‘Teaching History With Film’ encourages use of film through examples, lesson plans

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons. Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation remain prominent examples of how films can capture an era–for better, or for worse.

How and when to use film in classrooms, and why

“The difference between life and the movies is that a script has to make sense, and life doesn’t.”

-Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1909-1993) American screenwriter

Film remains a powerful, if imperfect, tool for providing revealing glimpses into historical events, foreign eras, and distant lands. Yet, as experienced English and Social Studies teachers know, using films in classrooms requires preparation and reflection.

What is lost and what is gained in using film – historical fiction – to portray history? How do popular films recreate the emotional context of historical events, and how do they sometimes impose misleading narratives? What are some effective techniques for exposing and disclosing the tension between accuracy in real history and the need for drama in reel history? How have historical eras, such as reconstruction after the American civil war in Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind – been misrepresented in popular Hollywood blockbusters? Which definitions of accuracy matter most in using film to teach history?


Teaching History with Film: Strategies for Secondary Social Studies by Alan S. Marcus, Scott Alan Metzger, Richard J. Paxton and Jeremy Dr. Stoddard illuminates some of these questions. The book emphasizes through five distinct reasons why social studies teachers should use film to teach. The book itself presents convincing reasons, backed by specific examples, lesson plans and chapter reflections.

Each part focuses on a reason that film can teach history: for instance, Part I highlights its historical value while Part III focuses on development of analytical or interpretive skills. Though the overall theme in each part is applicable to a wide range of movies, the book provides a specific historical timeline or topic as well. For instance, to display film’s ability to teach the “empathy for caring,” the case descriptions, lesson plans and activities focus on Southeast Asian events, particularly the consequences of the Vietnam and Korean War, with films like “Gran Torino” and “The Killing Fields.” At the end of each section, a “Reflection on the Case” follows to analyze and portray the advantages and drawbacks of using film to teach a particular lesson.


The book’s unique viewpoint flutters in and out of the chapters. The authors are careful to acknowledge the limitations to using film as a teaching tool, such as historical accuracy, film selection and passivity of watching film. In this manner, the book does not serve to prescribe that teachers follow its lesson plans exactly, or use film to teach every historical subject. Rather, its logical organization, balance of pictures and text and specificity of examples serve to supplement or guide teachers curious about using film in their classrooms.

The strong book, however, would have been even more useful if it directly dealt with how to the actual consequences of such distorted films as The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind and Mel Gibson’s Revolutionary War film The Patriot deserve more attention. When 12 Years a Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2013, it marked a profound turn toward realism in the popular culture’s treatment of American slavery. Adding a chapter detailing some controversies and consequences over blockbuster films would have strengthened the book. One could, I would suggest, create a fascinating course tracing the depiction of Americans held in slavery in American cinema over the last century. Everyone should be able to see the social progress in human rights from President Wilson hosting the Birth of a Nation to President Obama hosting a preview of 12 Years a Slave at the White House. Shall we compare and contrast?

As mentioned previously in a blog post reviewing Journeys in Film, a non-profit organization that also uses film to teach, movies and documentaries do not always fit perfectly into the ELL classroom. Teaching History with Film targets social studies curricula more than language classes. However, its approaches, activities and cultural movie selections can be of value in many types of English classrooms. Time may also be a factor–after all, the lesson plans set aside two to three days for film-viewing. Perhaps the best route involves finding a balance between using film and focusing on other English-learning activities.

Do you use film to teach history or language? What are some of your favorite films to learn from?

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Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons
Poster – Gone With the Wind 01” by Employee(s) of MGM – http://www.doctormacro.com/Movie%20Summaries/G/Gone%20With%20the%20Wind.htm. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Birth of a Nation theatrical poster” by Unknown; distributed by Epoch Film Co. – Chronicle of the Cinema. (London: Dorling Kindersley), p. 111.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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