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Unit Plan: Documentary

Nathan Schultz and Dan Richardson



11th and 12th Grade

Goals of the Unit:

Students will be able to critically analyze documentary films using film-making terminology.

Students will gain a general knowledge of the history of the documentary film genre.

Students will learn beginning to intermediate digital film-making and editing techniques and work with a crew to produce a 10- minute documentary film to screen in class as a final project.



The connotation of the word documentary is of something factual and objective. The simplest definition of documentary film is that it is non-fiction film-making; that it documents reality/truth in a straight forward way. Of course, a deeper look at documentary complicates any such simple definition. A teacher interested in some background on these complexities might start by looking at this page.


In general, high school students are pretty well versed in the genre (and many sub-genres) of “dramatic” or “fictional” or “storytelling” film. They are immersed in a culture obsessed with television and movies. Until the relatively recent trends of reality television and widely released documentaries such as Fahrenheit 9/11 and An Inconvenient Truth, non-fiction film was less widely viewed by young adults. The recent popularization of this genre is a great reason to teach critical methods of viewing it.


It might be interesting to start the unit out by asking students what their definitions of documentary film and “reality television” are, and then to complicate those definitions throughout unit. We also have chosen to emphasize that documentary films have messages that they want their audience to accept as truth. Filmmakers edit and shape their works to persuade an audience or make them intentionally feel certain ways. Documentarians are contructors of realities, and not simply documentors of reality. Students can learn to become aware of how filmmakers try to position audiences (including the students themselves) and shape such realities for them.


In studying the history of documentary film, students learn about the many complicated definitions of and disagreements about documentary film. The schools of thought that define many of the sub-genres of documentary film are pretty clearly politically motivated. It’s important for students to see examples of these different kinds of documentary to expand their own definitions and to begin considering the reasons behind and effects of different modes of presentation.


Besides a historical look at the genre, the unit gives students a vocabulary they can use to critically analyze films. Learning the terminology of film production gets students to learn about the complex elements of film production from choice of subject matter, through filming technique,s to editing techniques. Then, most meaningfully we think, students produce their own documentaries. They become immersed in the myriad choices that filmmakers get to make. They plan, shoot and edit, and they try to communicate some kind of message or truth to an authentic audience. And hopefully through this process, they become more critical viewers who are interested in the documentary genre.





Start by finding out about students prior knowledge on the subject of documentary film. Have students fill out this survey and then discuss their answers in class.


As we open the unit, it's important to get a handle on what students have already seen so that we can draw on films that students already know for examples as we move through the unit, and stretch their understanding of what documentaries can do. Begin with a classroom discussion that includes the following:

What have students seen already? What is documentary film? What are the purposes of documentary film?


Our classmates Karen Keller and Abbey Weis contributed the following idea, and we think that it's a good way to begin stretching students' understanding of the variety of approaches that can be taken by documentary film makers.



As an introduction to documentary, students should learn about the different modes of documentary: cinéma vérité, reflexive/interactive, mockumentary, docudrama, personal, poetic/avant-garde, expository, observational, fly-on-the-wall. Put the class into groups of approximately three. Assign one of these documentary modes to each group. Either with laptops or in a computer lab, have groups look up their assigned documentary modes, researching the elements and styles of each. They should also come up with a short list of examples of films or television programs that utilize these modes. Once they have investigated this documentary mode, groups should present their information while their peers take notes. A helpful site to get information on documentary modes (under the Bowling for Columbine study guide)


As part of the sharing time for this activity, the class can contribute additional examples for each type of film. Show clips from documentary films representative of a variety of approaches that can be taken when making a documentary film.


Note: We suggest that teachers use the above study guide PDF as a reference for this activity, view Bowling for Columbine in Part six and have students work through the study guide activities at that point. The study guide provides an excellent segue into the film analysis project.





1. Background reading on documentary film theory.

This article sets out the early history of documentary and provides an excellent foundation for the rest of the unit.


2. 4-corners activity - Post signs in four corners of the room: AGREE, DISAGREE, STRONGLY AGREE, and STRONGLY DISAGREE.

Read aloud statements about the nature of documentary film and they must go to the corner that best matches how they feel. Once students have chosen corners, they orally defend their choice. Some statements that can be used are:


--Documentary films should be realistic.

