Archive for Documentary

Poetry: Spoken Word

All of my best “material” has an element of shamelessness to it.  I’m not talking about the curriculum I’ve created or the copious notes I’ve constructed.  I’m not talking about how I tap my face while I grade  or helicopter over students until they annotate.  No, I am talking about how I “clown” literature.  I pantomime and quip.  I physically reenact Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allan Poe, even Robert Penn Warren.

I am an embarrassment unto myself. Read more

Documentaries: Week in Review

           Friday Dialogue from                

                                      Your Two Favorite Educators 

As Emily and Aubrey look back over the week they use their razor sharp wit discuss the role of documentaries in the classroom, Michael Moore and unfortunately Justin Bieber.  

1.  What is the greatest obstacle to using documentaries in the classroom?

What does Emily say?Emily:  I don’t know about your school, but one problem I would definitely encounter is getting them approved.  While I know there are good documentaries from years ago, one asset of the documentary is to provide timely and interesting material.  Unfortunately for my students, my district has a one-year acquisition policy, which means I need to know 1.5 years ahead of time what I’m going to teach.  This limits the incorporation of meaningful and timely documentaries for my students.

Aubrey: Quick approval is a problem but we don’t have to wait a year.  I couldIs Aubrey right? see where that could be both difficult and disappointing. I have to wait more along the lines of 3-4 months.  It is important with documentaries to be able to show them in a timely fashion.  They do need to be treated in the same way we treat current events.

2.  What is your favorite documentary?

Emily: It certainly isn’t Food Inc. or any documentary about the food service. Those documentaries make me rethink my Arby’s addiction and I don’t want anything to get in between me and my Arby’s.  I do really like Inside Job.  I think the material is insightful but still accessible.  Plus, I really like Matt Damon’s narrative voice.  

Aubrey: Roger & Me.  My whole family is from Michigan, so  when that movie came out it was all my dad could talk about.  Sure, I’ve seen lots of other documentaries that I’ve really liked including Mad Hot Ballroom, Born into Brothels and Food Inc. None of them will ever usurp Roger & Me. Michigan is Michigan and old school Michael Moore is the best.  

3.  If you could make any documentary what would it be about?   Keep in mind that Arby’s is off limits.

Emily:  Well, Arby’s would make a great subject.  But, in all seriousness, I’dWhat does Emily say? like to see a documentary made about the reality of teaching.  While I find Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere really eye-opening to the general public, they have a very clear agenda, which I don’t fault.  If anything, I appreciate the awareness drawn to critical issues in education; however, I think they are often so narrow and focused that the full picture isn’t actually presented.  I’d like to see a documentary about the real life of an English teacher because my life is awesome.  Working 15 hour days and all weekend is amazing.

Aubrey: I think the documentary American Teacher is a step in the rightIs Aubrey right? direction but I often wonder if something like this documentary makes a difference.  I’m not sure any schools locally have screened this film, whereas I know Race to Nowhere and Waiting for Superman were screened in a variety of schools and districts where I live and teach.  

4.  Do you qualify Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never as a documentary of merit?

Emily:  Are you kidding me?  Of course it is.  So is Glee: The Concert.  Those pieces show real life and inspire Americans to be all they can be.  Okay, teasing aside, yeah, I think they are of merit but remember that i have Bieiber fever, so I’m biased.

Aubrey: Okay.   All of what you have said is so clearly and unmistakably wrong that even though I wrote that question I refuse to respond.  Gross.  Being all you can be never works out.  Don’t you teach American literature?

Documentaries: Oscar Nominees

One of the best ways to introduce documentaries into the classroom is simply by having students examine those that have been nominated for Oscars.

Between two categories, documentary feature and documentary short, there are ten different films from which to choose.  This week we’ve focused on how to implement smaller elements of documentary films in order to still allow for critical engagement without usurping too much classroom time.

Today’s post will focus on how to use the trailers of those Oscar nominated documentary features and shorts.  While we will only highlight a few, you might choose to peruse the list and choose several other trailers based on your needs in class.  There are two ways to think about implementing this type of assignment.  You might partner trailers with texts that you are teaching or you might simply do a smaller study of documentary films as non-fiction texts.  Either way have students consider documentary trailers as condensed, “mini” versions of the film itself.  You might ask that they SOAPSTone the trailers, answer questions and even create their own.

You might also consider using any of the Oscar nominated documentary features or documentary shorts.  Documentary Feature Hell and Back Again as well as Documentary Short Incident in New Baghdad would work in conjunction with teaching The Things They Carried, Catch-22 or All Quiet on the Western Front.   Documentary Short, The Barber of Birmingham would be a wonderful way to compliment a unit on speeches of the Civil Rights Movement or To Kill A Mockingbird. Below are three Oscar nominated films, their trailers and some ways for incorporating them into the classroom.

