American History through Feature Films: A Middle School Unit

By Stevens, Brian | Film & History, July 1, 2003 | Go to article overview
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American History through Feature Films: A Middle School Unit

Stevens, Brian, Film & History


Twentieth Century history is saturated with media, not the least of which is film. As a middle school history teacher, I take my students through a study of the last century, using feature films to guide them through the tangled stories and characters they encounter. US history through film is most often offered as an upper-level high school or college elective, but is readily accessible to, and adaptable for, middle school students as well. It requires a shift in common curricular thinking, but can be a powerful way to draw in students not engaged by traditional history classes. The purpose of this article is to display an example of how film history and "textbook" 20th Century American history blend naturally in an eighth grade classroom.

Why not "textbook" history?

History is a discipline in which students encounter the very same content multiple times from sixth through twelfth grade. A thoughtfully developed middle school history curriculum should include some latitude for studying specific content in-depth, with the understanding that some contraction of content breadth is acceptable in the short term. Teachers must strike a balance between teaching in-depth skills (such as research, analysis, and synthesis) and teaching a broad understanding of the course content. Because of this need for balance and the relative importance of media in recent history, an in-depth study of US film history can be a reasonable way to approach a unit on the Twentieth Century. Textbooks written for middle school and younger high school students generally cover a broad range of topics, but with little depth, providing students with few engaging and thoroughly explained topics to remember. Feature films depict the emotional and social aspects of society in a unique way, giving many students mental "hooks" on which to hang memories of historical people, events, and movements. They also provide generous opportunities for teaching visual media literacy, an essential tool for understanding much of the Twentieth Century's historical documents, of which the films themselves are a part.

US history textbooks are much more diverse and attractive than they used to be. Authors emphasize skill development and often include such inter-disciplinary sections as literary excerpts and geography sections. As teachers and principles feel increasing pressure to meet specific sets of standards, they demand textbooks that meet these state-mandated goals. Textbook publishers respond by producing history books with content that is 'a mile wide and an inch deep,' a common criticism of American school curriculum as a whole. A discriminating teacher must select a myriad of supplemental sources to conduct a reasonably in-depth study of any topic covered by these textbooks, media literacy being one of the least covered.

Media literacy is a central part of understanding any era, but the Twentieth Century is unique. The unprecedented explosion of film, radio, television, and eventually, the Internet makes media literacy a necessity for understanding the people and stories of the Twentieth Century. Hobbes (1998) writes; "media literacy practices help strengthen students' information access, analysis and communication skills and build an appreciation for why monitoring the world is important. Media literacy can inform students about how the press functions in a democracy," and the importance of diverse sources of information. The method of triangulation, or approaching a subject from multiple points of view, is essential to forming a rounded picture of any event. Just as middle school students are learning to use triangulation in questioning their historical sources, they should be beginning to look for manipulation of visual images presented to them every day.

How could this work with eighth graders?

Twelve- to thirteen-year-olds, or late "tweens," are the focus of an overwhelming amount of television advertising and Hollywood marketing.

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American History through Feature Films: A Middle School Unit


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