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October 20, 2016

Student Documentaries: Nonfiction Comes to Life!

By Alycia Zimmerman
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

    Helping my students create whole class or small group documentaries has been one of my favorite teaching experiences. My students develop confidence, stronger voices, and a slew of technology, writing, and project management skills as they work together to create documentaries about topics that spark their curiosity.

    Before you write this off as too complicated, too time-consuming, or too far outside your curriculum, let me assure you that documentaries can be made from start to finish in a few class periods. Tech-wise you only need a video recording device (a tablet works!), and a computer or tablet with some basic video editing tools. And documentary making addresses many of the ELA writing standards. Interested in giving documentaries a try with your class? Read on for classroom tested tips and a sneak peek at my students’ documentaries.

     

    What Is a Documentary?

    For classroom use, I presented a working definition for documentaries as “nonfiction movies.” My third graders are familiar with the differences between fiction and nonfiction books, so nonfiction movies makes sense within their schema.

    While most of my students hadn’t watched documentary movies, they have watched “nonfiction TV” like animal shows on Animal Planet, how things are made shows on Discovery, etc. I build off of these experiences to explain the role of documentaries to teach people or to convince people of a particular point of view about a real issue.

    This one-minute BBC Fresh video clip shares four documentarians' definitions. Here is my curated YouTube playlist of videos about documentaries or documentaries to use for teaching.

    I also use the delightful biography Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau by Jennifer Berne to introduce my students to an important figure in the history of documentary making. My students are always fascinated by old footage from Cousteau (available online), and it connects with the animal shows they are familiar with today. Cousteau is also a useful example to introduce the idea of social (environmental) conscious-building films.

     

    Get Inspired! Samples of Student Documentaries

    My students' favorite documentary-making experiences are when they get to go out into the world and conduct “man on the street” interviews to learn about public opinion. This is relatively easy in New York City, where we can stand on the sidewalks (or train stations) near our school and find plenty of willing subjects to interview.

    Interviewing for a documentary Interviewing in the subway station

    Both of these whole-class documentaries focused on public interviews. For both projects, small teams of students worked together to create parts of the documentary, and then student directors combined the separate parts to make a cohesive movie.

    Student Documentary: Underground Interviews – A Documentary about Tom Otterness’s Public Art in the 14th Street Subway Station

    For this project, my students wanted to know how the general public feels about the small quirky sculptures scattered throughout the subway station at 14th Street. Do people notice the art? Do they have an opinion? Do they have favorite sculptures? Does the public art affect them personally?

    You can watch my students’ documentary, Underground Interviews, here or by clicking on the image below. (The video will open in a new window.) This documentary was filmed on iPads and was edited by teams of students (the interview teams) using iMovie on the iPad.

    Student Documentary: Is Reading Going Extinct? The Real Reading Lives of Real New Yorkers

    For this project, my students were alarmed and skeptical about statistics that show that people are reading less now than in the past. They were determined to prove that reading is alive and well in our city, and they set out to find evidence to support their thesis. This documentary was an end-of-year project, and we had guidance from a parent-mentor (a real-life documentarian!) to help my students storyboard their video chapters and craft a story arc for their movie.

    You can watch my students’ documentary, Is Reading Going Extinct? here, or by clicking on the image below. (The video will open in a new window.) This documentary was filmed on iPads and digital cameras and edited by a small team of “tech expert” students with the help of a parent mentor using Final Cut Pro on a Mac.

     

    Tips for Whole Class Student Documentaries

    • We storyboard our documentary on chart paper during a whole class planning meeting, and divide the work up into teams. We use a similar process as when outlining an essay: brainstorming a main idea, thesis statement, and supporting topics.

    • When students are conducting “man-on-the-street” interviews, I always assign an adult chaperone to each group of students. Students know that the chaperone makes the ultimate decision about which strangers to approach, and I brief chaperones on how to balance letting the students take the lead in their public interviews while moderating as needed.

