Stereotypical history teacher?

Football coach sitting in his room doing game prep for Friday night while his class watches another full-length movie. While that hopefully isn’t happening in your building, there is perhaps some truth to the myth.

But I’m convinced that using videos and movies appropriately can be powerful tools for learning.

Paul Halsall suggests the following questions for our students:

  1. What seems to be accurate in the film? What sources are you using to assess accuracy?
  2. In what ways does the film impact your reading of any of the documents you have been assigned in this course.
  3. What liberties does the film take with the past? Why?
  4. Is the film primarily entertainment, or is it really trying to work within a historical period? How can you determine the film maker’s intention?
  5. What, if any, modern point is the film trying make?

Some other things to think about when using movies as part of instruction:

1. Rarely is the entire movie necessary. Usually, a short clip or two does a great job of getting our message across.  A World History Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Movies does a good job of providing some ways to use snippets of movies for instruction.

2. Is the movie cinematically interesting?

  • Your video should have compelling characters, an intriguing storyline and powerful scenes. So avoid awkward costume epics, subdued performances and low-quality productions. Think high production value such as the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan or the 15 minutes in JFK when Kevin Costner’s character is talking with Mr. X.

3. Is the movie historically revealing?

  • I am not just talking about “historically accurate,” I’m also asking that you use movies to reveal what people believe and accept. This can lead to great conversations about how we create history and what becomes “truth.”
  • Oliver Stone’s conspiracy theory in JFK has credence with so many people that its power as myth forces a teacher to address the manufacturing and belief in myths that become accepted as history and truth. In other words, just because a film doesn’t show the past “as it happened” doesn’t mean it has failed to accurately portray what people believe. JFK reveals a great deal, for example, about how Americans understand their common past and their relationship to the government.
  • For the most part, kids (and probably most adults) have a simplified idea of how history is written. It is easy to simply accept textbooks as truth and completed history rather than a work in progress as new information is revealed.
  • Using JFK, for example, forces teachers and students to imagine history as an ongoing discussion in which persuasion based on evidence carries the day. All of our materials, including movies, should do this.

4. Is the movie itself a historical document?

  • JFK remains a powerful movie; partly because it documents a specific mindset and attitude of the mid-1960s. It also becomes a primary source of the early 1990s when it was made. Many movies possess a similar combination of qualities – they creatively and powerfully engage the past, they reveal something about the creation of our understanding of that past, and they stand alone as a historical marker in their own slice of the past. Movies such as The Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will are wonderful pieces of the past that can be used to illustrate racism as it happened.

It will always be the responsibility of history teachers to help our kids interpret and understand the past and using movies is a great way to do that.

Check out these resources for more ideas and suggestions:

(Thanks to Raymond J. Haberski, Jr. for the basic underpinnings of this Tip.)