--Documentary films should persuade the audience or make some

political point.

--Documentary film is the best film genre to push for social


--Documentary filmmakers should not try to edit their films to

make them more dramatic and entertaining.


Here is a list of more questions for the 4-corners activity.



film shots, camera angles


(A) Image Analysis (Pre-requisite for work with camera shots/angles)

Before moving on to thinking directly about film shots, it's important to make sure that students have some understanding of how to interpret images. The still image or photo is the basic unit of film and looking at how still images can be interpreted is a good beginning for any unit on film. We suggest starting with a lesson in which students practice interpreting still images like the lesson found here. Another, more in-depth project on the interpretation of still images along with needed web resources can be found on the How to Read a Painting site


(B) Camera Work

In the school library, students work in groups of 4 to locate definitions of a film technique assigned to their group. Groups define their key term and explain its importance. If they are given a particular camera shot to define, they must think of examples of how this shot is used in films they know, as well as reasons why a director chooses to use that shot. What effect does the shot have on the viewer? Each group comes up with a "memorable" way to teach their term to the rest of the class. Terms for this activity may include: Frame, establishing shot/ extreme long shot, medium shot, close-up shot, wide-angle shot, low angle shot, high-angle shot, pan shot, tracking shot, zoom shot, point-of-view shot.


The class is then broken into groups that include one member from each of the first set of groups--so they are now in groups with students who looked up other terms. All students are provided with a complete list of terms minus the definitions. Each student explains the terms that their first group has defined to members of their second group. Group members record the definitions that their classmates explain and create a full list of terms and definitions that they can then use as a study sheet for a quiz on this terminology.


Here is a page that you can project on a screen in your classroom to review camera shots.



A bit of documentary history: begin exploring how documentarians construct reality.


(A) Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North - selected scenes.


Some historical background on the "first documentary film":

  • shot in Northern Canada
  • released in 1922
  • first version's film destroyed by fire
  • sponsored by a fur company

Technical aspects of the film:

  • black & white, silent film
  • filmed with a single camera
  • footage shot over the course of a year
  • recreation of an igloo (with one section removed through which to film)

What is effective about the movie?

What is outdated or not effective?

Why does the filmmaker choose some of the techniques that he uses?

Important here to start talking about how Flaherty's methods shape his message, that documentarians have a message they want to get across to their viewers. Documentarians shape this message, they don't just deliver virgin truth.


A clip from Nanook of the North



Discuss with students how Flaherty and Nanook collaborated in creating the events for the film. Nanook and his family were not simply recorded as they lived their life, but were asked to perform certain (some of them typical) behaviors for the benefit of the cameras. Examining this aspect of Nanook will open an ongoing discussion that will continue throughout the unit about how documentary filmmakers construct reality for their viewers. William Rothman in his Documentary Film Classics comments:


Flaherty did not, in the manner of a cinema-verite filmmaker, simply film Nanook and his family going about their lives. Many actions on view in the film were performed for the camera and not simply 'documented' by it. The filmmaker actively involved his subjects in the filming, telling them what he wanted them to do, responding to their suggestions, and directing their performance for the camera...Much of what is on view is typical behavior for Nanook and his family (lighting campfires, paddling kayaks, trapping foxes, making igloos). Some is not. For example, for the sake of his film Flaherty called upon Nanook and some other men to revive a traditional--and dangerous--method of hunting walrus with harpoons, a tradition Nanook's people abandoned as soon as they became able to trade pelts for guns and ammunition (1-2).

See the rest of chapter one from Rotham's book for more background on Nanook.

Rothman, William. Documentary Film Classics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.


(B) As a way to continue talking about how documentaries construct reality, and stay with the anthropological bent of Nanook, the following clip from The Gods Must be Crazy can be shown:

This is a piece of fiction that poses as "reality" in a way similar to Nanook. After viewing this clip, students can view a documentary found in the special features of the Gods Must be Crazy DVD. This special feature presents a strikingly less idyllic picture of the lives lived by "bushmen." N!xau, the lead actor from the movie is shown living in poverty. During the filming of the special feature, he dies of tuberculosis. The juxtaposition of these two clips followed by a class discussion should draw out how film shapes the reality that it represents. For more information about The Gods Must be Crazy and N!xau, see Wikipedia.


