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Why Social Studies Classes Should Teach Students How to Watch Movies that are Historical Fiction
September 21, 2011 by | Posted in History, Movies, Social Studies

In the world outside the classroom students will be exposed to events from the past most frequently through works of historical fiction on film. Sometimes historical events are accurately shown in movies, but most often there are substantial differences between what really happened and what appears on screen.  Because students will be watching historical fiction on film all of their lives, TWM contends that an important part of social studies education is to teach students to recognize historical fiction, to analyze it, and then to compare the events on the screen to the historical record.

In addition, well-researched and well-crafted movies dealing with historical events are excellent ways to supplement curriculum and vary the classroom experience. Most films available for that purpose are historical fiction.  The presentation of such a movie in the classroom requires that it be analyzed. In the case of historical fiction, a full analysis will include both of its major aspects, i.e., examination of the movie as a work of history and as a work of fiction.  Very often the requirements of telling a good story cause distortions of the historical facts.  Recognizing and understanding this tension is an important skill for people who are going to watch a lifetime of historical fiction.

ANALYZING HISTORICAL FICTION: The Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction starts that process by emphasizing that works of historical fiction are stories, with literary elements such as protagonist, antagonist, characters with various personality traits, conflict, resolution and theme. It asks students to find the literary devices used in the story such as symbol, motif, and metaphor.  It then directs students to look at the historical record and compare what actually occurred to what is shown on screen.  The final step is to evaluate the value of the film as a presentation of history.

CHOOSING THE FILM: TWM recommends selecting films for their artistic quality and relative historical accuracy. Teachers should be seen as persons who insist upon quality in the media they present to their classes. Students will see enough of the other kinds of movies on their own. For some, watching quality films in class or as assigned by teachers will be their only exposure to movies of excellence.

USING THE TWM HISTORICAL FICTION WORKSHEET IN CLASS: Usually, it is better to give the class an introduction to the actual events portrayed in the film through a lecture, reading assignments, a class exercise, a research assignment, or some other type of instruction. Information with which to evaluate the accuracy of the movie can also be provided after the film has been shown. Most TWM Learning Guides for works of historical fiction contain an analysis of the accuracy of the film. Question #7 on the worksheet asks students to evaluate the presentation of the historical record.  Students who are shown a movie in class can be assigned to research the historical accuracy of the movie as homework.

Teachers will review the Worksheet and make any changes appropriate for the abilities of the class, the idiosyncrasies of the movie, and the goals for the unit in which the film will be shown. The Worksheet can also be adapted for written works of historical fiction if they are being read by the class and for use in English Language Arts classes studying the genre of historical fiction. For works of historical fiction that follow the paradigm of the hero’s journey, teachers can modify TWM’s Hero’s Journey Worksheet — Explaining the Monomyth, by adding questions 7 – 10 from the Historical Fiction Worksheet.

There are many ways in which the analysis set out in the Historical Fiction Worksheet can be used. These include, using the questions as the basis for a class discussion, separating students into small groups with each group being asked to give an oral presentation in response to a question on the worksheet, etc.

HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENTS REQUIRING STUDENTS TO ANALYZE FILMED WORKS OF HISTORICAL FICTION: Showing a movie takes up a lot of valuable class time.  Therefore, TWM suggests that in high school, four times each semester, students be given a homework assignment of watching a movie that is a fictional account of the times and places covered by the course. They should be required to analyze the film by responding to the questions presented in the Historical Fiction Worksheet. Student can watch the movie alone or in groups. For a homework assignment in which students will choose a movie from a list provided by the teacher, watch the film at home or in school after class, and then complete the assignment by responding to questions on the Historical Fiction Worksheet, see World History in Film Homework Project and United States History in Film Homework Project.

The ability to recognize historical fiction and the tools with which to analyze it are some of the best gifts that social studies teachers can provide to their students.  These will assist students in evaluating what will most likely be their primary exposure to history when they are not in class.  It will pay dividends for the rest of their lives. Many social studies teachers will want to take advantage of this insight and provide instruction on historical fiction.  TWM provides the curriculum materials to make this happen.

James Frieden, TWM



19 Responses to “Why Social Studies Classes Should Teach Students How to Watch Movies that are Historical Fiction”

  1. Joe says:

    I agree completely. More educators should follow this practice!!

  2. James Frieden says:

    Thanks for the comment Joe.
    We feel this would benefit all students and teachers alike.

  3. Shelley Stout, author of Radium Halos, historical fiction says:

    I agree films are an important way to teach history, but let’s not forget historical fiction novels, as well.

  4. James Frieden says:

    Very true Shelley. Thanks for your input on this topic.

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