Next Year’s Greatest Lesson: Mini Documentaries

Next Year’s Greatest Lesson: Mini Documentaries

Allison Irwin

Now that we’re winding down to the end of the year and all that’s left to do is proctor finals and tally the grades, I find myself looking for next year’s greatest lesson. What should I change about my instruction? What will captivate my often less-than-enthusiastic audience? Where, oh where should I go to find a resource that is worth sharing in the precious few moments I get with my students each day?

In my googling frenzy, I stumbled across this precious gem from The Learning Network at the New York Times:

8 Compelling Mini-Documentaries to Teach Close Reading and Critical Thinking Skills

When I wrote to Michael Gonchar, Deputy Editor of the New York Times Learning Network, he replied within hours.  It’s easy to tell that this educator-turned-editor has a passion for learning.  When you look to the Film Club, you will see that he plays a big part in that initiative.   In his reply to my email he wrote:

“Thank you for your email. I love the Op Docs in The Times, and I’m really hoping that Film Club will catch on with even more teachers. I think it’s a great resource, especially for ELA teachers. All of these very cool short documentary films make for engaging content for writing, discussing and thinking. I’m so glad to hear that you’re excited about it too, and that you’ll be sharing it with teachers across PA.”

Hopefully more teachers will begin using these valuable resources available on the New York Times Learning Network! I can’t express enough the importance of free, thought-provoking resources that have clearly been developed by someone who knows and understands education.

Here are five reasons why you should absolutely check this out.

1) There is no time to watch a 2-hour video.

I’ve never been one for popping in a movie at the end of the year and coasting through June. That’s what summer is for. Or lazy, rainy afternoons at home on my couch. This post on The Learning Network blog opened my eyes to the possibilities of showing and discussing a short (less than 10 minutes) film. I’ve never considered this before. I could easily plan a 50 minute lesson around a pre-reading activity, video (reading – treat it like a text), and post-reading activity.  While this could be utilized at any point throughout the year, I see this format being particularly engaging in June.

2) The mini documentaries in the Film Club are well produced!

I actually want to watch these films. They have enough created by now that you could either look for the latest additions to their series or you could search for a subject that applies to what your classroom goals are at the moment. As a reading teacher, I find it particularly easy to choose engaging texts – YES VIDEOS COUNT AS TEXT 😊 – since I can teach reading strategies regardless of the content of the chosen text. Even though other teachers may be more shackled to a curriculum, with over 50 short films to choose from, you’re bound to find something that is applicable.

3) “They tell stories that often remain hidden, and introduce us to people and places foreign to us.”

My favorite quote from the original blog post on The Learning Network.  Joyfully and unabashedly making connections to abstract places, feelings, and situations that are foreign to us is one of the most valuable skills we can teach teenagers and young adults. So often kids are afraid of being wrong or sounding like an outcast. Or sounding like they sympathize with an outcast. Or they simply don’t know how to (or don’t care to) connect with something or someone that is unfamiliar. It feels uncomfortable. Watch the 7 minute video on the original blog post called San Quentin’s Giants.  Students will be able to use their familiarity with baseball to bridge a connection to some of the more heavy themes in this documentary such as incarceration in America, self image, race relations, or stereotypes. Valuable, valuable gem indeed.

4) The lesson plans are already there for you!

Sort of. While I almost always adapt the lesson plans and materials provided from any resource, the building blocks of the lesson are already provided here. Have you ever used The Learning Network created by the New York Times? They have an incredible inventory of articles with accompanying discussion questions and activities. Today I learned that they offer the equivalent in video through this Film Club.  I’m so happy! If you’re looking for something worthwhile but already partially constructed for you, then this is the place to look. It does not feel like a scripted curriculum the way that some options do. It’s just the building blocks for you to use and adapt to fit the needs of your students.

5) The Film Club meets and produces a new addition to their inventory every other week during the school year.

Hooray! Constantly evolving content to choose from! I love that this is fresh and remains relevant. It allows us to build on the activity so easily. For example, I could pair their most recent film Turning Oil Rigs into Reefs with all sorts of other texts. Current events from the newspaper would be perfect. Or I could pre-select a few photos that connect with the film on some thematic level and encourage students to make inferences to reveal the theme I intended. The interesting part here is that students may discover themes that I hadn’t intended – isn’t this a great moment to teach students about perspective? Or for younger students, I could use that natural moment to teach them that background knowledge plus the text evidence is what creates an inference. If we all have different background knowledge, we could easily come up with different inferences (even when we’re looking at the same evidence). This means we might all come up with different themes to connect the selected texts! It’s so much easier to have a lesson like this with multimedia texts rather than just words on a page.


Allison is currently serving as the Director of Special Activities for PCTELA. She enjoyed almost 10 years as a middle level educator before making the switch to high school this past year. As a Reading Specialist, she works with small groups of students every day and helps them to build a solid foundation for using text to learn.

Next Year’s Greatest Lesson: Mini Documentaries

Friday Five: Our Best Posts from 2016

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 7.39.43 PMThis Friday, we’re celebrating a year of professional development, a year of teaching, a year of reading, a year of writing, a year of poetry. The list below contains five of our most popular blog posts this year.

  1. “Where’s That Diploma? Claiming Respect as Teachers” written by PCTELA’s own Bob Dandoy
  2. “Let’s Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable” by Danielle Ambrosia
  3. “Book Review: Up Late with Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian” by Kate Walker
  4. “Friday Five: Reasons to Watch Stranger Things Before Going Back to School” by Brian Smith
  5. “A Poem: “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith” (check out Maggie Smith on twitter)

And if you’re making a New Year’s Resolution to write more, or to put yourself out there professionally, you’re always welcome to share a post with us and we’ll publish it. Just contact Kate (kap 17 @ scasd . org). We accept book reviews, opinion pieces, lesson ideas, and many other types of writing.