(C) As an extension to activity B, we suggest the following activity brought to you by our classmates Theresa Haider and Jennifer Sellers. They suggest watching Supersize Me and Me and Mickey D back-to-back in order to illustrate for students just how different two directors' ideas about reality can be.



[S]tudents would watch the documentary Supersize Me (Spurlock, 2004). They will answer the following questions:

What is Spurlok’s message about fast food?

How does he try to prove his message’s validity?

What does he do as a director to make you believe his message?

What holes do you see in his strategy?

Next, students will watch the documentary Me and Mickey D (Whaley, 2005), which is a counter response to Spurlock’s findings. Whaley ate McDonald’s for 30 days and not only lost weight, but lowered her cholesterol as well. After viewing, students will answer the following questions:

What is Whaley’s message about fast food?

How does she try to prove her message’s validity?

What does she do as a director to make you believe her message?

What holes do you see in her strategy?


To conclude, students will watch another documentary of their choosing and analyze its validity according to how the director delivered the message. They will write a short essay explaining the intended message of the documentary and the strategies employed by the director to deliver that message. They should conclude by determining if they were swayed by the documentary.





1. In class discussion - Define propaganda. Do we come across it today? Where? How do you deal with propaganda? How can you be critical of it? Can a political documentary be unbiased? How?


2. Present Aaron Stinar's EXCELLENT World War II Propaganda Powerpoint:

World War II Propaganda.ppt

Stinar has captured many propoganda images from all sides of the war and included translations of all texts.


3. Watch clips from Triumph of the Will and Why We Fight.


First 10 minutes of Triumph of the Will:


Discuss the following with the class:

What are the films' messages?

What case do they make in support of these messages?

What techniques are used to persuade the audience?

What political agendas are behind the films?

How are these examples of propaganda?

What other examples of propaganda are you familiar with?




Bowling for Columbine


1. Students view Bowling for Columbine


2. The in-class discussion focuses on how Moore "messages" his film. We talk about what his arguments are, and whether they are convincing. What strongly affected you in the film? Why?

What techniques does Moore use as a filmmaker? Is this propaganda? Why or why not? What was effective about the film? What was convincing? What wasn't?


3. In small groups, students can complete the activities from Tom Brownlee and The UK Film Council's Bowling for Columbine study guide. This guide provides students (and teachers) with excellent definitions of documentary types/modes. Students are then asked to identify when Moore uses the various modes in Bowling for Columbine, and for what "purpose and effect." The guide also includes a series of questions designed to help students begin to draw out Moore's point of view as it emerges in the opening scene of the film. A third section of the study guide provides questions that get at how tries to shape viewers' perspective through the use of careful editing--these questions revolve around an interview with Marilyn Manson. A final activity asks students to tease out Moore's ideas about what causes violence, and to rank order factors that contribute to violence. Students are asked to provide reasons for their rankings.


4. Have students do critical comparisons about information on the web concerning Michael Moore and his films. There is a great deal to sift through, but one idea is to ask students to compare the look, the presentations, and the information presented on Moore’s site with that on the Moorewatch site that purports to be “watching Michael Moore’s every move”, or Bowling for Truth , “an independent web-based recourse and information center dedicated to exposing misinformation in documentary films.”


So, in addition to having the students try to watch Bowling for Columbine with a critical eye, it would be a good idea to ask students to look at Moore’s work and the work out there which strongly disagrees with Moore. In the end, of course, students should be asked to come up with their own opinion about his work.



Introduce and model Film Scene Analysis assignment



Watch segments of documentaries of your choice and analyze them for students in terms of shots/angles/camera movement to model assignment described below. Dan did this with his class and used clips from Murderball. Viewing segments of these documentaries are part of showing students good examples of documentary in preparation for their own film-making projects.


Student Assignment:

1. Choose a 2-5 minute (NO LONGER!!) scene from a favorite movie that you are able to get a copy of (VHS or DVD) to bring to class and show. If you can get a hold of a documentary for this assignment, that would be ideal. (See me if you cannot get a copy and I will suggest a film for you.)


2. Take notes about what kind of camera shots the director chose to use and why you think that shot was used. For example, “The director chose a shaky, hand-held camera shot to convey action, rushing, and the fear and nervousness of the main character.”


