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10 movies every social studies teacher should see


Okay, I lied.

I started off with the idea that I could create a short little list of my ten favorite social studies related movies. But I was wrong. As I started thinking about great history movies and talking with others, the list grew quickly. And I couldn’t narrow it down to just ten. Then it got worse. This month’s Social Education journal showed up in my mailbox with their movie list.


Things have changed. I created a list of my ten favorite history movies, a list of other history movies, and another list of great feel-good teacher movies. The criteria for inclusion on the list is pretty simple – if the movie appears while channel surfing, it takes control of the remote and must be watched through the credits.


My favorites in no particular order:

  • Band of Brothers
    Yes, technically a mini-series. But I love the story of Dick Winters and the others who were a part of Easy Company.
  • Glory
    Robert Gould Shaw leads the US Civil War’s first all-black volunteer company, fighting prejudices of both his own Union army and the Confederates.
  • Gettysburg
    Based on the book The Killer Angels, this is a long movie but it does a good job of depicting weapons, tactics, and beliefs during the Civil War.
  • Schindler’s List
    Based on the true story of Oskar Schindler who managed to save about 1100 Jews from being gassed at the Auschwitz concentration camp. A testament for the good in all of us.
  • The Help
    Unlikely friendships, empowerment, and the 1960s segregated South. What else do you need for a great story?
  • All the President’s Men
    Not as detailed as the book but easier to follow, this is basically a documentary about the Bill of Rights.
  • 1776
    Yes. It’s a musical. But a funny, fairly historically accurate musical.
  • The Mission
    Perhaps the best I’ve ever seen for depicting European colonization and expansion.
  • Hotel Rwanda
    Danger. Bravery. Evil. Courage. This story of genocide exposes both the good and bad in people.
  • Gandhi
    An awesome story depicting human courage fighting for human rights against the machine of British colonialism.

Other great history movies

  • Saving Private Ryan
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
  • The Last of the Mohicans
  • Dances with Wolves
  • Mississippi Burning
  • The Boy in Striped Pajamas
  • Gladiator
  • Braveheart
  • Letters from Iwo Jima
  • To Kill A Mocking Bird
  • Memphis Belle
  • Dr. Strangelove
  • Amistad

Feel-Good Teacher Movies

  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
    As social studies teachers, this is about the best non-example I can think of. Plus, well . . . it’s hilarious.
  • The Freedom Writers
    Teaching tolerance and grading tons of papers is not easy.
  • Dead Poet’s Society
    Captain, my captain. Emotional connections to content make all the difference.
  • October Sky
    Perseverance and supportive teachers can change lives.
  • Stand and Deliver
    This is a great movie about reaching students who feel like they have no hope of success in their life.
  • Teachers
    “Half of these kids aren’t coming back.” “Yeah. But the other half is.” Best line ever.
  • School of Rock
    Differentiated instruction and Jack Black. Enough said.
  • Searching for Bobby Fischer
    Pushy parents and pushy teachers are not always the best thing for bright kids.
  • The Emperor’s Club
    I like the interaction between teacher and students. And the teacher’s concern for quality.
  • Akeelah and the Bee
    There are all sorts of ways to learn and to make friends.

What would you add to the list? What you would delete?

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44 Comments Post a comment
  1. Christopher #

    Great list! Some other favorites of mine are Persepolis, Last King of Scotland, and of course Forrest Gump is great for US history.

    February 23, 2012
    • glennw #

      Man. I completely forgot Forrest Gump. Great movie for 20th century! (Also like Last King of Scotland but for me, doesn’t make the finish to the credit criteria.)

      Thanks for the comment!


      February 23, 2012
  2. At the top of my list would be The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.

    February 23, 2012
    • glennw #


      Jane Pittman can fit so many different places as an instructional tool. It probably deserves to be on the list somewhere!

      Thanks for sharing.


      February 23, 2012
  3. I like Mr Holland’s Opus for a feel good teacher movie. For Australian Indigenous history ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’ is a definite watch (good for a more broad discussion about social policy in history as well), and ‘Ten Canoes’ is fantastic too.

    February 24, 2012
    • glennw #


      Also like Mr. Holland and it is a feel-good but it didn’t meet Mr. Wiebe’s criteria of watching a movie to the end of the credit’s while channel surfing. But I thought of another criteria that fits – is it a good film for pre-service teacher / college kids to watch? And pre-service teachers can get a lot from Holland.

      Forgot about Rabbit Proof Fence! And haven’t heard about or seen Ten Canoes. Will have to NetFlix it. Thanks for sharing!


