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.

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Next Year’s Greatest Lesson: Mini Documentaries

Book Review: Elena Vanishing: A Memoir by Elena Dunkle

Book Review: Elena Vanishing: A Memoir by Elena Dunkle

I picked this book up because e.E.Charlton-Trujillo posted on her instagram about it and I thought I would take her advice on what to read (she’s a discerning reader and knows all about great Young Adult literature, being a great YA writer herself). She wrote “There are about twenty books that I wish could be taught in every high school in America. This is one of them.” (The photo below is from her page.)screen-shot-2017-03-01-at-9-17-34-am

So, truthfully, it took me a long time to read Elena Vanishing from start to finish. I found myself reading 20 or 30 pages and having to put it down and walk away from it.  It was powerful and raw, but so hard to read about a young woman who cannot see her own beauty.

I have had students in the past who have struggled with an eating disorder, and although I remember telling them how smart and beautiful they were, I still never could really understand what they were grappling with and how they were feeling. This book has offered me a window to a struggle I’ve never really known. One quote to consider in this vein: “Where does thin become fat? Where does success become failure? Where does a great future become a horrible past full of heartache and regret?”

When I finished, I handed it off to a ninth grade teacher and talked to some of them about maybe using it with Speak or for their memoir units. In the end, it is a book that made me uncomfortable, and I think that’s important to feel. I am consciously seeking that in my reading these days rather than defaulting to what I know I will love and what will not necessarily, as the kids say, help me be woke (or get woke? still learning that one).

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

Book Review: Elena Vanishing: A Memoir by Elena Dunkle

Friday Five: Articles & Links for Black History Month

Friday Five: Articles For Black History Month to Share with Students

  1. “Star Ballerina” this Time for kids article profiles “Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre.”
  2. 12 Poems to Read for Black History Month poets.org “asked twelve contemporary black poets from across the country to choose one poem that should be read this month and to tell us a bit about why.”
  3. “Unpublished Black History” every day the New York Times will publish “Revealing moments in black history, with unpublished photos from The New York Times’s archives.”
  4. “Frederick Douglass” information on the History Channel
  5. An interesting article on Black History Month from the Independent, in the UK.

Image of Lena Horne from New York Timesubh-lena-horne-jumbo-v4

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

Friday Five: Articles & Links for Black History Month

Book Review: Steve Peha’s Be a Better Writer

Book Review: Steve Peha’s Be a Better Writer
Kate Walker

Half the fun of the NCTE conference is the spontaneous conversations that occur over meals, at the sessions, in the exhibition hall. One conversation happened when I was at the Norton booth chatting with Jim Burke and a gentleman with a pin that said “optimism.” That gentleman was Steve Peha, and not only did he gift me an optimism pin of my own, we had a great conversation about teaching, metaphor, and writing.  We exchanged cards and went on our way.

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Lo and behold, a month later Steve’s book Be A Better Writer arrived in the mail for me, and while it took me a bit to read it (end of the marking period, you know how it is) I am so glad I did. Be a Better Writer has the kind of voice and approach that balances knowledge with concrete activities, and a bit of fun mixed in. Although the cover says “for school, for fun, for anyone ages 10-16” these techniques are useful for any beginning writer. I particularly appreciated the checklists before each chapter, as they served to let me know what the chapter would be about–better than a chapter table of contents. My favorite might have been #9 for chapter 2: “There are things that need to be said in the world. You might be the only person who can say them.” Great advice.

Be A Better Writer also gives teachers a way to teach strong writing with concrete approaches. For example, writing memoir can sometimes be hard to teach, but Peha gives us 3 ways to start an essay that could even be combined to create a strong introduction to a memoir. Using a thought, a description, and a question together, and you’ve got a powerhouse introduction. unnamedI found myself noting useful portions of the book with sticky notes, and now the book seems to have a pink sticky-note mane encompassing it.  I have to admit, though, seeing Peha reference Moby Dick when writing about punctuation might have been my favorite portion (I am a bit of a Moby Dick-head, as Stephen Colbert has said).

So if you’re a new teacher, a new writer, or even an experienced teacher or writer, this book is worth the read.And I also didn’t mention yet Margot Carmichael Lester, journalist and founder of the Word Factory, weighs in on each of the chapters with her views, too. Well organized, with strong content (I didn’t even mention the author interviews, the writing samples, and the vast lists of activities and ideas), this book should be on every teacher and student’s shelf of writing advice. So if you see a nice guy at NCTE next year walking around with an optimism button, stop him for a conversation, you won’t be sorry.

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Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

Book Review: Steve Peha’s Be a Better Writer

MLK Day Book Review: March by John Lewis

MLK Day Book Review: March by John Lewis
Denny Connolly


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March: Book One released in the summer of 2013 and just a few years later the full award-winning trilogy is now available and more relevant than ever. The ambitious comic project is a collaboration between iconic Civil Rights hero John Lewis, writer Andrew Aydin, and Eisner and Ignatz winning artist and letterer Nate Powell. The powerhouse trio come together to tell the story of America’s Civil Rights Movement as witnessed through the eyes of one of its key figures, Congressman Lewis. The result is a stunning biography that transcends tear-jerking period piece and enters the realm of political action blueright for future generations.

The first volume opens on a defining moment of Lewis’ life and American history, as he and other peaceful protesters kneel to pray on Edmund Pettus Bridge while armed police approach with billy clubs. From there, the story elegantly dances back and forth between Washington, D.C. on President Obama’s inauguration day in 2009 and Lewis’ formative years in rural Alabama circa the mid 1950s.

