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Historical TV, videos, and history teachers

16 mm projector

We’re all very aware of the stereotypical social studies teacher. Former jock. Current coach. Always busy with game plans and practice schedules. Hands out worksheet packets on Monday with a test on Friday. Constantly interspersed with movies and videos along the way.

We also know that the stereotype very seldom rings true. I was a coach for years. We all know great social studies teachers who teach and coach. I get the chance to wander the world working with all sorts of excellent social studies teachers. Keil Hileman in the Kansas City metro area district of De Soto uses 25,000 historical artifacts as part of instruction. He was the Kansas teacher of the year several years ago. Nathan Mcalister in Royal Valley MS simulates Civil War surgery with original medical tools, hosts a yearly history fair with kids hacking out canoes and building sod houses. His kids pushed an actual bill through both houses of the Kansas legislature and was later selected as the 2010 Gilder Lehrman national teacher of the year.

Kori Green routinely connects her students with kids around the world in live chats as they solve authentic problems. Jon Bauer teaches in one of the most isolated places in the state of Kansas while implementing all sorts of powerful learning activities. Activities such as having 8th graders rank historical events and developing a March Madness tournament as an end of year summative assessment. Jill Weber uses a variety of technologies to encourage high levels of learning including a TV Reality Show Pitch.

And yes. There are some teachers who perhaps could work a bit harder on their instructional design. I’ve seen those as well. But here’s the thing.

Poor teachers use videos to fill time. Great teachers like Keil, Nathan, Kori, Jon, and Jill all use videos to engage and instruct. The stereotypical view is a teacher is lazy if they use movies and videos in the classroom. Not true. Faulty instructional design and the inappropriate use of movies and videos suggest a lazy or poorly trained teacher.

Like any instructional tool, videos and movies can be misused. The opposite is also true. When used appropriately, videos can become powerful learning tools. So, yes . . . I’m a fan of video clips, YouTube, and the occasional longer piece of movie goodness.

And the cool thing over the last few years is that more and more historical video options are becoming available for classroom use. Cable TV and video outlets like Netflix are creating some sweet visuals that you might want to browse through this summer. Shows such as Turn and Black Sails can help provide a sense of time and place. Vikings might helpmanhattan students understand living conditions in post Rome Europe. Manhattan is a great tool for highlighting the incredible secrecy and paranoia during the World War II push to create the atomic bomb.

I’m not saying show complete episodes. Like everything you use in the classroom, common sense and good judgement are essential here but for creating an emotional connection or a hook into a specific period, these shows could be just what’s needed to complete your unit. Perhaps show bits of Mad Men, for example, to highlight changes in the workplace or similarities in marketing over time. Maybe use clips of Hell on Wheels to jump start a conversation about technology and its impact on the environment. Could Downton Abbey help kids begin to understand existing differences between economic classes both in the US and around the world? The Americans for Cold War context? There are tons of shows that could be helpful.

Need a place to start?

The Hollywood Reporter published an article that lists some of the major historical TV shows on a timeline. It’s a handy tool for finding out what’s out there and where it fits chronologically. Then head to Rotten Tomatoes for the top 40 historical TV shows according to their rating system.  The Best Historical Fiction TV Shows list can provide a few ideas.

And yes, there are historical inaccuracies. We’re not using them for gathering foundational knowledge. We’re using them for creating interest, connections, sense of time and place. Heck, view them as an anti-foundational knowledge tool and use as a stepping off place for historical research – what does Sons of Liberty get wrong? How might a medieval historian respond to Reign? How could viewing Marco Polo create a false sense of his travels? As the new director for The Kennedys, what changes do you need to make to create a historically accurate version while still providing high levels of entertainment?

Embrace the video. Use it for good, not evil. Your kids will walk out smarter.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great post, Glenn. I like the links. You have a wonderful blog for social studies teachers. Keep up the great work.
    American International School of Chennai, India

    June 23, 2015
    • glennw #


      Thanks for the comment! I appreciate it. Have fun doing the research needed to select just the right videos to use in your class!


      June 23, 2015

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