Reward Films


The promise of a film as reward for tasks accomplished has always been a manipulative device favored by teachers who themselves love a good movie now and then. But reward doesn't mean brain-dead or useless.

Reward films are an opportunity to show students:
— great works of art (for example, Casablanca or West Side Story);
— unusual stories that change lives (Strictly Ballroom);
— films that show students a part of the world they have never seen (Water or Kundun); or
— screen versions of books read in class (To Kill a Mockingbird or Billy Budd).
The key is to use the class to do something different that will help students.

Reward movies can also be contextual. For example, after a unit on the Hero's Journey, let the kids choose among a few of the popular films which embody the Monomyth, such as Harry Potter, Big, Star Wars, or The Two Towers. These movies need no introduction because the unit on the Hero's Journey serves that purpose. However, a discussion after the movie identifying some of the stages or archetypes of the journey would be in order.

If the movie is going to be one that students have seen, make sure it has a lesson the kids never thought of when they first viewed it. For example, when showing The Pursuit of Happyness, tell kids what really happened in Chris Gardner's remarkable life: it's not mentioned in the movie and it's an important life lesson which has direct relevance to the experience of many students. Or, for Remember the Titans, students will be fascinated to learn whether it is really true that the two coaches became good friends, whether the Titans' two star players, one white and one black, became life-long friends, and what parts of the movie bear no resemblance to what really happened. Movies truthfully described as a reward can thereby serve as an educational and uplifting experience.
When using a reward film, set the expectations at the beginning and resist any requests to watch a movie with no educational value.
TWM suggests the following guidelines for using reward movies:
  • The experience of watching the film expands horizons, teaches something important, or raises interesting questions;

  • Don't spend more than ten minutes introducing the movie;

  • Students will be drawn into the film; movies that involve children or young adults are favored by students;

  • Most of the class has not seen the film, unless the teacher can show students how to look at the movie in a new way that teaches something about the subject of the class or about life; and

  • While there are usually no assignments with reward films, there can be spirited class discussions afterwards. Assignments are a possibility, depending on how expectations are set at the beginning.

  • Students who object to seeing anything with a level above Dumb and Dumber or the latest action extravaganza may need to be reminded that they are in school and even reward films have an educational purpose.

Below are TWM's suggestions for some great reward films.

An Easy Solution for Any Grade Level and Most Subjects:  NATURE FILMS!


The nature films such as Planet Earth, Winged Migration, March of the Penguins and Microcosmos are ideal. Kids love nature and these fantastic movies will be much appreciated. They have the added advantage of being in sections, so that if there is no time for a full-length movie, only a part of the film can be shown.

Great Reward Films for High School Students
Grades 9 - 12 (Ages 14+)

Most of the movies recommended for middle school classes are also excellent reward movies for high school students.

Anne B. Real    [Ages 12+; 91 minutes; MPAA Rating: PG-13]    Cynthia Gimenez lives in New York City. Her father, a school teacher, has recently died. Her brother is a drug addict. Her older sister has a child out of wedlock. The family is on welfare and lives in public housing. Before her father's death, Cynthia made straight A's. Now she's a C student. Cynthia dreams of rapping. At home, she practices in front of a mirror and spends hours in her room writing verses. She also reads and rereads a book her father gave to her before he died, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Anne B. Real contains social-emotional and ethical lessons about coming of age, dealing with drug addicts, and finding one's own voice.

Contact    [Ages 12+; 153 minutes; MPAA Rating: PG]    This science fiction thriller is a fantasy about communicating with aliens. [Ages 12+]

Iron Jawed Angels    [Ages 13+; 123 minutes; MPAA Rating: NR]    Only a hundred years ago, in order to get the vote, American women had to hold protests, demonstrate, suffer imprisonment and endure what amounted to torture. This excellent HBO production featuring the work of Alice Paul and the National Women's Party will entrance children and enhance their understanding of American history. Tell students going in, that the romance is fiction, but that what the government did to the women is accurately portrayed. At the end of the movie say that every good story needs a villain and that the portrayal of Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt is not correct. She was a great and effective leader in the women's suffrage movement and the National American Women's Suffrage Association that she led was broad-based and had chapters in just about every state. On the whole, it was probably more instrumental than Alice Paul or the NWP in passing the suffrage amendment. The movement needed both the radicals of the NWP and the moderates led by Mrs. Catt.

