Some would scoff at the idea of using Hollywood films in the US History classroom. However, if used correctly, these films can be used to engage students in a wide range of critical thinking. In researching this idea for my presentation at the Encounters and Exchanges 3rd Annual Conference, I found a significant amount of information produced in the 1960s and the past ten years. I thought it interesting that using Hollywood films is not a modern trend, but a time-honored, effective classroom tool. I was inspired to pursue this topic further as my high school recently added a History in Film class to its course of studies as well as several graduate classes I’ve taken that have focused on the integration and impact of film and history. Here’s a brief summary of what I’ve found.
There’s no escaping it! The exponential growth of visual and media literacy consumes the present and the future. Whether the media is for entertainment or education, as teachers, we need to help our students navigate it.
In addition to providing an understanding of background and context, films should be used to teach students strategies for evaluating media sources. With the appropriate scaffolding and modeling, students can be challenged to analyze the content of the film and evaluate the director’s interpretation of the history. Pairing primary sources with film is a great way to have students evaluate the authenticity of the history in the film as well as identifying the director’s interpretation of sources by comparing how the source is portrayed in the film and how it is understood in reality.
I recommend the following website as a database for tools for using historical films in the classroom: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/pgc.asp?page=mod/modsbookmovies.html. This site provides basically all one would need to successfully use film to teach content and skills in your classroom. Though the sites requires a bit of exploring, it is organized by historical era. Each historical era has links to secondary sources, which provide background on the historical topic. This information is essential in establishing the background context that students, as well as teachers, might need to get the most educational value out of a film. It also provides links to primary sources that help students connect the Hollywood history to actual sources, preparing them to critique the authenticity and interpretation of the film.
Though Hollywood films provide excellent opportunity to challenges students on a variety of levels, students must recognize certain inherent weaknesses in Hollywood films that can adversely impact their understanding of history. Encourage students to identify the audience and purpose of the film. These two items can significantly compromise the value of the film. However, if students are aware of what to look out for before they watch the film, it will, most often, result in a happy, and of course, educational, ending!