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor, PCTELA

Friday Five: Our Best Posts from 2016

Watching Proof with My Students

imgresSo we’re finishing up a modern play unit (see my previous thoughts about The Flick), and I wanted students to see how popular plays can turn into films. I decided to show the 2005 film adaptation of David Auburn’s Proof. What I love about this film is that we can watch 20-30 minutes of it and then have an in-depth 20-30 minute conversation about it. Also, it doesn’t hurt that the play is PG-13, so I don’t have to worry about inappropriate scenes (there’s one intimate one, and I just fast-forwarded through it.) The issues in the play include many my students want to talk about: mental illness, taking care of ailing parents, making decisions about college, relationships (between siblings and significant others).

Gwyneth Paltrow, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Anthony Hopkins do an incredible job bringing the play to life.  I asked my students how they can see this film as different from others since it was originally a play and they responded: the scenes seem to be only in a few settings, the dialogue seems more intense, and the setting seems less important. I was fascinated in the differences they noticed. imgres-1

So if you’re looking for a great mini-unit for your students, reading, watching, and discussing Proof might be just the thing to engage seniors in class discussions.

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor for PCTELA

Watching Proof with My Students

Friday Five: Reasons to Watch Stranger Things Before Going Back to School

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 7.39.43 PM

Chances are you have heard of Stranger Things, the Netflix television show created by the Duffer Brothers that was released this past July. There is a chance that you may have already watched it, because I know for me, I didn’t need much convincing. Stranger Things crossed my path three times before I knew that I had to see it. The first was via an interview with the creators in which they discuss how they have always wanted to see a show with characters as compelling as those from “Freaks and Geeks,” but with some supernatural and scary elements to it. The second time the show came into my consciousness was through a magazine advertisement. It was a full page, hand painted poster that evokes the style of Drew Struzan, the artist who painted the posters for nearly every awesome 80’s movie. The third meeting between Stranger Things and myself was reading that two of my favorite fiction-makers, Stephen King and Guillermo del Toro, emphatically endorsed the show. That was all I needed. Perhaps Stranger Things has crossed your path this past month since its release, but you still haven’t been convinced that you need to visit the midwest in the early 1980’s. Or maybe you are averse to jumping on the pop-culture bandwagon when everyone tells you that you NEED to see this movie, listen to this album, or watch this show. Whatever the reasons that you haven’t watched Stranger Things yet, I am here to convince you that you should, and here are five reasons why:

  1. Because Stranger Things does not simply rely on nostalgia for viewership. Those of us of a certain age that can remember being an adolescent in the 1980’s will adore it. A television show has not encapsulated the 80’s this well since the short lived series, Freaks and Geeks. Although Stranger Things may be steeped in nostalgia, it is so much more than a Wayback Machine. I have talked with some millennials who do not remember phones with cords on them, ham radios, or walkie-talkies, and they still love the show…and so will you.
  2. Because everyone is referencing it! If you were to pass by my favorite pizza shop in NYC, and they had this special board outside, or this one, or this one, or this one, you wouldn’t understand the references having not seen the show. Watch the show, get a good chuckle, and get a slice of the Demogorgonzola! From a small pizza shop in Brooklyn, to the venerable New York Times calling Stranger Things the show of the summer and an eerie nostalgia fix, it seems as if everyone is watching, so shouldn’t you.
  3. Because the music is just as beautiful as the camera shots. I haven’t been this enamored with a soundtrack since Twin Peaks. The first installment of the soundtrack was released last Friday with the second volume to be released today. The official soundtrack(s) contain all of the gorgeous original synth music created by the band S U R V I V E, but for those wishing to explore the popular 80’s music featured in the show there are some mixes out there. One Youtube user has created a playlist showcasing some of the music, and a DJ from the UK, has mashed up the music and the dialogue of the show into a whimsical mix. When your students walk into your classroom in the morning while you are listening to the Stranger Things’ soundtrack, you will receive some major cool points, and I’m not sure that you want to earn those points by bonding over Pokémon Go.
  4. Because you don’t have the time to rewatch all the films that it is indebted to. The Goonies, Stand By Me, Poltergeist, Alien, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Stephen King’s It would be great to rewatch before school starts, but between last minute planning, and squeezing out every last drop of summer, you might not have a spare 14.5 hours to devote to rewatching all of those films. BUT…for a paltry 6.5 hours, you can watch a television show that embraces all that is good within those films, and uses those elements to create something just as unique and beautiful as the original source material.
  5. Because even the font of the title sequence is totally awesome! When was the last time people were so engrossed in the font of a television show’s title sequence? That’s right…even the font is being discussed, and rightly so. The title sequence is great overall, but there is something about the font that gently took my hand and brought me back to my childhood. I later found out that the reason for the font’s familiarity is because it has been in my hands countless times as a youth and an adult via the covers of Stephen King and Choose Your Own Adventure books! ITC Benguiat is the font’s name, and its creator is pleased with the way it is used in Stranger Things. There is even a web tool that will allow you to “strangify” text of your own!

Brian teaches Social Studies to 10th and 11th graders at State College Area High School. He is the father of two boys, married to an artist, and a history, film, music, and art enthusiast.

Friday Five: Reasons to Watch Stranger Things Before Going Back to School