Making Curriculum Pop

I found one of the most compelling presentations during the two days of the TTP09 conference that I attended to be the Media That Matters presentation and the discussion with documentary film maker, Ambika Samarthya. Arts Engine, Inc. the group behind Media That Matters solicits documentaries each year for its film festival of documentaries that can be shown in schools, community groups, after school programs etc. to encourage people young and old to discuss issues of the day and more importantly to take action. Their philosophy can be summed up as “An image captures a feeling, a story shares a message, a movie becomes a movement.”

To that end, in addition to providing the films in the festival online free of charge, they also provide Discussion Guides, Take Action Guides, and other resources to facilitate screenings of their films.

I think the use of documentary film in the classroom whether it be an English class, history class or humanities class raises many interesting issues for discussion with students: is documentary film narrative or truth, how does point of view reveal itself in documentaries, what other film techniques are utilized that are similar to narrative film? The use and analysis of documentary film in the classroom encourages information and technology and media literacy. As Alan Teasley noted in his presentation, the core concepts of media literacy are that 1) all media are constructions, 2) the media (filmmakers) construct reality, 3) audiences negotiate meaning in media, 4) media have commercial implications, 5) media contain ideological and value messages, 6) media have social and political implications, 7) form and content are closely related in the media and 8) each medium has a unique aesthetic form. Analysis of documentary film is relevant in all of these contexts. First, because as they NCTE points out “We must … challenge students to analyze critically the texts they view and to integrate visual knowledge with their knowledge of other forms of language.” Students may come at documentaries believing they are fact or truth as opposed to narrative film, which they believe is fiction. The fallacy in that simple notion was observed both by filmmaker Ambika Samarthya when she acknowledged the amount of narrative that goes into documentary film making and by Catherine Gouley of The Film Foundation when she commented that “a primary source may be real but it is not necessarily true.” Teaching our students to separate these concepts is a crucial part of developing their media literacy.

Of particular interest to me is using film as an oral history tool, having students view video oral histories, discuss what is and is not oral history (types) and creating their own video oral histories and contrasting them with other documentary type films. These projects are rich in skill building from researching the background of the person and time period they are interviewing about, drafting interview questions, actual interviewing and filming skills, editing skills etc. For more information on oral history projects, tools, and archives checkout and the Vietnam project. An interesting film to discuss with students about the differences between oral history, narrative film and documentary is the Laramie Project, an HBO film of the play written by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project following the murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming in 1998.

A recent use of a combination of documentary and narrative filmmaking that could be good source material for classroom use, particularly in the social studies context is the 2009 PBS program We Shall Remain which chronicles five important events in Native American history from the perspective of the Native Americans.

In addition to the five installments PBS has requested and posted on their website independent videos from Native Americans about their life experiences called Reel Native These can be viewed online and could be integrated into a unit on oral history or in an English class “I am….” Video project. Has anyone done any lessons on how to look at documentaries critically or even more interestingly on how to look at news broadcasts over time to decipher truth from editorializing or different coverage of the same event to identify “different truths?”

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Thank you so much for posting and sharing this and these great resources!

For people interested in more short film resources and links to ALL THE MEDIA THAT MATTERS study guides check this old discussion forum post that will link you out to additional resources.

I like your examples of media that can be used in the classroom – particularly about Native American stories, which seem to be left out of a lot of the public discourse. You also say:

Students may come at documentaries believing they are fact or truth as opposed to narrative film, which they believe is fiction. Teaching our students to separate these concepts is a crucial part of developing their media literacy.

I am wondering how a teacher might go about teaching students to separate those concepts – or maybe not separate, but analyze the content and presentation in a way that balances the extremes.

Diane D.
Last winter I saw this film through Media That Matters and it brought me to tears, it is very powerful.

The film is called A Girl Like Me and I would love to do a class based around a screening with students, I think it brings up some universal issues.

Let me know if anyone has any thoughts on this!
Ann (and Diane):
Interesting discussion! I think it certainly serves students to introduce the concepts of documentary film, fiction film, "true," "real," "factual," etc. John Golden (in Reading in the Real World) has a great activity to start off this discussion.

The more I explore documentary films (and I've seen about a thousand over the past seven years of serving on the selection committee of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival), the more I think "nonfiction film" may be a more useful term, even though I hate describing something as what it isn't. Just as with the wide world of nonfiction books, documentary films encompass essays, advocacy pieces (clear arguments for one point of view over another, with no pretense of objectivity), biography, memoir, history, and so forth. None of these genres of nonfiction has a corner on The Truth, and we shouldn't hold documentary films to the standard of always being "true." However, the documentarian does have an obligation not to mislead the viewer. We should be clear about portions of a film that are reenactments or reconstructions (not primary documents, but potentially true), and a good documentarian will indicate whether he/she has attempted to include counter-arguments or balanced evidence or is even interested in objectivity. Some recent, well-reviewed docs have even included animation. Holy Moly!