Empire Records    [Ages 14+; 90 minutes; MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language and for scenes and references to drug use and promiscuity (all of which show these activities in a negative light)]    This film describes a pivotal day in the life of the manager and several employees of a record store . . . as well as one crazy shoplifter. Can they resolve their personal crises? Will the record store come under the control of an impersonal corporate giant? Empire Records has lots of music, some dancing and volumes to say about friendship. Note that one character is contemplating suicide and in the past has tried to cut her wrists. But this situation also works out to be a strength of the film. Empire Records fosters social-emotional learning and contains no violence.

Remember the Titans    [Ages 11+; 113 minutes; MPAA Rating: PG]    See comments in the introduction.

For Love or Country — The Arturo Sandoval Story    [Ages 12+; 120 minutes; MPAA Rating: PG-13]    This movie tells three related stories in the life of famed Cuban jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval: his flight from Communist Cuba in search of artistic freedom in the U.S.; his discovery by mentor Dizzy Gillespie; and his romance with his wife Marianela. The first two stories are accurate and the accuracy of the third is none of our business. For Love or Country introduces the problems of artists in totalitarian countries, Fidel Castro's betrayal of the promise of the Cuban revolution, and the jazz music of Dizzy Gillespie and Arturo Sandoval. Note that the story begins during the opening credits.

The Pursuit of Happyness    [Ages 12+; 117 minutes; MPAA Rating: PG-13]    See introduction.

When a Man Loves a Woman    [Ages 13+; 126 minutes; MPAA Rating: R]    Michael and Alice are a young couple very much in love. But Alice is an alcoholic, Michael has become a codependent Enabler-in-Chief, and their children are suffering from their mother's inconsistent behavior. The movie is a gripping tale of love struggling against alcoholism and codependency.

The White Rose    [Ages 13+; 108 minutes; MPAA Rating: NR]    This is the true story of a group of German university students who, in 1942 and 1943, published leaflets critical of the Nazi regime. They gained a following among their fellow students but they took too many risks. Caught by the Gestapo, they were summarily executed.

Gattaca    [Ages 14+; 101 minutes; MPAA Rating: PG-13]    The film takes place in a genetically engineered "not too distant future." Fertilized embryos are selected and altered for intelligence, strength, resistance to disease, and physical appearance. (The genetic counselor tells parents "It's still you, simply the best of you.") Children conceived in the normal way, "faith babies," are treated as second class citizens and relegated to menial jobs. Gattaca is a multifaceted film. It's the story of Vincent, a "faith baby" with strong willpower who dreams of exploring space but lives in a world where only the genetically enhanced can be astronauts. Undaunted, Vincent pursues his dream in the only way possible. Jerome is the opposite. Blessed with the improvements offered by genetic engineering, he is unable to cope with the disappointments of life. Gattaca is also a murder mystery. Vincent gets caught up in the investigation surrounding the killing of his superior at work, a man who opposed the mission that Vincent has been scheduled to take. Is Vincent the murderer? Will the investigation expose Vincent as an "in-valid" and a "de-generate"?

Tootsie    [Ages 13+; 119 minutes; MPAA Rating: PG]    A Broadway actor can't get parts because he's difficult to work with. To prove his prowess as an actor, he impersonates a woman and tries out for a female role in a soap opera. He gets the part, becomes a star, falls in love with his female co-star, and lives a double life until .... Dustin Hoffman, the star of the film, said that Tootsie is about a man becoming a better man by experiencing what it's like to be a woman. The film explores the different ways in which people act and perceive life, based on their gender. It also leads viewers to think about some of the differences and similarities between men and women. The film is excellent for teaching boys not to mistreat girls and for teaching girls to be less tolerant of male misbehavior.



Great Reward Films for Middle School Students
Grades 6 - 8 (Ages 11 - 13; including a few suitable for older kids, as well)

Babe, Galileo: On the Shoulders of Giants, High School Musical, and Marie Curie: More Than Meets the Eye, recommended for the later Elementary grades are also excellent reward movies for middle school level children.

Apollo 13   [Ages 8+; 140 minutes; MPAA Rating: PG]    This gripping true to life story of a flight to the moon gone wrong shows actions of moral courage and introduces some of the hazards of space flight. Before the film, ask students to look for the best team player on the mission. After the movie discuss this question. The answer is Ken Mattingly, the astronaut who was left back on earth but who proved to be instrumental in saving the mission. His actions embody the true meaning of being a team player. It's a bit ironic that of the great heros of the flight never left the ground.

