The movie day. Can you feel yourself relaxing at the thought? We all have our favorite movie that we show for a certain unit or historical event. But what if a simple twist could make the movie day even more fun and educational?
I’m going to make two confessions. First, documentaries are not my thing. The still images gently panning across the screen, voice actors reading primary sources, and clips of historians giving more detail…Zzzzz.
Confession number two: I hesitate to use Hollywood movies. Script writers and directors tend to add events to make the movie more dramatic, which means our students will learn things that never actually happened. Those fictional or exaggerated events are usually the ones students remember best. For that reason, we have a right to be cautious.
But what if we used that flaw to our advantage? What if we used this as an opportunity to teach our students how to separate truth from fiction? What if we dared to have them use primary sources in the process?
This lesson is perfect for any historical or “based on true events” movie that you use in your classroom. To explain how it works I’m going to use the Boston Massacre paired with episode 1 of HBO’s John Adams series, which is titled “Join or Die.”
Part 1: The Movie
I give my students the usual worksheet that I’d give them when watching a movie. It has questions about various events that take place during the movie – with one change. I went through and added questions that say “FC” in front of them. These are “Fact Check” questions, and the students are not suppose to answer them while watching.
For the “Join or Die” episode I’ve added about 10 additional questions.
As they watch, stop the movie at appropriate times to make sure they are getting the answers as they watch. They’ll need to have all questions answered to complete the rest of the assignment.
Part 2: Using Primary Sources
Once the movie is over, students will now use primary sources to answer the “FC” questions throughout the worksheet. These questions are designed to get the students thinking and researching the historical accuracy of what we just watched, in this case it’s the Boston Massacre and the trial.
I give my students four primary sources. They may only use these sources to find the answers to the Fact Check questions. The Boston Massacre trial is perfect for this because three of the primary sources are the testimonies from the trial.
Now, should we use any secondary sources in this activity? I do if my questions require it. For example, I have a question about the Paul Revere engraving, which needs a secondary source to determine the date. But the majority of the readings are primary sources.
Part 3: Writing the Paper
After they’ve answered the Fact Check questions, I have a graphic organizer for them where they put their Fact Check questions into a “T” chart showing what HBO got right and what they had wrong.
Students then write a three-paragraph paper. It’s the first writing assignment of the year so the length is a good introduction. One paragraph should say what was right, one explains what was wrong and what it should have been (very important), and the conclusion paragraph is for writing what percentage of the movie they felt was accurate. Was it 99% accurate or 10% accurate? It’s always so interesting to see how students rate HBO in accuracy because it gives students the chance to decide which events in the video are the most important to get correct.
How It Fits in a Flipped Classroom
In order for this lesson to go as smoothly as possible, the students should have a basic understanding of the event, which in my example is the Boston Massacre. My flipped classroom the night before is a 5-6 minute video on what the Boston Massacre was along with its victims. I’ll also ask what they think will happen to the soldiers.
You can also do Part 1 as a flipped lesson the night before. With this approach, the students arrive and start on the primary sources right away. I prefer to do these movie clips in class because it’s important for the students to get the correct answers to the movie questions.
Again, you can easily apply this lesson to any of the movies that you show in class! Here are some suggestions and considerations…
- Keep Your Primary Sources to 3-5 Total. It’s important to have a few “Fact Check” answers in each primary source. This way you can keep the amount of primary sources down to four or five. You don’t want to have your students reading through a primary source to find only one answer. Also, if you have more than four or five sources you’re looking at a week to complete this lesson – maybe more. I give them only one secondary source and four primary sources.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Use Excerpts. Any time our students are reading and analyzing primary sources is time well spent. It doesn’t matter if those sources are 3 pages long or only one. Consider taking longer primary sources and using excerpts to keep this lesson to a reasonable length of class time.
- Plagiarism and Cheating. With the exception of each student’s opinion on accuracy, the answers are similar for everyone. I believe this is the reason that I usually have at least two people try to turn the same paper in every year. Something to keep in mind.
So that’s how you can take advantage of Hollywood’s portrayals to help students learn the information and how to be more discerning with media. Which movies would you use this lesson for? Leave your comments below!
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