So there are a rich array of vocabulary words for this unit: true, fact/factual, objective, subjective, narrative, argument, advocacy, document, documentary, nonfiction, fiction, point of view, reality, actuality, opinion, balance, fairness, transparency. . . .

Interestingly, the Native American series currently playing on PBS contains quite a variety of techniques. Tecumseh's Vision consists almost totally of re-enactments (there are no photos or paintings of Tecumseh made during his life). The first half hour or so (admittedly all I have seen of it) "reads" like a fiction film with an omniscient narrator. One of the last in the series, Wounded Knee, is more traditionally done with "talking heads" and primary footage from the period.

Attached is a handout I've used to describe some of the key analytical questions to explore with various types of documentaries. I hope you find it useful.
This concept of teaching students (and ourselves) to be critical media viewers really interests me. Particularly today with the explosion of images and video created and disseminated on the web I think we all need to be conscious of the possibility that not all of what we see actually happened or is "true." I am thinking here of the possibility of these images and videos being altered. How do we teach students to be conscious of that when analyzing images and what tools can we give them to do so? One funny and provocative way to introduce the subject would be to view and discuss Woody Allen's classic film, Zelig, in which he inserted himself into numerous newsreel films and stock news photos. But does anyone know of any other more pedagogical tools to discussing this important topic?
Hi Ann,

Thanks for the great resources. I'm also a huge fan of Media That Matters. As for films that deal with critical literacy and media literacy in particular, check out this Hate Machine film on the MTM site. It's definitely an effective tool for teaching about bias in the media and the power of the sound bite. Also, have you checked out the Center for Media Literacy site? It's also packed with resources.

Hey Ann,

I also thought the Media That Matters presentation was one of the most engaging parts of TTP09. Did you know that a lot of the films that screen in that festival are made by teenagers? They even give a Youth Voice Award every year. I think these youth produced works might be especially interesting to show in classrooms. One that was especially well done and enjoyable to watch is America For Dummies which looks into how little it seems most American young people know about other countries and cultures.

Also, not sure if you know, but when Ken Burns put out his documentary on WWII he also started an oral history project to preserve the stories of WWII veterans. Its called the Veterans History Project and they may still be taking submissions. Might be a fun project to have kids carry out and submit interviews.


Hi Ann,
I really enjoyed reading your post and thank you for sharing so many teaching resources and tools. It is important to note that our perspectives and reflections on the Media That Matters presentation were similar yet different in many ways. In my reflection paper, I discussed the two documentaries that inspired me the most, Every Third Bite and Ashray. Which documentaries did you find intriguing and fascinating? I agree with you that Ambika Samarthya's discussion was one of the highlights of the Media That Matters presentation because she shared her personal experiences filming Ashray in Bombay. I like your idea of having children decipher whether or not a documentary is fictional or presents factual information. I think Ashray is an excellent example of a documentary film that supports Alan Teasley's core concepts of media literacy by presenting factual truths in a narrative form. I believe children are the most receptive and interested in films that are have both factual and fictional elements!
Thinking about point of view in documentaries would connect well with the study of a variety of texts, not just those dubbed "persuasive writing," but even ones students often assume to be unbiased e.g. textbooks. This also brought to mind the controversies surrouding Dan Brown's novel The DaVinci Code. It would be interesting to analyze two documentaries about the "same" topic, each taking a different stance on the issue at hand. How does each achieve its goals?
Hi Ann, I really enjoyed reading what you wrote. It conveyed enthusiasm and provided me with alot of links. I completely agree with you when you state that we must challenge students to critically analyze texts. I think by doing this it allows them to view the text from a different perspective and express their own beliefs. Teaching students to realize that everything they see may or may not be a truth is really important
I teach extensively about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so I was thinking about how to use the Media that Matters piece about the cluster bombs in Lebanon, through the story of one charming boy. I think the film is particularly effective because you first meet the boy and only part way into the piece realize that he has been maimed by a bomb. I also recommend the recent Israeli film about the 1982 war with Lebanon, Waltz with Bashir, which is an animated documentary. Leaving the theater, I heard one couple behind me announce "well, that was propaganda." I disagree, but I think it raises a productive question for the classroom about the usefulness of propaganda.
Hi all -- glad to see the conversation has continued even after the workshop! One interesting thing to note is that we do get similar comments about "propaganda" and the lack of balance between some of the films that are part of Media That Matters. This recent article from the NYTimes also touches on a similar point ( - however, i think it can be most powerful when an educator can properly frame the issue by introducing a topic with a film such as "Hammoudi" but also provide alternative sources (print or other media) as a fuller way to encourage students to take an objective stance towards all topics of conversation.

Would also like to invite all of you to our upconing ninth annual Media That Matters Film Festival coming up on June 3 here in New York at the Visual Arts Theater:

Please feel free to contact me at for anything and everything. Take care!



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