3. Use your notes in class to talk the class through the shots and angles of the scene. Your presentation should be no longer than 5 minutes. Hand your notes in to me after your presentation.



Ken Burns, becoming documentarians


(A) Ken Burns

Play selected scenes from Ken Burn's Civil War (1990).

Note: Advance this clip to 2:27, a section entitled "Honorable Manhood" that has most of the strongest elements of Burns' work.


Class discussion of the clips. How is Burns' work different from other documentaries we have looked at? What elements does he use to tell his story? (Music, photos, camera movement, narration--original sources are read, interviews with historians). The technique known as the "Ken Burns" effect--his style of filming still images will be introduced at this point. We can also play back a clip and discuss why he chooses to pan across some photos, fade in or out of others, etc. Why does he use a particular technique to present a specific photo?


In order to explore these questions in more detail, students will create a simple Ken Burns-style clip using a page from the official Civil War website at PBS.org: . The teacher should practice using this webpage to create a movie before class and model the procedure for students using a projector. For their clip, students choose: soundtrack (one of four provided); narration (one of two pre-recorded tracks); order in which images appear; whether an image will be still, zoomed in on, zoomed out on, or panned; the duration in frames that the image will be on the screen; and whether or not the image will fade in its final frame. Students drag images into a story board and can play their creation. This exercise gives students a safe way to play with storyboarding, and gives them a sense of all the layers (music, spoken word, order of images/juxtaposition of images, and camera techniques).


When we created our own film using the PBS website, it came out all wrong--the camera shots and timing didn't fit with the narration and the music. Just as we did, student's need to get a sense of how these pieces have to fit together in a way that fits with the mood that you (as the director) are trying to portray. Here again is an issue of how reality is constructed. The tempo at which the film maker chooses to shift from one image to another and the way in which this tempo fits with or grates against the soundtrack/narration gives a film its mood. The mood of the clip that we created using the PBS website was anxious and jumpy. After students complete their clips, they can email them to the teacher (a feature of the webpage), and the entire class can watch them together. This will give us an opportunity to discuss the relative merits of each attempt and the mood that they create. In these student films, it's also a good idea to call attention to how the viewer/player on the PBS website keeps track of each frame with a running number in the top left corner--reinforcing the idea from the first part of the unit that each still frame communicates meaning.


(Note: I encourage teachers who might use this lesson to avoid grading it. This should be an opportunity for students to play with the idea of being a filmmaker, allow them to play and not have to worry about evaluation.)


B. iMovie demo in Computer lab

Practice on iMovie: The teacher gives students a tour of iMovie and shows a documentary (matching the assignment below) that he/she has created. Students are given the rest of the period to create a 5-picture slideshow (using only still photos) utilizing the Ken Burns Effect, transitions, titles, and music or audio voiceover. The slideshow can be about themselves or any other topic they choose. Students can bring in photos or cut and paste from the internet, as long as the slideshow tells some sort of brief story or message. Basically this project is a tiny practice for the big project of the 10-minute documentary film they will be shooting and editing as a final product/project of the unit.


If students finish this project quickly, they can also practice editing video on My Pop Studio




Use the Media Education Foundation website to present a lesson on how media shapes our desires and perceptions. One that works well with students are the "Dreamworlds" videos which analyze sexism in the music video industry. Clips are available online, and videos are available to order




Homework - Assign Critical Viewing Activity from Media Education Foundation website. CriticalViewing.pdf




students start working on their own documentaries


At this point, we want our students to go beyond analysis of others' decisions and get a taste of what it means to make those decisions themselves. In groups of three or four, students will create a 10 minute documentary on a topic of their choice. They need to make purposeful choices about camera shots, editing, music, narrative, and pacing. They need to present a case of some kind.


1.Pre-Production and videotaping hints.

Students complete pre-production checklist.


To be handed in:

• 1 paragraph summary of video idea

• intended audience statement

• list of locations to be filmed

• list of required graphics, audio, photo, video to be added to film

Teachers, for more information see Chapters 5 and 8 from Creating Digital Video in Your School by Lenworth, especially pg. 40. An alternative planning worksheet


2. Permission paragraphs – read together as a class

For more on the ethics of filming a documentary see the lesson from the PBS series American High


3. Videotaping – Shooting Tips – read together as class. Helpful hints.

For a complete lesson on how to improve images of people for video please see this lesson from American High




planning the film


1. Storyboarding – show examples from Shrek – essential to a decent film – helps with shooting and editing. Even if students have started shooting, storyboarding can help them plan how they are going to start putting it all together.


