Documentary, Critical Thinking and the English classroom

About 6 years ago, I started a documentary unit with my grade 12 students.  I was motivated by two things at the time: the success of Michael Moore’s films and the fact that many of my students were obsessed with conspiracy theories.  Michael Moore has brought a spotlight to an area of filmmaking that was largely unfamiliar to the general public except in places like science class. Conspiracy theories abound on the internet and they are appealing to the young, uncritical mind.  Many students believe in the silly ideas about the Illuminati that sprang up after the publication of The DaVinci Code.  They also believe in the 9/11 conspiracies that are promoted by documentaries on the internet that purport to reveal the truth.  Teaching about the construction of a documentary as well as analyzing some helps students realize that they are only as truthful and realistic as the director wishes them to be.  My students, by and large, have had the same reaction to the unit: they see film differently, they are interested in watching more documentaries and they often state that this was their favourite activity in English class.

John Grierson, of the National Film Board of Canada, defined documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality”.  The definition encompasses three fundamental ideas that form the basis of what I want the students to learn:

1.  Documentaries are constructions of reality.  Students need to grasp the idea that realism and reality are not the same thing.  The film has been put together with hundreds of hours of footage.

2.  Filmmakers have made many conscious choices in this construction e.g. editing, sound and music, the juxtaposition of shots, and the decisions about who or what to show or not show.

3.  Documentaries use all the same techniques that are used in feature films:  narrative structure, character development, camera angles, music etc.

4.  All filmmakers have a bias that is detected in the way the film has been constructed even when the topic is non-controversial.

With these ideas in mind, my students and I will watch parts of films, some short docs. and one full-length one.  The goal is to get students to recognize the ideas themselves.  These concepts are fairly sophisticated and they ask the students to look at “how and why” and to look at more than just the message or theme.  This does lend itself to student creation and certainly the process of putting together a short film would teach students the ideas.  I don’t have access to such equipment nor do I have technical ability but many of my students have taken Comm. Tech which is a very popular course in my high school  so they have already made films.

The next part of this exercise in my class is an oral summative .  Students choose a film and prepare a presentation based on these ideas.  Many of my students now use Prezi to do this.  The written feedback I have received over the years has been extremely positive.  Students enjoy listening to the presentations, many have said they will go home and watch some of these films and they are practising oral skills as well.  In the end, I feel that my students become more thoughtful consumers and they are less likely to accept everything at face value.  The unit requires the students to use higher order thinking skills and although the concepts may be foreign at first, they soon grasp what it is I am asking them to do.

Two films that I have used on a regular basis are: Spellbound ( 2002) and Murder on a Sunday Morning (2001).  They are both well-known films that are readily available.  I like Spellbound because there is so much to talk about in the film.  My students prefer Murder.. because it is about injustice.  I have compiled a long list that the students can choose from to do their presentations.  Some of the favourites are: Sharkwater(2006) My Flesh and Blood(2003), Man on Wire(2008), When We Were Kings(1996), American Teen(2008), Born into Brothels (2004), Grizzly Man (2005), King of Kong(2007).

Some sites to look at for short films are:



Short of the week


FYI Screenjunkies is a good site with bad advertising.

If you would like further information on this unit, please send me your e-mail and I would be happy to share what I have.

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4 Responses to Documentary, Critical Thinking and the English classroom

  1. Sylvia says:

    I stumbled upon your site while searching for whatever good ideas might be “out there” for using documentaries in the English classroom. I’m putting together a unit on documentaries for my grade 11 College level English class; the course revolves around the theme of social justice, with a focus on non-fiction (with the exception of the short story unit). I am taking you up on your offer to share what you have! Hopefully you’re still willing to share…
    By the way…
    I truly appreciate your insights on a variety of topics related to teaching English. I look forward to reading more of them when I have a bit more time. Your posts are thoughtful and your advice is sound. How wonderful it is that you are willing to share that which can only be learned through years and years of refining your craft.

  2. Megan says:

    Hi there. I too have just stumbled across this blog. I am trying to redesign a few of my courses to make them more meaningful for our students. One of the courses is the grade 12 College level English and I think that documentaries could have great value in this course. I would love to see some of the resources you have if you are still willing to share. Thank you for your wonderful and insightful ideas you have taken the time to share here.

  3. Tasha says:

    Hi there,
    I have taught the eng 4c course several times and really try to switch things up each time I teach it. This year I am putting together a documentary unit as their last unit of the semester before exams. I would love some of your resources that you used to create your unit – I think documentaries have so much value for this course and the students have already picked out their own that they want to focus on.

  4. I’m not sure if you’re still connected to this blog, but I would love for you to share your documentary lessons with me! I stumbled upon your blog by accident, and I am impressed with the vast knowledge that you shared. I am both humbled by your 36 years teaching and impressed! Thank you so much for sharing everything that you have on this blog.

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