Friday, February 3, 2012

Friday's Five - American History through Movies

One of the reasons that I love teaching History is that the subject is loaded with incredible, interesting stories.  Since Hollywood makes money from incredible, interesting stories, it's no surprise that many movies have been made that fit perfectly with the American History curriculum I teach. 

Of course, none of these movies should be taken or taught as fact.  One of the most important skills we can teach our students in social studies class is to identify bias and understand the point of view of the person giving you information.  Movies offer a great opportunity to discuss this topic as well.

There are so many movies that can be used in a history class that it's hard to narrow this list down to just five.  Since my 5th grade curriculum only focuses on early American History (up to and including the Civil War), my list will focus on that area as well.  If I missed any of your favorite movies that you use in your classroom from any period of American History, please share them in the comment section below. 
  1. Johnny Tremain - Obviously this is a very Disney-fied version of the events leading up to the American Revolution, but it does give exposure to many of the reasons American Colonists were unhappy with the British in a way that is understood by elementary students.  It's important to explain to students the British point of view and the fact that 2/3 of colonists did not support independence as well in order to for students to overcome the movie's bias. 
  2. Gone With the Wind - While the movie romanticized life for slaves in the South before the Civil War in an effort to appease Southern movie watchers in the 1930's, it does give students a good sense of several events during the time period - Sherman's March to the Sea, the Seige of Atlanta, and the attitudes of Southerners towards those in the North before, during, and after the war.  I've found this movie is great for discussing bias, the Civil War, and how authors build good plot when writing narratives. 
  3. Glory - I know it's rated R, and that most of the movie is too graphic to show elementary students, but there are clips that can give students a great sense of the prediciment of black soldiers during the Civil War.
  4. Keeping the Promise - This is the television-movie adaptation of the book "Sign of the Beaver."  My students find it easy to relate to the protagonist since he is 12 years old, and find it easy to understand frontier life, self-sufficiency, and some of the reasons that Native Americans resented and resisted the expansion of European/Colonial settlements onto their lands. 
  5. Uncle Tom's Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe's book is mentioned in every American History textbook, but my students found it hard to understand the way a story could change public opinion.  As we watched different parts of the movie I asked them to imagine that they are a Northerner during the 1850's who believes that slavery is wrong, but has little direct experience.  I ask them to monitor whether the narrative told would make them more likely to want to take some sort of direct action.  As the movie goes on, most students start to understand how the connection readers would have made with the characters, and the increasing mistreatment of those characters would have had a great influence over public opinion.
What are your favorite movies to use in your classroom?  Please share with us in the comment section below, and share the post with others you know who may want to share their ideas as well.