One of the readers of this blog recently asked about the role of documentaries in the classroom – specifically PBS’s video Reconstruction. I wanted to say a few things about how I use history videos in the classroom, but first here is the reader’s question and comment:
Why are you averse to showing entire videos? Does it make you feel lazy as a teacher? Do you feel the students zone out after a short amount of time with the lights out?
I think one needs to be versatile and use videos to supplement the lesson rather than become it, but with a documentary as great as PBS’s Reconstruction, I’d be inclined to show the whole thing. There’s enough time in two semesters to get away with that, I think.
My high school history teacher, Coach Blackburn, relied heavily on videos. I remember the first day of class he said something like "there’s really no difference between me telling you the stuff and the video telling you the stuff."
I want to start by saying that I rarely use history videos in my class for the simple reason that most of them stink. They are geared towards pure entertainment and contain very little content that is worth thinking critically about. There are a few exceptions and one of them, as stated above, is PBS’s Reconstruction. Second, in response to Coach Blackburn, if the teacher is superfluous in teaching the history lesson than it seems to me the class itself is unnecessary because a student can always watch the video at home.
If I use a video I will typically show no more than 15 minutes; the main reason being that most of my students can only focus for about that long. Videos do not create active learners; in fact there are plenty of studies that point to the ineffectiveness of this type of approach. I try to break up my classes into segments. The first 15 minutes are typically spent giving background to a specific event which is followed by some kind of document analysis and discussion. If I use a segment of a video it is in connection with a specific lesson plan. For instance, a few weeks ago I used part of Burns’s Civil War documentary on Lee’s decision to secede along with the statistics from a recent study on West Point graduates from the South who decided to stay with the Union. The purpose here was to compare a popular version of the story with an analytical study.
I think it is also important to realize that what we as teachers see as interesting and engaging may fall flat with students. If a video is going to be used it is absolutely necessary to prepare students with some kind of guide – perhaps a series of questions. The other issue is preparation. What will the students have read to prepare them for this video? This is a fairly sophisticated interpretation of Reconstruction from what I remember.
As a final thought I repeat my earlier point in the day which is that since there is such an incredible amount of interesting primary source material that can be used in connection with Reconstruction it almost seems criminal to show an entire video. Be creative, take chances, and rely on the students to think through the tough issues. I am constantly surprised by the level of sophistication that is possible on the high school level. Don’t waste opportunities to teach and engage your students.