Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project
Four Films Over One Semester
Today's students are usually introduced to events from the past through movies that are works of historical fiction. This film-based learning will continue when they are adults. Some feature films give an accurate portrayal of history, but often they contain major factual errors. TWM contends that an important part of social studies education is to teach students to recognize historical fiction in film, to analyze it, and then to compare the movie version to the historical record. These are skills that will benefit students throughout their lives.
Most social studies teachers agree that showing well-researched and well-crafted feature films is an excellent way to supplement curriculum. However, they are reluctant to use movies in class because watching a film takes up large amounts of valuable instructional time. The solution is that movies don't have to be shown during the school day. Hollywood is expert at making its audience care about the stories and characters in its films; thus, most students are willing to watch cinematic versions of historical fiction outside of class.
Therefore, TWM recommends that every social studies course include a component of four films per semester to be watched by students at home or at occasional after-school viewing sessions held by the teacher. For the movies watched at home, students would be required to choose films from an approved list. After watching the films, students would answer the ten questions from TWM's Film Study Worksheet for Social Studies Classes for a Work of Historical Fiction. The Worksheet emphasizes that historical fiction is a story using the devices of fiction, including a protagonist, an antagonist, a conflict, a resolution and characters with various personality traits. It then directs students to compare the film to the historical record and to evaluate the movie as a source for historical information.
TWM Users can access TWM's Historical Fiction in Film Project in word processing format that can be easily printed and distributed to students. The document is designed to be modified by teachers to be suitable for their classes. The project also includes a contract for parents and students to sign. Use of the contract is optional.
Review and modify the assignment as appropriate for the class and its instructional goals. For example, students can be required to watch two or three movies rather than four or students can be assigned specific movies to watch if enough copies are available. Students can be required to make short oral presentations about the films they have watched in addition to or instead of written responses. Students can also be separated into groups of four or fewer with each group being asked to give an oral presentation in response to a question on the worksheet. For middle school or junior high school classes, the worksheet can be simplified by eliminating some of the questions or by only requiring a single device of fiction to be discussed (Question #4) and only one striking image to be described (Question #6). In addition, where there are no reasonable ways for students to research the accuracy of the movie, delete question #7 or substitute another question for it. In that situation the accuracy of the movie should be discussed in a lecture.
An example of a worksheet adapted for the film Music Within with suggested responses, is available at the Music Within Film Study Worksheet with Suggested Responses. This film is about the life of Richard Pimentel who has advocated for the rights of the disabled and was one of the people most responsible for the passage in 1990 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The acceptance of the disabled as full-fledged human beings and the removal of restrictions against their participation in the general society was one of the five great advances in human rights in the United States that began during the 20th century (see the Learning Guide to Music Within). TWM suggests using the film to teach students about one of those advances. In the case of this movie, there is not a lot of research material available that students can access in order to verify the accuracy of the movie. Therefore, question #7 from the Worksheet has been changed to ask a specific question about the film. Information (provided in the Learning Guide) about the accuracy of the film will need to be given to students by teachers in the form of a lecture.
TWM has developed two lists of films which are available to attach to the assignment, one for United States History classes and another for World History classes. TWM offers Learning Guides for most of the recommended films; most of the Guides analyze the historical accuracy of the movie to which they relate. In addition, each of the recommended films have been selected for artistic merit. (TWM believes that teachers should be seen as role models who insist upon quality in the media they present. For some students, watching films assigned by a teacher will be their first exposure to movies of excellence.)
TWM suggests that students review all of the questions on the Worksheet before they watch the film and that they take notes during several three to five minute breaks during the movie.
And don't forget about novels! It's good for history students to read historical fiction. Try requiring students to read one or two novels of historical fiction per semester, perhaps coordinating with their ELA teachers. The prompts in TWM's Historical Fiction in Film Project can easily be modified to refer to a novel, rather than a movie or film.
This section revised August 7, 2012. Written by James Frieden, TWM, and inspired by a project contributed by Suzanne Paulazzo, Social Studies Teacher, Leland High School, San Jose, Ca.