Beethoven Lives Upstairs    [Ages 9 to 12; 52 minutes; MPAA Rating: NR]    The great classical composer, now deaf but still inventing new forms of music, becomes friends with the son of his landlady.


The Black Stallion    [Ages 8+; 118 minutes; MPAA Rating: G]    This is an absolutely beautiful fantasy about friendship between a boy and a horse.

Cool Runnings    [Ages 8+; 98 minutes; MPAA Rating: PG]    A Jamaican bobsled team? Well, actually, there was one and this is the story about how it came to be and its first competition in the Winter Olympics. The movie contains great character lessons, including: "don't let a few major set-backs make you give up" and to "think outside the box."

Ever After    [Ages 10+; 121 minutes; MPAA Rating: PG]    This is a delightful version of the Cinderella fairy tale with a feminist twist set in the time of the Renaissance. Talk to the class about some of the interesting historical allusions in the movie.

The Gods Must be Crazy    [Ages 9+; 109 minutes; MPAA Rating: PG]    This movie is a hilarious look at Europeans and Americans from the Bushman point of view: we're overweight and inept.

October Sky    [Ages 10+; 108 minutes; MPAA Rating: PG]    A boy dreams of rockets in the days of Sputnik as he comes of age. He turns his dreams into reality, recruiting a group of friends to make rockets that win a blue ribbon in the National Science Fair. On the way they learn calculus. He eventually becomes an engineer for NASA.

The Rookie    [Ages 9+; 129 minutes; MPAA Rating: G]    A rookie baseball player entering major league baseball in his 40s? Yes, it did happen.

The Russians Are Coming! The Russians are Coming!    [Ages 8 -12; 126 minutes; MPAA Rating: NR]    Could we really have been that ridiculous in our fear of the Russians during the Cold War? Well, almost.

Fly Away Home    [Ages 10+; 107 minutes; MPAA Rating: PG]    A young girl in Canada mourning the loss of her mother finds solace in raising a flock of geese. To save the geese and to help them renew their migration route, her father has the geese imprint on ultralight airplanes which father and daughter then fly to a wildlife sanctuary in the United States. This is a great film to show a healthy path out of grief into acceptance and environmentalism in action.

Great Reward Films for Elementary Level Students
Grades 1 - 5 (Ages 6 - 10; including a few suitable for older kids, as well)

While reward films should be a once or twice a year experience in any classroom, teachers in elementary school should think twice about ever using a reward film. For elementary school students, a game is usually a better reward. However, if a teacher is going to use a reward film, consider one of the following:

An American Tail    [Ages 9 to 10; 77 minutes; MPAA Rating: G]    Tell students that the story of the Mouskewitz family is derived from the experience of many people who came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe over a hundred years ago. Show them Eastern Europe and the U.S. on a map or a globe. Talk about how people coming from other countries to the United States has helped America become what it is today. Tell students that salesmen for steamship companies trying to sell tickets would tell poor people in Europe that the streets in America were paved with gold. (In the movie, the salesmen tell the mice that the streets in America are paved with cheese.) Show the class the route of the Mouskewitz family on a map or a globe.

Babe    [Ages 5 to 14+; 89 minutes; MPAA Rating: G]    The moral of this story, that you can be what you want to be no matter who you are, is one for the ages. For younger classes, after the film, ask students to share what they want to be when they grow up. For older students, before showing the movie, tell them that the man who played the farmer, James Cromwell, changed as a result of the movie. Ask them to predict what that change was and what aspect of the movie caused the change. (Answer: Mr. Cromwell became an ethical vegan, someone who refuses to eat meat or dairy because he believes it to be morally wrong. Mr. Cromwell has become an activist to end factory farming. The movie shows a little about what life is like from the point of view of a farm animal; that is what caused Mr. Cromwell to become an ethical vegan.)

Ben and Me    [Ages 5 to 10; 27 minutes; MPAA Rating: NR]    In this delightful Disney cartoon, a mouse claims that he is responsible for Ben Franklin's most important inventions and that he helped to write the Declaration of Independence. Tell students that Ben Franklin really did think up all the wonderful inventions shown in the film and that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.