Saving Face

An HBO Documentary and winner of a 2012 Oscar for Documentary Short, Saving Face will air today at 8:30 p.m.  HBO offers a short synopsis of the film.  Consider using it as an introduction to having students view the trailer.   Also consider having students examine the resources for the film HBO lists.  Many of them are ways to get involved and build knowledge about the documentary’s topic of violence towards women in Pakistan.  Consider the questions below as a way to have students engage in viewing the trailer.

HBO Documentary Films: Saving Face Trailer by HBO

  1. SOAPSTONE the trailer.  This may require students to watch more than once.
  2. Describe the overall argument of the trailer.  Offer an argument from the point of view of the women, the doctor and the filmmaker.
  3. Examine the text used in the trailer.  How does it add to the message?  Consider thinking about subtitles too.
  4. What is most noticeable about the trailer?  What elements draw in an audience?

The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom

An Oscar nominee for best documentary short, this film outlines the March 2011 tsunami in Japan.  The trailer, included below, has much to offer.  In fact, it’s one of the best from the Oscar Nominees to use this year.  It is both beautiful and heart wrenching.  You might consider having students read director Lucy Walker’s interview from Cinema Without Borders. Consider the questions below as a way to have students engage in viewing the trailer.

  1. SOAPSTONE the trailer.  This may require students to watch more than once.
  2. What effect does cutting between real footage of the disaster and first person interview have on the audience?  Explain.
  3. Identify elements of both beauty and terror.  Why would a filmmaker have those two in such close proximity to one another?
  4. How does the filmmaker use emotion and humanity to reach an audience?
  5. Pick two images from the trailer that stand out.  Explain their significance.


This film, Oscar winner for best documentary feature, offers students a story about overcoming in spite of circumstance.  This would be a good partner to teaching Hope in the Unseen.  Consider having students read the Los Angeles Times interview with former NFL player Ed Cunningham, one of the producers, as a precursor to watching the trailer.

  1. SOAPSTONE the trailer.  This may require students to watch more than once.
  2. Explain why the trailer begins with the coach listing the “troubles” of his team.  What effect does this have on the audience?
  3. Identify the primary themes present in the documentary’s trailer.
  4. In the final scene of the trailer, the coach argues that, “You think football builds character.  It does not.  It reveals character.”  Explain what the implicit argument is in such a statement as it relates to the trailer for this documentary.
  5. Explain what is important about the footage, music and text.  How do they work together to create an overall feel for the film?  Explain.

Documentaries: Corporate Sponsorship

If part of our task is to challenge students to weigh pros and cons, especially in their writing, discussing the idea of sponsorship and documentaries can be a powerful tool.  Have students examine just this concept via some of the trailers and shorts below.

Begin with Morgan Spurlock.  My recommendation?  Start with The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.  Now I know what you’re thinking.  It’s ninety minutes.    The same length as Food Inc. which I’ve already admitted I struggle to show in its entirety.  So, instead use the trailer, a Spurlock interview and some source material from the film’s website as a starting point.  This week is about making documentaries work in the classroom.  Sometimes spurring a class discussion and allowing students to explore on their own offers some well needed exposure without overtaxing your classroom time.

Have students begin by examining some of the following resources.  Spurlock gave an interview with Forbes Magazine detailing his thinking in creating a film about product placement.  Or consider having students use Ebert’s review of the film itself as a warm-up.  Better yet have them watch Spurlock’s interview with Tavis Smiley.   At around 11 minutes it’s a good way to see him in action and hear his point of view.  Questions below can be used to accompany the interview.

Watch Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock on PBS. See more from Tavis Smiley.

  1. What is Sprulock’s argument against product placement in TV programming?
  2. What Spurlock’s purpose in creating the film?
  3. Identify Spurlock’s argument about schools and advertising.  Defend, challenge or qualify his point of view.
  4. Spurlock argues that modern films rely on product placement because they need money to fund their creation.  Explain the moral/ethical dilemma in such decisions.
  5. Is entertainment that’s a “commercial” such a bad thing?
  6. Identify one question that should be posed to Spurlock that Tavis Smiley omits.  Explain your reasoning.


Then have students watch the trailer.  Ask that they consider examining it as a condensed version of the film. Several examples have been included below.

  1. Identify how Morgan Spurlock incorporates humor.
  2. Describe how Spulock’s pitches appear.
  3. Describe the trailer.  What stands out in the way it is produced?
  4. Identify the purpose of the trailer itself.  How might this differ from the film?
  5. Identify Spurlock’s argument.  Defend, challenge or qualify Spurlock’s point of view in regards to marketing.


