Hollywood movies pose a unique set of problems for social studies teachers: How often should I show films, how much of the film should I be showing, and which films are appropriate to show? The short answer is film is an essential part of the social studies classroom that, if used in the proper manner, can be a pedagogical tool that enhances your students’ understanding of historical events and themes.
How often should I show films?
You should show films as often as your curriculum calls for it. Movies give the students the unique ability to see history happen in a modern medium with special effects and a cultural significance that you cannot recreate in your classroom. The key to using movies well is to use them wisely. They should serve as a complement to your more traditional methods of conveying information.
For example, a primary source about the modernization by the Meiji government of Japan in the late 1800s gives the students the ability to visualize history while improving their skill of interpreting text. But if that source is followed by a clip of the Tom Cruise film “The Last Samurai”, the students see their vision come to life. The students can make a T chart of the traditional and modern aspects of Japan they see in the clip. Think of all of the skills used in this ten minute activity: drawing upon prior knowledge that was gained through reading a first hand account, comparing and contrasting two vastly different eras in Japan, and interpreting the film not as a Hollywood production but as a secondary source.
Don’t let the stigma of showing films alter your best judgment as a professional. Cops still eat doughnuts despite the public’s negative connotation. Teachers should still show movies despite the public’s misconception as to why we show them.
How much of the film should I be showing?
I have worked with teachers who earned nicknames such as “Lights Out” and “Matinee” for their use of movies in the classroom. It wasn’t their frequent use of film that earned them these monikers; it was their reliance on showing FULL LENGTH Hollywood movies on a regular basis. This is not a pedagogically sound practice on any level. Movies are more useful in the social studies class through a series of short clips, not when they are shown in their entirety. The few exceptions to this rule include Glory, Schindler’s List and Hotel Rwanda because these are stories that more completely tell of the emotions and individuals that make history happen and make it special. These stories cannot be properly told in ten minute clips.
When I was in high school, my tenth grade teacher showed the class the film “Gandhi”. The entire 191 minute movie. Today, I use three specially selected clips from the movie (less than thirty minutes in total) to illustrate the themes of human rights violations, collapse of imperialism, and the importance of the individual.
Which films are appropriate to show?
There is no one right answer to this question so I recommend you ask your school’s administration before showing any movie – even just a clip! – that is rated above the age of your class. Some districts have an approved movie list that is constantly reviewed and updated.
Below is an abbreviated list of films that would be ideal to show in the social studies classroom. Again, I advise that you view the film and find clips that apply to your lesson and reinforce the themes and concepts that you are trying to deliver to your students.
1492: Conquest of Paradise (Exploration)
The Crucible (Salem Witch Trials) – worksheet
The Last of the Mohicans (French and Indian War)
1776 (Revolutionary War)
Amistad (Slavery) – worksheet
Glory (Civil War)
Gettysburg (Civil War)
Lincoln (Civil War)
The Godfather Part II (Immigration)
The Grapes of Wrath (Depression) – worksheet
Saving Private Ryan (Invasion of Normandy/World War II)
We Were Soldiers (Vietnam War)
Gladiator (Bread and Circus/Roman Empire) – worksheet
Luther (Reformation/Diet of Worms)
The Last Samurai (Japanese Imperialism) – worksheet
The Last Emperor (Qing Dynasty)
Flyboys (World War I)
All Quiet on the Western Front (World War I) – worksheet
The Lost Battalion (World War I)
Gandhi (Indian Independence)
Schindler’s List (Holocaust) – worksheet
Thirteen Days (Cuban Missile Crisis)
Hotel Rwanda (Collapse of Imperialism/Genocide) – worksheet
Not only can watching films enhance students’ understanding and interest in a topic, having your class make a movie is an excellent method for assessment that asks the kids to interpret and analyze material to make an organized and accurate representation of history. With smartphones and almost every pocket and programs such as Windows Moviemaker becoming available to more districts, the ability to use film as a tool for assessment is more relevant than ever. Students can create a documentary or newscast that discusses history as it happens. This makes set design and wardrobe very easy. A more detailed project can be to have them act out history as it happens. Posting these projects on YouTube is another way to view films and share them with other classes. There are numerous examples of similar projects online, enabling you to show students both good and poor examples of what you would like them to do.
Don’t let parents, administrators, or colleagues shame you into ignoring such a popular and effective medium. Hollywood films can be used as an effective tool for learning if they are used in the proper manner. Follow the tips above for maximum impact on your students and check out our post Teaching with Movies in the ELA classroom post for more ideas.