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March: Book One follows Lewis as he comes to the realization that he has the spirit of an activist and follows his journey from aspiring preacher to central figure in the lunch counter sit-in protest. Unlike some history texts and other less ambitious books about the Civil Rights Movement, March doesn’t present the proud protesters as men and women who stood in line respectfully and quietly until things went their way. Although Lewis always stands by his call for non-violent protest; he uses March as a venue to clearly recount the pain, suffering, and abuse that the movement had to withstand while causing their ‘good trouble’ as he likes to call it.

March’s greatest strength is that it reads like a political education manifesto, without sacrificing any artistry for its goal. Lewis lays out what it takes to stand up and make a difference and, hopefully, spurs a new generation of Americans to always fight for equality and push forward. Always forward. These lessons are all the more effective and emotional thanks to the superior craft that Nate Powell brings to every panel.

screen-shot-2017-01-14-at-9-50-11-pmIn case there was any doubt after 2008’s Swallow Me Whole (a must-read examination of young people and mental illness), letterer Powell continues to prove that he is the contemporary master of greyscales and negative space. His style floats in a magical place between expressionism and realism that make every panel uniquely his own. His splash pages with black ink poured over the majority of the page draw the reader’s eyes exactly where he and the writers want it to be. Powell’s powerful style is so closely associated with his own voice that it was hard to imagine him inking someone else’s words, but after three volumes of March, it’s clear that he has the talent and power to bring any story to life on the page.

March is that special kind of YA novel that can truly connect with readers of any age from as young as 10 or so all the way up to senior citizens. Whether you’re an expert in the Civil Rights Movement or totally uninformed about Lewis’ battles, the page turner will keep you hooked through three emotional volumes of essential American history. The series provides a snapshot of the country’s past that was an essential stepping stone in the social justice movement, while helping readers of all ages realize that there is always more work to be done and always a need for strong, smart citizens to step up to the challenge.

Readers can find each volume of March seperately or a collection containing all three at their local comic shop. (If you’re near State College, that’s the Comic Swap.)

Denny Connolly is a writer and content strategist living in State College, PA. Find more of his work on Twitter @DennyConnolly.

MLK Day Book Review: March by John Lewis

Book Review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Book Review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah writes brilliantly, balancing his wisdom and insight with humor and a lighthearted tone that belies the seriousness of the content. I would put this book in my top 5 books of the year.

I really enjoyed the format of this memoir. Noah intersperses facts and stories about life in South Africa with more personal stories and anecdotes. But he doesn’t just share his own stories, he shares the wisdom he’s gained from his experiences.  When he talks about how he was able to start a small business with a CD writer, it was only because a friend gave it to him.  This translates to his insightful observation about opportunity:  “People love to say, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” What they don’t say is, “And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.” That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing.”

There are a number of shorter chapters in this book I’d love to share with my seniors. Whether they were the chapters about learning to talk to girls or learning to be authentic or how much his mother taught him about having optimism in life, I found the writing to be relatable. On the other hand, I felt like I learned a lot about what it was like to live in post-apartheid South Africa. It was like reading an engaging history lesson by an insider. And yet, Noah made the point that as the son of a black mother and a white father, he was basically always an outsider. This balance throughoimgres-1ut the book, of content, humor, wisdom, and insight made it a fascinating read.

If you got a book gift card for the holidays, consider buying a copy of this book. I polished it off in less than 24 hours, and I’m excited to share about it with my students.

Posted by Kate, PCTELA Blog Editor

Book Review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Book Review: From Me to We: Using Narrative Nonfiction to Broaden Student Perspectives

From Me to We: Using Narrative Nonfiction to Broaden Student Perspectives
by Jason Griffith

Full disclosure, I know Jason and he sent me a copy of this book. Before he went off to graduate school in Arizona, I always made sure to attend his PCTELA conference presentations, as I knew I would walk about with concrete ideas I could immediately integrate into my lessons the next week.

Well, this book is sort of like attending a week’s worth of PCTELA presentations–I found myself taking notes about which lessons to integrate and when I would use them.  What I love about this book is how Jason is a realistic teacher. He acknowledges that most of us can’t just add new books to our curriculum instantly, that we need ways to supplement the texts we already have. But he does remind us how “As an English teacher, I see myself as an ambassador for books that I love.” I couldn’t agree more!

Jason offers a number of concrete ways to develop a unit using narrative nonfiction–and his introduction explains why he’s even using the term narrative nonfiction. He reminds us that “By reading narrative nonfiction, students can explore much of the circular plot and character content that they can through classic and contemporary fiction, but narrative nonfiction also offers a chance to experience vicarious perspectives from real lives.”

The book is split into two main parts: Reading the Truth and Writing the Truth.  Throughout, there are useful activities. I know I’ll be implementing the 1-1-1 Research paper, where students refer to one source, use one citation/quote from that source, and write one page. What a quick, efficient way to check for understanding.

I also really appreciate the time Jason took to include a few paragraphs about profanity and censorship in writing–and his references to the recently departed Leonard Cohen and the prolific Stephen King strengthened what he had to say. This is another element of this text I appreciated–Jason has gathered numerous sources to support his observations and his activities.

In short, not to be too much of a fangirl, but this book is a must-read for anyone teaching what I used to call the Personal Essay, or the Fourth Genre, which Jason calls Narrative Nonfiction. I confess, I think I may be switching what I call this type of writing because Jason’s term makes so much sense.

The best part is this: you can see Jason at NCTE next week presenting during these sessions:

G.10 Igniting Instruction—Round 2

J.02 Why Middle Matters: Middle Level Mosaic

L.15 My Story, My Place, My Path: Empowering Student Self-Advocacy through Expressive Writing

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Kate is the PCTELA Blog Editor and will be at NCTE this week in Atlanta!

Book Review: From Me to We: Using Narrative Nonfiction to Broaden Student Perspectives