If you’re looking to give them even more exposure to documentaries sponsored by businesses have them checkout GE’s Focus Forward, an initiative to highlight great ideas and filmmakers.  Included below is an example documentary from Focus Forward.  Ask that students consider whether or not big business sponsorship changes the purpose of any documentary.


 Heart Stop Beating 

Heart Stop Beating | Jeremiah Zagar from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

  1. What message does the film convey?  What seems to be its purpose?
  2. Identify two elements that strike you from the film itself.  Explain what make them interesting/remarkable.
  3. What has been omitted from the film that you as a viewer would like to see?  Explain your reasoning.

Documentaries: Resources

Finding documentary resources can feel an insurmountable task. To find appropriate and engaging content can take hours.  It can also be difficult to determine how you will assess students’ interaction with these films.  Simple viewing questions can only go so far.

Today’s post will offer some resources for both of these areas in the hopes that you will be able to gain a foothold on how to implement short documentaries into your classroom.


Reading in the Reel World-John Golden

A must-have text if you want to implement better viewing and critical thinking strategies.  Golden argues that documentaries are non-fiction texts.  As such, students should SOAPSTone them as well as create their own essential questions while watching.   He also explains and models using levels of questioning to use in tandem with documentary viewing. A sample chapter is available via NCTE.


This website is a treasure trove of all types of documentaries.  The best part is that they have an entire educator’s resource center.  You will want to look specifically at the short films.  To get to them, search “short documentaries.”  Some of my favorites include:


Utopia Part 3: The World’s Largest Shopping Mall

A good piece to teach consumerism and personal folly.  Use this 13-minute documentary to teach argument and purpose.   Most definitely have them SOAPSTone the piece and create their own essential questions.  Consider having them tweet those questions while watching.

Watch Utopia, Part 3: The World’s Largest Shopping Mall on PBS. See more from POV.


Trash Out

This is a good documentary to use when discussing the death of the American dream.  Consider having students use at the end of The Great Gatsby as Nick is watching Gatsby’s house stand empty or as a stand alone to teach argument in regards to how we see accomplishment and loss.

Watch Trash-Out on PBS. See more from POV.


An offshoot of SnagFilms, it’s a great resource for documentaries from National Geographic, PBS, and a whole host of other resources.  There are some simple lesson plans posted but for the most part you’ll want to create your own following Golden’s ideas of how students should interact with documentaries in writing.

The New York Times Learning Network has also partnered with them and has created some useful documentary “film festivals” that are worth a look.  The9/11 documentary lessons are especially helpful if you’re teaching Bush’s speech at Ground Zero or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

You’ll want to examine their documentary shorts specifically.  Titled Media that Matters, they have a range of films short documentaries between 5-10 minutes in length.  Some of my favorites include:

Alienated: Undocumented Immigrant Youth

A great short film that profiles one young woman specifically who works as a nanny/housekeeper.  It’s perfect to partner with The Jungle and the later chapters of Fast Food Nation.

Young Agrarians

A short film about young people/students involved in organic farming.  It would be a perfect pairing for anything by Michael Pollan or as a supplement to Fast Food Nation.  You might also use it to teach AP Language students the synthesis essay about locavores.

Night Visions

This documentary short focuses on one soldier’s experiences after his tour.  The short would serve as a good companion to The Things They CarriedAll Quiet on the Western Front and Catch 22.

Documentaries: Overview

Every year I try to have students watch all of Food, Inc.  It isn’t an innovative way to end our study of Fast Food Nation.  It’s not even a documentary on a new topic with vastly new information.  But I’ve told myself that in this world of grade level calendars and common assessments, it’s important.

And yet, every year I get within twenty minutes of the end and “run out of time.”  I panic at the amount of time we’ve spent “sitting.”  Every year, when pressed by students if we will watch the end my responses are numerous.  We have to start our next book.  We need to prep for the upcoming battery of spring tests.  We don’t have time.

Teaching in classrooms that have state tests and rigorous curriculum standards put many demands on our time.  With these expectations, it can be difficult to “find” ample time for film.  That being said, documentaries are a powerful way to teach students rhetoric, argument and bias.  They can be the cornerstones of research projects and an important way to build student knowledge on a range of topics that they would otherwise ignore or neglect.

For the last several weeks we’ve highlighted resources like Good Magazine and Brain Pickings in response to suggestions for expanding student knowledge.  This week we’ll focus on how to use documentary shorts fit into classrooms. And while it’s clear that this isn’t unchartered territory, the goal is to use smaller aspects of documentaries as a weekly staple in the Humanities classroom.