avoid violence, language, etc.  As you know, the topics we study are often mature, so we need to be vigilant in filtering out inappropriate material.

Here are a few that I like or a few that I plan to look into this summer:

180 Degrees South (of course)

Exit Through the Gift Shop

The Two Escobars, from ESPN’s 30 for 30 series

Food, Inc.

Food Matters


And for the motherboard of all documentary links, check out the Top Documentary Films website.  I would suggest scanning here for ideas, then do more finely-tuned research elsewhere to ensure that the film is appropriate, etc.  Again, always use your best judgment and adhere to school policies.

Ok, fire away!  What have you watched that would get your GP stamp of approval? POST IT!

14 responses

  1. I use a film in my debate class, and this year used it for Pre-AICE English. It’s not a documentary, but it is based on a true story and it did allow us to discuss a multitude of topics … The Great Debaters. Also great for ethics discussions and other fingers of the hand … The Emperor’s Club.


    1. I just watched The Vanishing of the Bees (narrated by Ellen Page….aka Juno). It’s available on Netflix right now. It was definitely an excellent commentary on how big business directly affects the environment and how a natural phenomenon has global impacts. GP relevant in a variety of ways. All five GP fingers up:)


      1. Excellent suggestion, Jessica! Definitely putting this on my list of what to watch!


  2. […] GP-relevant documentaries and begin building lesson plans around them.  Seek out essay prompts that relate and develop ways […]


  3. Christina Gray | Reply

    I often show the film The King of Kong with my students. It’s a great opener to the debate on the merits/hazards of video games and gaming culture. I’ve also used it to discuss the idea of the reliable/unreliable narrator and the ways editing can skew objectivity.


    1. Great suggestion, Christina. The video gaming industry is definitely fair “game” for GP! In fact (and I’ll do this often, lol), it reminds me of a prompt regarding how often average people are considered “great” in our society…definitely Billy’s story! Here’s a quick link to the trailer for The King of Kong: a Fistful of Quarters for those of us interested!!


  4. Amber Saunders | Reply

    I was watching “Freakonomics” documentary today on HBO and it seemed like it could provide some interesting points on a few different topics; looking at the unfair practices in Sumo wrestling to allow competitors to reach the top, pinpointing Roe vs. Wade (abortion) in 1970 as the reason behind the significant drop in crime in 1990, Incentives (social, government, schools). Have you seen this? What do you think?


    1. ambersaunders | Reply

      And also… with these films…do you create a study guide ahead of time? Ask them to take notes? Add these topics/notes to the card system?


    2. Oh man, you just reminded me! Yes! I have this on DVD but have not yet watched it. I’ve read the book so I was looking forward to seeing how the video version would be for students…then you could always pair up the text with it to emphasize various aspects. Good call, Amber! As for approach, I usually create a handout to guide them toward the big discussion points, one that has them target a few specific details to help them recall the scene, then we use class discussion and group collaboration to step back to the bigger message that will ultimately find its way into their writing. Doing a flashcard for it is a great idea! Or, you could break the movie into chunks and have each group serve as expert in re-capping that segment with, say, picture notes…their depictions, presented in the order of the video, will help you explore the review process with them step by step! Also, consider what you have done previously with videos as a learning tool…I bet some of these cool ideas could easily be adapted for our purposes!


  5. I watched ‘Waiting for Superman’ last night. (another Netflix pick) Because I heard it was anti-teacher and would just be frustrating to watch, I always bypassed it. Now that I’m constantly thinking about how this might work for teaching GP, I decided to try it. I thought it was fantastic. Looking at the history of schooling in general and the current practices in the US and abroad was really eye opening; particularly, the KIPP charter schools success in urban settings. I’m reading The Tipping Point right now too and the connection between how well these charter schools performed and ‘the power of context’ in the Tipping Point make for an optimistic way of looking at the possibilities in education. Plenty of GP related info in the documentary and little chunks of stuff to use from Tipping Point. Jill, I have some mini lessons you might want to check out. I’m not completely done with them yet. Will keep ya posted. 🙂


    1. Jessica, this sounds like a phenomenal unit-in-the-making! I’d love to put you in my “Teacher Feature” slot once you work out the details. In the meantime, feel free to send along any mini-lessons and I’d be happy to post these, credits to you of course! A teacher friend lent me the Waiting for Superman DVD, but I never got around to it for the same reasons you cited…I thought it would just give me a mid-year stress out that I didn’t want to deal with, as I had heard similar reviews. But as teachers, it’s important to share BOTH sides of the story with our students, even when we don’t particularly agree (i.e. heck, we could even throw in bits from Lies My Teacher Told Me?!). There are plenty of GP prompts that beg judgment of the education system, so this is an excellent way to give students a multi-rounded view of what reportedly is. Tipping Point tidbits sound great as a means of adding depth to the discussion. The ‘power of one’ at work! Keep it comin’!!!!


  6. […] I wrote a post about using documentaries in the GP classroom.  Here’s what our contributor and fellow Florida teacher did with this […]


  7. […] of the first things I blogged about was the value of using documentaries in the classroom.  It’s a memorable way to share GP-relevant information with students, but it’s also a […]


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