2. In groups, students start planning their films, scene by scene. Students must hand in a rough storyboard of their documentary (at least 2 Storyboard Templates).


3. Film clip – “Cry Freetown” - CNN Documentary on Sierra Leone. Techniques? Purpose? Director's involvement, personal risk to get a news story out.


4. Hand out “Documentary Films” (available for download here for $3)

Students watch one of the documentaries listed on the handout and prepare to talk about what they noticed in the next classperiod. Students should choose one they haven’t seen that is appropriate viewing for home.


5. At this point, students must have in class group time to storyboard, plan filming times/locations, etc.


6. Tips for Interviews – overhead.


5. Cinema Verite – notes and clips.




Purpose of Documentary films?


1. Discuss the following: What is the purpose of documentary? (persuade? entertain? inform? change the world?) Analyze examples we have seen so far according to these possibilities. What is the purpose of your group's documentary?


2. "The Thin Blue Line". Errol Morris background.

Watch as much of the film as one block period allows.

Questions to be done during/after viewing.

Thin Blue Line Questions




1. Expressionistic Documentary: Koyaanisqatsi



2. How is this film technique different than other more "realistic" documentaries we have seen? What is the effect? What is the purpose?



filming and editing


A. Filming

For a lesson on how to improve audio for your film please see this lesson from the PBS series American High.


The filming takes place largely/entirely outside of classtime and must be done relatively quickly to that in-class time can be spent editing and polishing the documentary.


B. Editing

In his five week documentary unit, Dan's class needed AT LEAST 5 full 84-minute periods to edit in the computer lab. This means putting all the elements together. It might seem like a ridiculous amount of time to give students to edit, however, the process is extremely timeconsuming and fraught with technical glitches and unforeseen circumstances. If you want your students to produce good and interesting films, allow them plenty of time to edit. Dan has only done this unit once, and one thing he would do differently is to have some kind of "rough edit" check where you can give some feedback--and they can then create a "second draft"--before they show their final product to the class. Dan reports, "My first time through I wanted to be surprised by their final project, but I realized there were so many little comments and edits I could have suggested to make their films so much better."


Here is a complete lesson plan on how to piece the audio and visual components of a film together.




film festival


Other classes are invited to a classtime screening of student films. Members of your class may fill in a Viewer Response Form for each film (sample response form). Popcorn is provided. Students need to know that this is for a larger audience than their teacher. We suggest that members of the school newspaper be invited to write reviews of student films. These reviews will be published ahead of an evening screening to which parents and friends will be invited. Create the whole film experience.













Amazing Articles on the following at the DigitalDocumentary.org

What Keeps Social Documentaries from Audiences—and How to Fix It

In the Battle for Reality: Social Documentaries in the U.S.


Sundance Documentary Fund

Category 2: Sampling popular culture to portray societal conditions

Killing Us Softly

Behind the Screens

Category 3: Incorporating incidental sounds and images in documentary footage

Category 4: Employing archival material in historical or biographical sequences

Why America Hates the Press

Refrigerator Mothers

Women’s Voices: The Gender Gap

The Persuaders

Merchants of Cool

Game Over

Cracking the Code of Life

Money for Nothing

Who Owns the Past?

