Ken Burns In The Classroom

In yesterday’s post I commented in passing that Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary should be used with great care in the classroom.  I’ve used it every semester in my own Civil War course as it is both entertaining and pedagogically useful in a number of ways.  The documentary should be used as an interpretation of the war.  This means that the teacher must engage the students in an active manner with some type of activity.  One of the easiest ways – though not the only way – is to pose a set of interpretive questions that can be discussed by the entire class following the segment. 

Begin with the various voices: What role does the narrator (David McCullough) play in the documentary?  How much (if any) authority should his own words carry compared with the other "talking heads"?  [Students should have a bit of background here in reference to McCullough’s notoriety as a popular historian.]  What is the role of the "talking heads" such as Shelby Foote?  [I also give my students a little background on Foote.]  What specific role does Foote play in the documentary (i.e. historian v. entertainer).  I will admit that I jump back and forth in terms of the usefulness of Foote.  At times I see him as a major distraction while at other times he is a magnet for those who are new to the subject.  More often than not it is a combination of the two views.

Themes that can be tracked by students: How are Grant and Lee or Davis and Lincoln interpreted in terms of both content and the voices that portray them?  Does the documentary do a good job balancing between the battlefield and homefront; eastern v. western theatres; North v. South (Union v. Confederate); enlisted men v. officers; commoners v. elite?  How representative are Sam Watkins of Tennessee and Elisha Hunt Rhodes of Rhode Island?  Students can compare and contrast their experiences as portrayed in the documentary.  What role does the music play in various segments?

These are just a few questions/themes that students can explore while watching this documentary.  I should say that I do not use the entire series as it is much too long.  Students should come away with a firmer understanding that documentaries are interpretations.  Any discussion can easily be expanded to other visual mediums.  Given the number of hours that high school students spend in front of the television it is important that we give them the tools to engage with these images and messages. 

I will post other ideas as to how to use Ken Burns as the semester progresses.

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5 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Aug 29, 2006 @ 20:02

    Kristen, — Thanks for writing. I have not had an opportunity to use “Lewis and Clark” and “The West” in my classes. Films and especially documentaries do not play a significant role in my classroom. In the case of those two topics I have other activities that are more interesting and interactive. I have used parts of “Brooklyn Bridge” as a window into the Gilded Age.

  • Kristen Aug 29, 2006 @ 19:52

    I’ve used Ken Burns’ “Civil War” in my college classes and have found that it draws the students into the subject matter. What are your thoughts about using his other documentaries including “Lewis & Clark” and “The West?”

  • Kevin Levin Aug 28, 2006 @ 16:21

    Cash, — I don’t overload my students on background, but convey some of the same points that you make. He was the author of a popular Civil War trilogy who also has an attractive southern drawl (spelling?). It is not surprising that he proved to be the most popular “talking head” in the series. His presence, however, raises the important question of role and authority.

    Stephen, — I’ve never made the connection between the timing of the series and Desert Storm – interesting comment. The flaws are indeed sometimes overwhelming, but they are mostly interpretive flaws. Given that my students are reading current secondary sources this provides an interesting contrast between a scholarly and popular treatment of the war.

  • Stephen Keating Aug 28, 2006 @ 15:48

    I have to agree with both of you, Kevin and Cash. It’s a great way to introduce the Civil War to either students or as a form of entertainment. But oh the flaws. Still, I always use it as an intro to my looking at any particular battle or campaign. And let’s face it, Shelby Foote became the ideal of a “Southern Gentleman” after the first showing. Many people have commented on how big an impact the series had, but I also think the fact that it came out during the build up for Desert Storm, and the fears of what lay ahead, added to the way people viewed it.

  • Cash Aug 28, 2006 @ 11:45


    I have a love/hate relationship with the Ken Burns documentary. Every time I watch it, it seems I find another error, usually in Shelby Foote’s portions. And yet I keep watching it over and over. I even shelled out the money to buy the DVD set.

    Around the internet, I’ve seen that Shelby’s had quite an impact. In nearly every Civil War group you find several people regurgitating “Footeisms” as if they were the Gospel, and usually they get upset when shown that Shelby wasn’t exactly accurate when he said that.

    I’d be interested to know what you tell your students regarding Shelby’s background. I know he didn’t really regard himself as a historian; do you consider him a historian? I think of him more as an amazingly gifted and talented novelist who wrote a beautiful fact-based account of the war that is a piece of art but should be only carefully used as reference.


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