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Learning With Documentary Films: Strategies to Engage Students

October 26, 2015 5 min read
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Documentaries and film can bring the world to students in very real ways. Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Education Director for Global Oneness Project, tells us how and shares resources and strategies. And join Cleary and me on Twitter this Thursday, October 29 at 8pmET/5pmPT for #GlobalEdChat! We will delve deeper into how to use film in the classroom.

by guest blogger Cleary Vaughan-Lee

Why do we need stories? Stories are universal and create connections across time, place, and cultures. Now more than ever, we need stories to help us understand and connect to our fast-changing world. Impactful stories—a book, a film, or an oral story passed down from generations—have the power to bring us closer to something much greater than ourselves.

Films, according to director Beeban Kidron in her 2012 TED talk, are the 20th century’s most influential art form. Why? They tell universal stories across national boundaries and languages. Film helps us expand our world, introducing us to values, struggles, innovations, and beliefs beyond our daily experience.

Today, the short form documentary has filled an important role in education. Teacher and educational journalist Mark Phillips explains in his Edutopia blog “Film as a Great Motivator” that “this generation of students is film and video oriented; we should use this, not bewail it.” We need to meet students where they are, and the continuously growing digital landscape is an important opportunity for educators.

How can teachers use short documentary films in a meaningful and compelling way for young people? The following strategies exemplify ways in which short documentaries can enhance classroom environments.

Build Social & Emotional Awareness
In his blog, Phillips writes that in order to grab and hold students’ attention, educators need to reach them emotionally. Films are multi-sensory. A film has the potential to create an emotional connection to its subject matter and can provide a human experience. The impact of audio and visual components supports students’ retention of information.

Documentaries are emotionally powerful vehicles that can transport students to other cultures and create an awareness of global issues from the inside out through feeling and empathy. When enhanced with written reflection, films help students develop social and emotional learning in ways not available from textbooks or lectures. Students can experience the world through real-life people as well as see and feel what it is like for a person living around the world. PBS LearningMedia has lesson plans that include reflection questions to help students process the feelings evoked from documentary films.

I recently talked to Jennifer Klein, a former high school English teacher for 19 years and now a National Faculty member for The Buck Institute. She believes in an authentic approach to global learning and has been using short documentary films in her international classrooms for years. “There is nothing more humanizing for students than short documentary films; they grab the heart, offer a window into the daily lives of real people, and allow students to see other cultures and places as populated by living, breathing human beings on a planet we need for our survival,” Klein said.

Connect to Current Events
Students are exposed to a range of real-world problems in their daily lives, either through media or in their own backyards. Some of these issues include poverty, substance abuse, violence, consumerism, indigenous rights, immigration, modernization, and the effects of environmental changes. A short documentary can expose students to any number of global issues, reduce isolation, and allow students to connect to innovations and inspiration from sources beyond their immediate environment.

Film Club is a new teaching and discussion forum using short documentaries from the New York Times Learning Network. The platform complements classroom curricula and highlights issues that teenagers care about, such as technology and society, race and gender identity, and civil rights.

I met Mike Dunn, a history teacher turned college and career counselor at AIM Academy in Pennsylvania, this past June at the International Society for Technology in Education conference in Philadelphia. He said that students look at the past for relevancy and relationships. For example, students who may grapple with the idea of the French Revolution can relate to the more recent revolutionary actions in the Arab Spring and the Baltimore riots of 2015. He described that screening a short documentary film in a social studies class offers a vehicle for critical thinking and analysis of the historical events: “My goal is to encourage students to reflect on their own lives and scrutinize their actions/choices in meaningful ways. The combination of writing with film has resulted in more rich understanding for students and output options that encourage creative and critical communication.” Take a look at Dunn’s portfolio where he explores merging media in the social studies classroom.

Incorporate Reflective Writing Assignments
A short documentary story can increase students’ literacy with connections to a source, to self, and to the world. Just as students use quotes from a book or text to prove an analytical thought, students use the film as a source to justify their reasoning.

After viewing and discussing a film, a writing prompt can provide a way to integrate knowledge from various points of view and apply newly learned ideas. An English or art teacher may use a short documentary to study character development or themes in writing such as identity, family values, or commitment. A science or history teacher may examine how the issues explored in a film relate to students’ lives, such as the effects of environmental changes, immigration, the global economy, or consumer decision-making.

Global Oneness Project provides short documentary films that highlight global cultures and environmental issues, and related lesson plans contain reflective writing questions to accompany the stories.

By using film in a learning environment, educators can get the attention of young people and take them on a journey to experience the world. Global stories and issues become relevant to students’ lives and can support truly meaningful classroom discussions and activities, allowing students to find their own voices, making them stronger global citizens in this fast changing world. Because short, global documentaries can transcend boundaries and cultures, they are powerful tools for integrating universal human values integral to global education.

Connect with Cleary, Global Oneness Project, Heather, and Asia Society on Twitter.

Image and video are courtesy of the author.

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The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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