    • For whole-class interviews, students work within teams to create part of the total story. Often this means that teams each focus on one question or subtopic. Students take on roles within their teams, but often like to trade roles. I encourage flexibility within teams so all interested students can experience filming, interviewing, directing, etc.

    • Students rehearse interview questions beforehand in our classroom and bring notes with them as support in case they get nervous during an interview.

     

    Tips for Editing Student Documentaries

    • If you only have access to one or two tablets or cameras, teams can take turns filming on different days.

    • Audio matters most, but iMovie’s “normalize volume” feature can fix a lot of problems, and “subtitles” can help with the rest. External microphones really make a huge difference in the quality of audio for interviews, but we don’t have microphones in my classroom, so we make do with the built-in recording microphones on iPads. When the audio is terrible, I teach my students how to place subtitles. 

    • Less modeling is more when it comes to editing. I let the kids figure it out as much as possible by “playing around” in the editing program and watching video tutorials online as needed. I step in towards the end to demonstrate finishing touches.

    • Build an archive of “bloopers”: footage that is less than useful. These counter examples are helpful for subsequent classes to learn from their peers’ mistakes.

    • Appoint hardware and software “tech experts” who turnkey tech lessons and fix/finalize projects.

    Film Screening

    Don't forget to host a film screening so students can show off their newly created documentaries to their family and friends!

     

    Resources for teaching about Documentary Films

    • POV (Point of View) documentaries by PBS — This website has an extensive educators section with tons of lesson plans on teaching with documentaries and about documentaries, as well as helping students create documentaries.

    • International Documentary Association — This website includes an archive of videos about documentary filmmaking (for an adult audience, although parts can be used for students) The archive is not free, although you can request educator access.

    • PSAs (Public Service Announcements) — PSAs are a fun, easy way to get students started on nonfiction movie making. Check out my blog post about "Back to School PSAs" for ideas and tips to create PSAs about your own school.

    Let me know if you have questions, thoughts, or suggestions about helping our students become documentarians. I’d love to hear from you! Reach out in the comments section below or on Twitter or Facebook.

    Helping my students create whole class or small group documentaries has been one of my favorite teaching experiences. My students develop confidence, stronger voices, and a slew of technology, writing, and project management skills as they work together to create documentaries about topics that spark their curiosity.

    Before you write this off as too complicated, too time-consuming, or too far outside your curriculum, let me assure you that documentaries can be made from start to finish in a few class periods. Tech-wise you only need a video recording device (a tablet works!), and a computer or tablet with some basic video editing tools. And documentary making addresses many of the ELA writing standards. Interested in giving documentaries a try with your class? Read on for classroom tested tips and a sneak peek at my students’ documentaries.

     

    What Is a Documentary?

    For classroom use, I presented a working definition for documentaries as “nonfiction movies.” My third graders are familiar with the differences between fiction and nonfiction books, so nonfiction movies makes sense within their schema.

    While most of my students hadn’t watched documentary movies, they have watched “nonfiction TV” like animal shows on Animal Planet, how things are made shows on Discovery, etc. I build off of these experiences to explain the role of documentaries to teach people or to convince people of a particular point of view about a real issue.

    This one-minute BBC Fresh video clip shares four documentarians' definitions. Here is my curated YouTube playlist of videos about documentaries or documentaries to use for teaching.

    I also use the delightful biography Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau by Jennifer Berne to introduce my students to an important figure in the history of documentary making. My students are always fascinated by old footage from Cousteau (available online), and it connects with the animal shows they are familiar with today. Cousteau is also a useful example to introduce the idea of social (environmental) conscious-building films.

     

    Get Inspired! Samples of Student Documentaries

    My students' favorite documentary-making experiences are when they get to go out into the world and conduct “man on the street” interviews to learn about public opinion. This is relatively easy in New York City, where we can stand on the sidewalks (or train stations) near our school and find plenty of willing subjects to interview.

