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Use the big screen to generate a love of history (I’m looking at you Dunkirk)

When you buy your ticket to the Dunkirk – and you know you will – make sure that it’s to an iMax theater.

Because this is the type of movie that will kick you in the butt no matter what kind of screen you see it on so you might as well go all in with the super big surround screen. Christopher Nolan shoot the film with the iMax format in mind and it shows.

Dunkirk is an incredibly visually and emotionally compelling story that highlights an event that we as Americans rarely think about. I’ve always been a fan of using visuals and multimedia to help create emotional connections in the brains of students. Especially a story like Dunkirk that can help kids connect with our content.

So how might you use Dunkirk and other movies as part of your instructional strategy?

The obvious way to use a movie like Dunkirk is to actually go and watch it. As social studies and history teachers, we can never have enough actual discipline specific content. Watching historical movies provides another way for us to build our content knowledge.

And the emotional impact that comes with a Dunkirk works on us the same way that it works on our students. The more emotional feels that we get, the more passionate and connected we become with what we teach. Kids notice this passion. So go watch Dunkirk (or Selma or The Mission or Sometimes in April or whatever history movie comes out this fall) because you’ll walk just a little bit better a teacher than when you walked in.

Of course, it’s always a good idea to do a little research before and after viewing to gain context and perspective. If you’re interested in Dunkirk, there are some handy articles out there:

“Dunkirk”: A good film, but a far better history lesson

What I think (the movie) does really well is to get the sense of it, the feeling of it, the atmosphere of it. Dunkirk was a survival story. It was about people trying to get away on an individual basis and, if enough people could get away, then the war could continue.

Dunkirk: Victory or Defeat?

It seems almost certain that, if the evacuation from Dunkirk had not taken place, Churchill, with a quarter of a million men in captivity, would have been left with little option but to bow to pressure for peace terms to be signed.

BBC Multimedia Dunkirk Animation

Beyond personal professional development, how else might you use Dunkirk? By the time of year that you might use this specific film as part of class instruction, it will probably be available via DVD, Netflix, or some other streaming option. So first thing is always the decision of whether to watch the entire thing or just short video clips.

I always lean towards short video clips but you’ll have to decide that for yourself. Every film is different and Dunkirk is little unique in that it tells one story from three different perspectives and timelines. That kind of story structure might move the show into the full length category

Use the film to create compelling questions, including “What ifs.” As in, what if the Germans had not halted?What if the evacuation had failed? Other thinking and product prompts might focus on what motivated British civilians to participate in the evacuation or how the evacuation impacted the British and American relationship.

Try these questions from Paul Halsall:

  • What seems to be accurate in the film? What sources are you using to assess accuracy?
  • In what ways does the film impact your reading of any of the documents you have been assigned in this course.
  • What liberties does the film take with the past? Why?
  • Is the film primarily entertainment, or is it really trying to work within a historical period? How can you determine the film maker’s intention?
  • What, if any, modern point is the film trying make?

Tie the movie to primary sources:

Use specific lesson plans and activities focused on Dunkirk:

  • Into Films is a British-based group providing a variety of resources for using movies and film. They’ve created a Dynamo Challenge competition with tons of tools. (Be sure to explore their other resources.)
  • Microsoft Education packaged a Skype conversation with historian Joshua Levine with a variety of lessons, primary sources, and activities around Dunkirk.
  • A series of lessons centered around Dunkirk and a book titled The Memory Cage. Seems like a good way to tie fiction and actual events together. There would need to be some adapting to older grades.

There are other ideas for teaching with movies out there. Start with these:

Teaching History has some great articles and suggestions for using movies in your instruction. What Do Students Learn from Historical Feature Films provides information about how you can help kids analyze historical videos as historians. Teaching with Historical Film Clips provides a useful list for creating a lesson plan that integrates movie clips.

The people at Truly Moving Pictures also have a couple of handy tools. The first is a nice PDF guide for parents and educators that provides suggestions for activating positive emotions during viewing.

There are numerous print resources to help teachers:

There are lots of other useful online tools out there. Check out these resources for more ideas and suggestions:

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