Using Documentaries to Enhance Your Lessons

September 10th, 2013 | by Stephan Maldonado

A few weeks ago, we talked about some of our favorite educational programs, and how television can be an effective teaching tool. We also talked about the power of music, and how materials that are entertaining can help students with memorization, critical thinking, and creativity. The last thing a classroom should be is boring , and great teachers understand and utilize emerging technologies and different media to engage their students. When used properly, music, movies, television, and even games can improve the way a child learns and actually get them excited about school.

It is important to toe the line between education and entertainment. While it might be helpful to flex your own creative muscles by finding educational uses for something popular–say, The Hunger Games–there are also many options specifically produced to educate. The television programs we mentioned before are a fine example, but there are a number of excellent documentary films that teachers can use to enhance their teaching and present lessons in deeper, more evocative ways. Whether their intended audience are students or the general public, documentaries are made to inform and enlighten.

Filmmakers as Educators

Believe it or not, documentary filmmakers and teachers have a something in common. Documentary filmmakers are passionate about a topic and inspired by the need to teach others about their passion. Perhaps they are animal activists, and want people to learn about the treatment of dolphins. They could be healthy living advocates demonstrating the dangerous side effects of unhealthy eating habits. Whether they are driven by this passion from early on, or are suddenly awakened to it later in life, it is their commitment to share their passion with others that turns them into educators.

In a similar way, teachers follow their passion into the classroom, fulfilling their desire to have a long-lasting impact on the lives of young people. They are either passionate about a specific subject they want to teach, or about improving the overall quality of education. They want to change lives with their lessons, and they are able to present information in a way that their audience (students) would understand. Because documentary filmmakers teach through their passion, their films lend themselves easily to the classroom setting.

Documentaries of all Shapes, Sizes, and Subjects

Literally thousands of documentaries have been produced, and it can be difficult to navigate the massive selections available. Like with any resource, you should begin by determining the exact lesson you will be using the film for. How are you going to use it in your class? Will this be part of a larger unit, or will you use it to teach the unit itself? Do you expect your students to take notes, answer specific questions, or complete a project based on the film? Some very important questions to ask yourself are:

  • What was the filmmaker’s purpose?
  • Is the filmmaker objective
  • Who is the target audience?
  • Is the subject matter and age level appropriate?
  • What will this film add to my lesson?
  • Is this something students and parents would be okay with?
  • Am I allowed to use this?

Because the plethora of documentaries is so varied, you have a lot to choose from, but you also have a lot to look out for. You should always view the documentary yourself before using it, and even though it will likely need to be approved by your principal, do some extra research to ensure that it will add something positive to your class. Read reviews and visit the film or director’s website. Avoid controversial films, or ones that present facts in sensational, incendiary ways. Don’t choose films that are too dense, or above the learning level of your students. And always make sure your students know that documentaries present one person or group’s interpretation of an issue, and that there are multiple viewpoints.

Once you’ve got some sense of what you want your students to gain, you can begin your search for the right documentary. There are films in almost every subject, from art and music, to food and sports. Environmental issues, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and other branches of science provide endless sources of inspiration to documentarians, and advances in filmmaking technology help these directors beautifully demonstrate their subjects. Now, it is possible for a filmmaker to digitally recreate metabolic processes at a cellular level, or map the farthest galaxies. Cameras can even capture a glimpse of some of the deepest points in the earth’s oceans.

The chronicling of ancient civilizations, civil rights movements, modern warfare, human rights, and the lives of amazing individuals is also made possible through documentaries. They can be short, from the two-minute summary of an ant’s life or a four-minute biography of Thomas Edison, to the length of an entire series, like Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth series. Movie conglomerates like Rotten Tomatoes or the Internet Movie Database can help you find the right documentary for your classroom, and Netflix also has a great selection. A relevant, age-appropriate documentary that is approved by your principal and deemed useful by you can be a powerful and effective teaching tool.

Documentary Film Flowchart1 Documentary Film Flowchart [INFOGRAPHIC]

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