    Interviewing for a documentary Interviewing in the subway station

    Both of these whole-class documentaries focused on public interviews. For both projects, small teams of students worked together to create parts of the documentary, and then student directors combined the separate parts to make a cohesive movie.

    Student Documentary: Underground Interviews – A Documentary about Tom Otterness’s Public Art in the 14th Street Subway Station

    For this project, my students wanted to know how the general public feels about the small quirky sculptures scattered throughout the subway station at 14th Street. Do people notice the art? Do they have an opinion? Do they have favorite sculptures? Does the public art affect them personally?

    You can watch my students’ documentary, Underground Interviews, here or by clicking on the image below. (The video will open in a new window.) This documentary was filmed on iPads and was edited by teams of students (the interview teams) using iMovie on the iPad.

    Student Documentary: Is Reading Going Extinct? The Real Reading Lives of Real New Yorkers

    For this project, my students were alarmed and skeptical about statistics that show that people are reading less now than in the past. They were determined to prove that reading is alive and well in our city, and they set out to find evidence to support their thesis. This documentary was an end-of-year project, and we had guidance from a parent-mentor (a real-life documentarian!) to help my students storyboard their video chapters and craft a story arc for their movie.

    You can watch my students’ documentary, Is Reading Going Extinct? here, or by clicking on the image below. (The video will open in a new window.) This documentary was filmed on iPads and digital cameras and edited by a small team of “tech expert” students with the help of a parent mentor using Final Cut Pro on a Mac.

     

    Tips for Whole Class Student Documentaries

    • We storyboard our documentary on chart paper during a whole class planning meeting, and divide the work up into teams. We use a similar process as when outlining an essay: brainstorming a main idea, thesis statement, and supporting topics.

    • When students are conducting “man-on-the-street” interviews, I always assign an adult chaperone to each group of students. Students know that the chaperone makes the ultimate decision about which strangers to approach, and I brief chaperones on how to balance letting the students take the lead in their public interviews while moderating as needed.

    • For whole-class interviews, students work within teams to create part of the total story. Often this means that teams each focus on one question or subtopic. Students take on roles within their teams, but often like to trade roles. I encourage flexibility within teams so all interested students can experience filming, interviewing, directing, etc.

    • Students rehearse interview questions beforehand in our classroom and bring notes with them as support in case they get nervous during an interview.

     

    Tips for Editing Student Documentaries

    • If you only have access to one or two tablets or cameras, teams can take turns filming on different days.

    • Audio matters most, but iMovie’s “normalize volume” feature can fix a lot of problems, and “subtitles” can help with the rest. External microphones really make a huge difference in the quality of audio for interviews, but we don’t have microphones in my classroom, so we make do with the built-in recording microphones on iPads. When the audio is terrible, I teach my students how to place subtitles. 

    • Less modeling is more when it comes to editing. I let the kids figure it out as much as possible by “playing around” in the editing program and watching video tutorials online as needed. I step in towards the end to demonstrate finishing touches.

    • Build an archive of “bloopers”: footage that is less than useful. These counter examples are helpful for subsequent classes to learn from their peers’ mistakes.

    • Appoint hardware and software “tech experts” who turnkey tech lessons and fix/finalize projects.

    Film Screening

    Don't forget to host a film screening so students can show off their newly created documentaries to their family and friends!

     

    Resources for teaching about Documentary Films

    • POV (Point of View) documentaries by PBS — This website has an extensive educators section with tons of lesson plans on teaching with documentaries and about documentaries, as well as helping students create documentaries.

    • International Documentary Association — This website includes an archive of videos about documentary filmmaking (for an adult audience, although parts can be used for students) The archive is not free, although you can request educator access.

    • PSAs (Public Service Announcements) — PSAs are a fun, easy way to get students started on nonfiction movie making. Check out my blog post about "Back to School PSAs" for ideas and tips to create PSAs about your own school.

    Let me know if you have questions, thoughts, or suggestions about helping our students become documentarians. I’d love to hear from you! Reach out in the comments section below or on Twitter or Facebook.

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