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Looking for a great way to keep kids’ attention from wandering in class? We’ve got a solution: show them a film that’s so engaging, they’ll forget it’s part of the lesson. During the past year, we’ve reviewed nearly 300 DVDs aimed at the K–12 crowd. So how could we possibly select the 10 best? Well, it wasn’t as difficult as we thought. As we looked over our reviews, a pattern emerged, especially in light of the new Common Core standards.
Common Core, as you probably know, emphasizes the use of media in almost every area of the curriculum. Plus, it encourages kids to take advantage of primary sources and requires them to analyze various points of view and to “integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats.” A sure-fire way to achieve these goals is to incorporate films into your social studies and history lessons. In fact, many of the superb films that we’ve chosen are perfect for teaching students about the Civil War, Native Americans, the Cold War, segregation, and other complex topics.
While selecting the top 10 videos of the year was somewhat of a challenge, ranking them from one to ten was impossible. So, other than our number-one pick, the following titles are arranged alphabetically. Let us know what you think of these selections.
1. PROHIBITION (Paramount Home Entertainment, 2011), Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s tour-de-force, offers a fascinating look at one of our country’s most ill-conceived policies. Beginning with a close look at the early history of alcohol in America, this six-hour documentary examines the 19th-century temperance and progressive movements and the repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933. Providing in-depth historical content, Burns’s collection of vintage stills and live-action films is marvelous. The documentary is narrated by Peter Coyote; offers commentaries by experts; features voice-overs by actors Blythe Danner, Tom Hanks, John Lithgow, and others; and has stunning background music. An impressive array of teacher resources is available at www.pbs.org. This intoxicating gem is not to be missed. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.
2. THE FEVER OF ’57: THE SPUTNIK MOVIE (MDBb2b.com, 2012) recounts how Cold War tensions peaked with Russia’s surprise launch of the first satellite in 1957 and its dramatic effect on our military, government, and personal lives. Told with an amazing collection of vintage film footage, TV news clips, animated graphics, and interviews with individuals who worked in the space programs, this incredible documentary—ideal for upper middle and high school students—captures the tenor of that turbulent time.
3. Filled with historic photos and artwork, GETTING TO KNOW THE U.S. PRESIDENTS: ABRAHAM LINCOLN (Getting to Know, 2011) documents our 16th president’s lasting legacy. A cartoon Lincoln narrates the story of his childhood, education, and political career with warmth and humor. Information about the Civil War and slavery is also presented. Mike Venezia, who wrote the book on which this film is based, takes factual information and mixes it with hilarious illustrations and funny asides, which are perfect for the elementary school set.
4. JIM THORPE: THE WORLD’S GREATEST ATHLETE(Moira Films, 2012) is an outstanding biography of the Native American who was born in 1887. The film, which is tailor-made for middle and high schoolers, explains how Thorpe used his athletic ability to assert his American Indian identity at a time when our nation’s government was trying to stamp out Native culture. A satisfying blend of archival images, vintage film footage, dramatic recreations, oral history, and commentary depicts this fascinating man.
5. Using a rich variety of realistic recreations, vintage photos, crisp graphics, and scholarly commentary, LEE & GRANT (History, 2011) is an important documentary that follows these distinguished Confederate and Union generals from their extremely dissimilar upbringings to their eventual encounter, in 1865, at the Battle of Appomattox Court House. The personal anguish they felt as they witnessed the casualties in the Civil War’s bloodiest conflict is highlighted in this exemplary production for students in high school and college.
6. Narrated by actress Julianna Marguiles, NO JOB FOR A WOMAN: THE WOMEN WHO FOUGHT TO REPORT WWII (Women Make Movies, 2012) focuses on the lives of three reporters who were among the 141 ground-breaking female correspondents during the Second World War. Their fascinating stories are recreated by actors in period costume who read from the women’s writings, as well as through archival footage and stills. The film, suitable for high school students, emphasizes the legacy of these pioneers who changed the role of women in journalism.
7. In THE OTHER SIDE (Weston Woods, 2012), Clover, an African-American girl, lives on one side of the fence and Annie, a white child, lives on the other side. Jacqueline Woodson’s deceptively simple, yet powerfully evocative story for primary graders shows how children can test the boundaries of segregation. In a brief interview, Woodson provides thoughtful insights into the issues that the story addresses. E. B. Lewis’s wonderful watercolor illustrations are scanned and help bring the tale to life.
8. Want to be an armchair traveler? Then check out THE TRAVELLING TRIO(Red Hat Prods., 2011), a film that follows three young siblings as they travel around the world—trying new foods, soaking up foreign phrases, exploring kid-friendly locales, and learning about different cultures. Kids in grades three to seven will especially enjoy joining these dynamic globetrotters as they scout out caves, tour European castles, and have fun at a medieval fair—and learn about history, geography, and customs along the way.
9. UNDERGROUND RAILROAD: THE WILLIAM STILL STORY (PBS Dist., 2012) is a compelling documentary about the man who is often called the father of the Underground Railroad. Still helped more than 800 slaves reach freedom, and recorded the secret stories of the “impossible escapes, heartbreaking separations, and families reunited.” The stories of other brave Americans, such as Henry Brown and Harriet Tubman, are also documented. Nicely narrated, with period music, archival photos, and interviews with historians, this powerful film will provide high school students with valuable insights.
10. In WHITE WATER (Nutmeg Media, 2012), based on Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein’s picture book of the same name, a young African-American boy notices segregation’s inequities. He’s especially struck by the drinking fountains—one for whites and another for “coloreds.” Tony Fragale narrates this first-person story as the boy devises a plan to find out what “white water” tastes like. Inspired by actual events, the story brings home the reality of segregation for primary graders.