      February 24, 2012
  4. Jeff Benes #

    I appreciate “Hotel Rwanda”. You make a valid point with your statements. But, and I may be strongly biased, I show “Sometimes in April” and find it so much better. If you were to take the time to watch this movie, let me know your thoughts. It is an HBO production filmed largely in Rwanda, and doesn’t allow any uplift at the end. I feel it is much more powerful because you have no major heroes, just regular people experiencing the massacre. I value your opinion, and would really appreciate hearing your opinion. I was just down at the MCSS conference this weekend, and saw your movie list post on my phone. Sat through a presentation on “Modern Genocides” by two ladies associated with the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education in KC ( They are bringing in a workshop this summer with the ADL to promote a teacher resource “Echoes and Reflections”, a course on teaching the Holocaust. Highly recommend that, also.

    Anyway, please, if you get a chance, let me know what you think of the movie. It has no major stars to take you away to distract you. It hits the highlights and flashes back to the American inaction (a lighter version of Samantha Powers’ arguments against US inaction: A Problem from Hell, America and the Age of Genocide). HBO created a winner with Iron Jawed Angels. Finally, a French film, A Very Long Engagement, has powerfully evocative scenery from WWI. Ok, that leads me to remember this: The Lost Battalion, with Ricky Schroeder, from A&E has a copy of Letters Home on the DVD. A good movie, with a great documentary. Win/win. And cheap on Amazon. Thanks for the time to listen.

    Jeff Benes
    Bishop Miege High School

    February 28, 2012
    • glennw #


      Thanks for the comment! I have not heard of “Sometimes in April” but it looks very good. Will need to watch it. Combining pieces of this with what the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education does seems like a great idea.

      It’s a difficult topic and one that we need to approach carefully if we use these sorts of video clips in our classrooms. Curious what others are doing to integrate genocide as part of their instruction.


      February 28, 2012
      • Sometimes in April is a great movie and I have been using every year since 2007. It gives a bigger picture to Rwanda and how some of the Survivors lived.

        March 26, 2013
      • glennw #


        Thanks for the addition to our list! I’ve heard others talk about Sometimes in April – sounds like a good addition to my library.


        March 27, 2013
  5. “My Boy Jack” (PBS, 2008) provides an excellent contrast of the spirit of nationalism/imperialism of pre-WW1 Britain and the human sacrifice of families during that terrible conflict. Daniel Radcliffe portrays the son of Rudyard Kipling.
    The 1940 film, “The Grapes of Wrath,” is still a great view of the effects of the Dust Bowl on farm families of Oklahoma and why people began to look to the government for help during the challenging Depression years.
    Great classroom films!

    February 29, 2012
  6. Jeff Benes #

    Persepolis is awesome, if you have time to cover the Iranian Revolution. Fog of War is an excellent piece that can be cut up as a study of WWII, Vietnam, and war in general, mixed with Tim O’Brien’s “The Things they Carried” (specifically the chapter “How to Tell a True War Story”, mixed in with poetry from WWI (say “Dulce et Decorum Est” or “Glory of Women”) to hit the reality of war in a world where combat is glorified and safe (Call of Duty lets me start over when I get killed). “Waltz with Bashir” about a soldier seeking the truth of his experience in war. I adore the move “A Very Long Engagement”, which is a French anti war film, set in WWI. The artistry of the scenery, the fight scenes, the brutality of trench warfare. Powerful, and yet it is a love story. So many great movies. The list goes on forever. Glenn, can you provide a resource to build on of movies for different eras, periods, and how to use samples of movies? Thanks.

    March 1, 2012
  7. Great movie about African apartheid, A Dry, White Summer with Donald Sutherland. Good to show slavery reality, too. Definitely for older students.

    March 19, 2012
    • glennw #


      Thanks! Looks like a winner.


      March 19, 2012
  8. Glenn, great list, I have three suggestions:

    The New World. It’s a Terrence Malick movie so a little slow for some HS kids, but many of mine loved it.
    The Thin Red Line. Also Malick, same thing but historically accurate.
    Rosewood – set in 1930’s florida, true story of an all-black town destroyed by the false allegations of a white woman.

    The Fog of War: I’m going to try this one this year as an introduction to the Cold War and Vietnam units in my US History classes. It’ll need to be broken down into notes and discussion, but I think students will enjoy it and learn things they’ll retain.

    p.s – that movie is Amistad (not Armistad, the last one in your “other great…” list)

    March 8, 2013
    • glennw #


      Thanks or the great additions to the list! I like Rosewood but will need to check out the others. (Thanks for the spelling correction- pretty sure I had some sort of weird connection back to Gen. Armistead of Gettysburg fame mixed up in there somewhere! Will make that change.)