The New Americans

5 Girls

Karl Rove - The Architect

Giuliani Time

Citizen King

Jack Walsh

Michael Donaldson

Sandra Ruch

Tamara Gould

Fair Use at Upcoming Conferences

Fair Use at Nashville Film Festival

Making Your Documentary Matter 2006

Fair Use Featured at CINE Awards

Public Media and the Smithsonian Controversy


Maximizing Distribution

Impact of Uprising of ‘34: A Coalition Model of Production and Distribution

The Current State of the International Marketplace for Documentary Films

Collaborative strategies for social action filmmakers

Why Fund Media

Making Your Documentary Matter 2005

Media and Metanoia: Documentary “Impact” Through the Lens of Conversion

“Documentaries: Making an Impact,” at the 25th IFP Market in New York City

The Television Race Initiative: Sparking Dialogue That Can Lead to Action

Is Social Change Media a Delusion? California Newsreel at 30 and 2000

The Drum Beat

From the Broadcaster’s Corner: A Success Story in Coalition Outreach

Visiting Filmmakers: Patrice O’Neill and Pamela Calvert

Paco de Onis and Peter Kinoy

Gordon Quinn

Jos de Putter: The Damned and the Sacred

Case Study: Indians, Outlaws and Angie Debo

Breaking New Ground: A Framework for Measuring the Social Impact of Canadian Documentaries

The Forgetting: A Portrait of Alzheimer’s

Blue Vinyl and the My House is Your House Consumer Organizing Campaign, 2002-2003

Impact of Uprising of ‘34: A Coalition Model of Production and Distribution

Using Grassroots Documentary Films for Political Change

Report from the Road: Two Towns of Jasper

Enhancing Education: A Producer’s Guide

Outreach Extensions: National Legacy Outreach Campaign Evaluation

Well-Founded Fear: A Case Study

The Television Race Initiative: Sparking Dialogue That Can Lead to Action

Positive: Life with HIV: When a Film Doesn’t Receive a National PBS Broadcast

Case Study: Changing the World, One Documentary at a Time

Center Director Submits Testimony on Smithsonian/Showtime Controversy

Testimony on the Smithsonian Controversy to the House Committee on House Administration 5.25.06

Fair Use and Free Speech

Producing Films With Nonprofit Organisations

Fear, Truth, and the Documentary

Tia Lessin

AIDS in Focus: Telling the Stories Behind the Headlines

Checkpoint & Best of INPUT 2004

Untold Stories: Creative Consequences of the Rights Clearance Culture

With God On Our Side: George Bush and the Religious Right

Photographer Chien-Chi Chang

In the Light of Reverence

Visiting Filmmakers: Patrice O’Neill and Pamela Calvert

Valentina’s Nightmare and Rwanda: The Weapon

Visiting Filmmaker: Ronit Avni

Social Action Media Showcase

Camera as Catalyst: Leonard Freed

Human Rights Film Series

Special event: Magnum Photographer Bruce Davidson

Women Make Movies Turns 30

Labor Filmmakers’ Roundtable: Making Movies About Real Life

Independent Views of September 11

Power of Media as a Social Tool

Filmmakers Forum on Satyajit Ray

Powerful Social Action Films and Strategies

Real Screen Roundtable

“Trembling before G-d”

Sundance hosts open house for the Center


Film Screening: Muxes: Autenticas, Intrepidas y Buscadoras del Peligro

Visiting Photographer: Lou Dematteis

Dallas Video Festival: Copyright & Fair Use Workshop

9th United Nations Association Film Festival

2006 DC Labor Film Fest Screening: The Take

Watch our latest videos on the latest in web-based and community outreach media

Film Screening: The Best of The Santa Barbara Ocean Film Festival 2006

Mimi Pickering Participatory Media Speech



See this bibliography of Documentary and Ethnographic Film from the UC Berkeley Libraries


Here you can view Frontline episodes in segments streaming over the web.


and here is the Frontline Teacher Center for lesson plans attached to each episode:



December Frontline Programs


While some economists credit Wal-Mart's single-minded focus on low costs with helping contain U.S. inflation, others charge that the company is the main force driving the massive overseas shift to China in the production of American consumer goods, resulting in hundreds of thousands of lost jobs and a lower standard of living here at home. (See full listing below.)


The "Is Wal-Mart Good for America?" teacher's guide features a lesson where students will examine the costs and benefits of outsourcing for consumers, manufacturers, retailers and workers in the United States by:


Now available at:




Encore presentation airing Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2006 at 9pm (check local listings)


Media and culture critic Douglas Rushkoff examines how changes in marketing practices are influencing U.S. culture and politics. (See full listing below.)


"The Persuaders" featured lessons builds on this issue by asking students to examine historical legislation through the lens of modern marketing. Students will consider and in some cases re-name landmark laws or policies.


Now available at:




Encore presentation airing Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2006 at 9pm (check local listings)


Americans spend $40 billion a year on books, products, and programs designed to do one thing: help us lose weight. (See full listing below.)


