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