Plus: the movies we watched the final two days before Christmas break
Every teacher knows the feeling. You’re in the final week of school before Christmas break. There’s no point in starting something new, and often, you’re finishing up a project or unit and you need a couple of extra days for the late work to pour in, so you have time to grade and update the school’s system before submitting them for the end of quarter. Those couple of extra days you need require some type of activity to keep the kids busy. And for many of us, that means a movie.
If you’re like me, you feel a wave of guilt when you even think about showing a movie when there’s no real point to showing it other than as a time-filler.
But here’s the thing: as long as a movie has educational value for your students, meaning that it teaches them something they don’t already know, you should feel good about showing it.
I keep my eyes open for valuable movies with at least one of these two characteristics:
1) a strong, life-affirming theme
- I’m not going to show movies that don’t end on a positive note. There must be a “moral to the story” that’s worth knowing. Kids are exposed to so many negative
2) a wealth of information about a historical or news-worthy event or an important person on the world stage.
- Kids need background knowledge about national and global affairs i order to progress through school. How will they connect with Chasing Lincoln’s Killer if they don’t have adequate prior knowledge about the Civil War, for example?
Of course, the movies must also be rated G, PG, or PG-13. For PG-13 movies, my district requires a signed parent permission slip, so if I plan to show one of those, I must have the permission slip ready to go home about a week before I plan to show the movie.
So, what videos did we watch two days before Christmas break?
In seventh grade, we watched the History Channel drama miniseries America: The Story of Us episodes 4 and half of episode 5, which focus on the years leading up to the Civil War and also the Civil War itself. Watching these helped us prep for our reading in January of James Swanson’s Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, one of my favorite seventh-grade units.
I was unfamiliar with the series when I found it on YouTube (it’s also available on History Channel’s website). I consulted Common Sense Media, and it rated the series suitable for kids ages twelve and up. One caution: episode 5 gets grisly with scenes of battlefield medical care. It’s bloody and graphic, but doesn’t show actual surgeries; it leaves much to the imagination. If your kids have watched Grey’s Anatomy, (which by the way, Common Sense rates for ages 15+), they’ve seen worse.
On Tuesday, Jan. 8, we’ll finish episode 5 and review what we learned about the Civil War by watching these two videos.
What I like about these documentaries is that they contain live-action scenes with the quality of a feature film that kids might see at a theater. The episodes also contain “talking heads” commentary by historians and authors, but also by popular celebrities many of the kids recognize: Sean Combs, Michael Strahan, Tom Brokaw, and others.
The scenes are interspersed with arresting images such as an extreme slow-motion of a minie ball bullet spiraling down the barrel of a rifle and then hurtling through the air. The boys really paid attention to that. In fact, episode 5 opens by introducing the minie ball and asserts that the minie ball —and the bloodshed it caused— is just one example of how the Civil War contributed to and was a reflection of the rise of industrial technology, especially in warfare.
The series contains twelve episodes. Look through the episodes and find those that may provide your kids with the background that will help them connect better to your literature units.
In eighth grade, we watched Sully, starring Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart. It’s “The story of Chesley Sullenberger, an American pilot who became a hero (in 2009) after landing his damaged plane on the Hudson River in order to save the flight’s passengers and crew,” according to IMDb. We watched this movie because it riffs on what defines humanity and therefore ties in with our human rights dissertations we are currently building.
Near the end of film, Sully says to his critics at a hearing of the cockpit voice recordings, “You still have not taken into account the human factor. You’ve allowed no time for analysis or decision making. In these simulations, you’re taking all of the humanity out of the cockpit.” We’ll discuss the crucial point Sullenberger was making when we return from break. In fact, students will copy this quote from the movie into cursive on Monday, Jan. 7 and then we’ll discuss how Sully’s point may find a place in our human rights dissertations that we’re building throughout the year.
We didn’t discuss Sully in depth after we watched it. Frankly, we ran out of time and few students were in the mood to analyze it in-depth since it was the last time eight-graders would be in my class before break. That’s okay. At least they’ve gained some background knowledge about an important national event. Plus, we’ll get to have an interesting discussion about what this movie says about humanity, the human spirit, and the essence of being human.
So to conclude, choose the right movies to show your students and avoid the teacher-guilt. Focus on worthwhile movies with rich, life-affirming themes that are full of historical and cultural knowledge. Movies shouldn’t be used to merely fill up time!