Movies Make Me Think! Using Historical Inquiry and Film in the Middle School Classroom

All too often, history classes look like this:

Parents grew up with history classes that resemble the iconic Ben Stien giving a dry lecture; some may have been the young man sleeping on the desk! With this paradigm solidified, the concept of a dry, Stein-like history classroom are passed to their children, who become our students.

Adam Woelders, an IB teacher at the Pacific Academy in Vancouver, British Columbia challenges this assumption using the same tool presented-Hollywood films-and a historical inquiry based method to his classess.

Woelders starts with the premise that showing clips of films in a history classroom is a beneficial activity.  An acknowledgement is also made that Hollywood films are, at times , inaccurate.  In an action research project, Woelders, studied “how historically themed film can be used to scaffold activities that encourage middle school students to conduct inquiries of the past and critically evaluate feature films and documentaries”.

The historical inquiry based method is rooted in essential unit questions.  While using the film, Joan of Arc, Woelders poses the question, Who was Joan of Arc ? A simple, yet focused questions.  Woelders proccess first has students complete a K-W-L chart on Joan of Arc, after which clips from the movie are shown.  Students then must formulate an answer to their question using primary and secondary historical sources, comparing the information they gather to the movie. This approach allows for student inquiry, information finding and meaning making centered on historical figures and events.  It brings history to students, not students to history.

This approach also allows for critical and creative thinking by students.  By evaluating multiple sources and considering multiple perspectives, students will gain an appreciation for history and historical context.   Woelders research also speaks to the power of essential questions, graphic organizers and comparing Hollywood with what really happened, a skill that is needed in our society.

Woelders, A. (2007). “It makes you think more when you watch things”: Scaffolding for historical inquiry using film in the middle school classroom. History Teacher40(3), 363-396.



Filed under Pedagogy, Social Studies

2 responses to “Movies Make Me Think! Using Historical Inquiry and Film in the Middle School Classroom

  1. bonniemagnuson

    Using film clips to teach has the added attraction of capturing interest of the students and getting them ready to compare and contrast. Since film is such a prevalent part of students’ lives, using it as an anticipatory set and/or scaffolding tool really connects with the audience’s perception of relevance to their lives.

  2. I think it’s important for students to know the real history of people and events. It’s easy to believe the Hollywood version, but Hollywood tends to live in a fantasy world. There are folks who try to convince others the Holocaust never happened. Take students to news clips that document the horror and tragedy of that time. Good blog, Greg!

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