      Have a great weekend!


      March 8, 2013
  9. Joe #

    NEH Created Equal: America’s Civil Rights Struggle Films
    The Abolitionists
    Slavery by Another Name
    Freedom Riders
    Loving Story

    March 23, 2013
    • glennw #

      Thanks, Joe! I need to watch Slavery by Another Name – heard it’s very good.


      March 24, 2013
      • Joe #

        Hey Glen
        NEH is funding a special minisite created by Gilder Lehrman for these four films which will contain clips and common core lesson plans for teachers. Should be launched in mid August just before new school year. EDSITEment will keep you informed about it.

        March 24, 2013
      • glennw #


        Sounds awesome! Looking forward to more details.


        March 25, 2013
  10. don #

    JFK – Oliver Stone

    March 25, 2013
  11. Mark Tomecko #

    “Iron-Jawed Angels” details Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and the later stages of the women’s suffrage movement. It was an HBO movie from about a decade ago, but is starting to get more attention in high school history classrooms.


    March 29, 2013
    • glennw #


      That’s one I haven’t heard of – will need to check it out. Thanks for sharing!


      April 1, 2013
    • This is such a great movie! Toss that in with the Suffragette music video to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and you have some great learning.

      December 21, 2015
  12. Scott Strait #

    Please consider adding “Mr. Holland’s Opus” to your list of feel-good teacher movies. Thanks for building a great site for others to use!

    May 5, 2015
    • glennw #

      How did I miss that one!? Yes. Teachers do make a difference – even if they don’t always see it day to day.

      Thanks for the heads up!


      May 5, 2015
  13. mark cooper #

    John Adams mini series, Gods and Generals, and The Patriot.

    November 25, 2015
    • glennw #

      I love the John Adams series! Thanks for the reminder. I especially like the opening scene at the Boston Massacre – a great way to have kids work to solve a problem. What really happened at that event?

      Thanks again!


      November 25, 2015
  14. Check out “My Name is Khan” for a good story about from a multicultural perspective. It is about an Indian man who is Muslim, autistic, and in love with a Hindu woman. It is a nice entry in to Bollywood, but also a reflection on America in before and after 9/11. Not great history, but a great a good story that helps build empathy amongst younger viewers (MS geography class). It is a tear jerker, and worth a sit down.

    December 21, 2015
    • glennw #


      Thanks for the suggestions! Will need to look up the Khan video. And the music video / historical content genre is one that kids seem to enjoy! Appreciate the suggestions.


      December 22, 2015
  15. Joe #

    NEH Created Equal gives you five state of the art documentaries about civil rights which you can stream in your classroom, along with primary sources, lesson plans, and teacher essays.

    The five films are Abolitionists, Slavery By Another Name, Freedom Riders, Freedom Summer, and Loving Story

    December 22, 2015
    • glennw #


      Thanks so much for sharing! Yet another awesome resource from EDSITEment and NEH. This looks incredibly useful for classrooms!


      December 22, 2015
  16. Two films I showed this year in an Africa class…
    Beast of No Nation and Virunga
    Japan class–Seven Samurai
    WWI–All Quiet on the Western Front contrasted with Sergeant York
    US I — The Crossing (GW crossing the Delaware), and still think that depending on the group and how it it used…Johnny Tremain🙂

    February 25, 2016
    • glennw #

      I like the contrasting versions of WWI. And who doesn’t like Johnny Tremain? A classic. Thanks for the suggestions!

      (And two completely unrelated thoughts – 1. Looking forward to seeing you this summer at Podstock! Did you put in for a session? 2. One of my study group teachers shared yesterday her version of your Note Card Confessions activity. Very cool!)


      February 26, 2016
      • Yes put in for session…one that is a little iffy for a tech centric conference🙂

        February 26, 2016
  17. Joe #

    Hey Glenn

    Great work.

    Just wanted to let you know about the Library of America series of bimonthly essays by distinguished writers about movie version of great American literature in their collection. EDSITEment published an interview with the curator film historian Michael Sragow
    The series called The Moviegoer is available here

    February 26, 2016
    • glennw #


      You always have so much great stuff! I will never be able to get to all of the goodies at EDSITEment so I appreciate you keeping us up to date. The interview with Michael looks good – will go read through that next.



      February 26, 2016
  18. Pha #

    Movie “School of life”

    April 11, 2016

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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