"Diet Wars" featured lessons will help students learn about and evaluate their own food consumption and examine their school lunch program. Student will also examine the diets of early Americans, compare and contrast various diets in the U.S.


Now available at:




NPR interview with Christopher Guest, director of the new, For Your Consideration





A site with documentaries about documentarians and matching lesson plans.




This is a "NOW with Bill Moyers" interview with Albert Maysles, director of cinema verite films. Four lesson plans are connected to the interview:


Part 1: Tapping Student Interest: Is Reality TV Really Real?


Part 2: Learning about Albert Maysles and Direct Cinema


Part 3: The Art of Filmmaking


Part 4: Emulating Maysles' Style: A Film Festival





This website includes summaries of films (as a basis for note-taking, worksheets, and exercises), notes and exercises for those films (and selected other films).




A website for documentary film makers who want to create a curriculum that goes with their film.


Point of View: a Danish journal of film studies




Center for Social Media, School of Communication, American University





Critical Practice in Media Education: Teaching Documentary Theory and


Practice, Mike Wayne



Screen Site a discussion forum for teaching film



Race and Pedagogy Project: Between the Lines Documentary







Viewing Documentaries--Unit Plan



Mock Documentary Teaching Resources





Teaching documentary and observation techniques in their coursework, SIX professors exhibit their assignments and their students' work


Documentary Teaching Activity 11/17/10

By: Cory Damone Enriquez


In this activity, the classroom will seek to define the difference between the documentary and reality. Depending on time and budget, the class will choose a documentary or part of one in which we will explore the real life profession or space (with low budget I recommend choosing to look at the school lunch bit in "Super Size Me", Bowling for Columbine, or other documentaries dealing with school topics; sports stuff is also a good choice). First, the class will view the respective documentary. Then we will visit someone working in the profession in their work  space. This will be an on site note taking experience that will seek to compare the difference between what the documentary showed and the reality of the chosen space/profession. The first follow up will be in the form of a critical analysis of the documentary based on the first hand resource of the visit. After the papers are done, we will discuss our findings with the class.



A classroom activity for teaching about documentaries

by Zach Nyhus


After watching a documentary in class and having a large-group discussion to reflect on the journalistic techniques employed by the filmmakers, students will be instructed to create their own short documentaries (5-10 minutes) in groups of three or four.  They must agree on a current topic affecting their lives, research it, and collaboratively develop questions for interview subjects.  Using cameras or audio recorders, the groups will interview their subjects, and use software to edit their work into a nice little documentary to present before the whole class.



Short and Sweet Teaching Activity

Jack Nilles


In the spirit of examining television news and who funnels funds into the production of news broadcasts, I think it is equally important to examine who is funding documentary productions. After all, documentaries, even more unabashedly than traditional Hollywood films, push an agenda of some sort. Thus, I envision having my students picking a documentary, screening the film, and then researching who produced the film and the ideologies of said producer – looking at trends in the films they make, what audiences they bring in, what they do with their money, etc. Then, using VoiceThread, I would have each student discuss the implications of having the producer of their chosen documentary tell their film’s story. 




Documentary Teaching Activity

Megan Gorvin


In order to teach students about a documentary and how it communicates it message, I would have students watch a documentary in class. They would then be asked to decide as a class on a main message that the documentary was trying to communicate and cite evidence as to why they think so. Evidence would include whose story was being told, who was interviewed and why (what is their position, what makes them an authority?), how scenes and shots were linked together, what do the voiceovers say, etc. Students would then be split up into groups and each group would be assigned a specific topic related to the documentary that they would do research on. For example, students could research the organization that produced the documentary, organizations or people mentioned in the documentary, opposite sides to those presented, or even get more information on what was presented in the documentary. Students would then present their research to the class. Finally, students would watch the documentary again, comparing the information presented in the documentary to the information they researched. Given what they learned in their research, students could then discuss what information the documentary leaves out and speculate as to why. They could also discuss the information included in the documentary, how it was arranged to create meaning, and speculate more deeply on how that included information works to portray a certain message.


Comments (1)

Anonymous said

at 9:01 pm on Dec 13, 2006

Hey! Thank you for using our idea and crediting us. Go documentary!


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