Finding Nemo    [Ages 5 to 10; 100 minutes; MPAA Rating: G] Talk to students about the symbiosis between clown fish and anemones and be ready with pictures of some other examples of symbiosis in nature.

Galileo: On the Shoulders of Giants    [Ages 8 - 13; 56 minutes; MPAA Rating: G] This funny and entertaining movie introduces children to the father of modern science and several of his important discoveries, his life and times, and the Inquisition. Before showing the movie, introduce Galileo and his place in history and tell students that much of the film is correct and that all the scientific principles shown in the movie are accurately described.

High School Musical    [Ages 8 to 14; 98 minutes; MPAA Rating: PG] Help kids get ready for Middle School and High School. This film was designed to combat the ravages of peer pressure and there is social emotional learning in every situation and every song. Point out a moral or two in one of the songs and tell the class to look for more in the other songs in the film.

Marie Curie: More Than Meets the Eye    [Ages 8 to 12; 54 minutes; MPAA Rating: NR] This is a charming tale of the greatest female scientist of the 20th century. Before showing this film to students, introduce them to the Nobel Prize and tell them that the first person to win two Nobel prizes in science was Marie Curie. This movie is about another great contribution that this remarkable woman made: pioneering the use of x-rays to find metal in the bodies of soldiers wounded in battle.

Small Wonders    [Ages 6+; 77 minutes; MPAA Rating: G] This documentary shows elementary school students practicing the violin and other musical instruments, working hard in class and then playing at Carnegie Hall. It enraptures young students.

Toy Story    [Ages 5 - 10; 81 minutes; MPAA Rating: G] This perennial favorite contains great lessons in ethics, how to treat others, and how to adjust to changes in our lives.

Wall-E    [Ages 5 - 10; 98 minutes; MPAA Rating: G]    This movie shows an apocalyptic vision of the destruction of the Earth and the risks of a machine-dependent life in a way that doesn't threaten or scare. It sows the seeds of environmental responsibility in young children.



Reward Movies Suggested for High School Classes
for Which TWM Does Not Offer a Learning Guide:


1. Shower    [Ages 12+; 92 minutes; MPAA Rating: PG-13]    Filmed in 1999, Shower is a Chinese film about family, loss and change. It is beautifully filmed and the acting is superb. The story revolves around a bath house run by an old man who cares not only for a myriad of customers but for his mentally disabled son while dealing with the cultural changes that could bring about the end of the bath house. An older, educated son shows up, thinking the old man is dying, and thus begins a story about forbearance and family responsibility.
  • Students can engage in serious discussion about how much one family member can be asked to sacrifice in order to assist another.

  • Ask students to list the ways the old man helps community members solve their problems thus suggesting that a bath house is much more than a place to get clean.

  • Tell students to notice the difference between the high tech shower at the opening of the film and the low tech system of showers and pools used in the bath house.

  • This film is largely about change: ask the students to talk or write about how the disabled brother adjusts to the events in his life and what we can learn from his ability to accept change.



2. Ferris Bueller's Day Off    [Ages 15+; 103 minutes; MPAA Rating: PG-13]    How the Cult of Personality Causes People to Suspend Judgment and Accept What Would Normally be Unacceptable: A favorite among students, Ferris Bueller's Day Off is subtle in its use of the "cult of the personality" and students rarely notice the racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and self-centeredness that Ferris reveals as he leads his best friend and girlfriend on a merry ditch-day in Chicago. Ferris is dishonest and manipulative, yet no one cares. Ferris is Ferris and that's all that matters. While Ferris ditches school, the audience ditches the standards by which it normally judges people. By way of a short introduction, students should be asked to notice when Ferris or the movie is racist, classist, sexist, homophobic, self-centered or dishonest. At the film's end, define cult of personality and a lively discussion will hopefully ensue as students seek to defend their hero. Another question is whether humor like this is somehow therapeutic. All of us have occasional racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic thoughts. The key is not to act on them and to constantly seek to eliminate them. Is a movie like Ferris Bueller's Day Off helpful in ventilating these feelings or is it harmful by validating them?

The following information may be helpful in guiding the class discussion:
  • Cult of the personality is our tendency to follow particular people, whether in a social or political situation, based on their charm rather than on how they behave. An example of this can be seen in the fact that Ferris has the entire school working to buy him a new kidney as well as in the viewers responses to Ferris' lying both to school authorities and to his parents.


  • Racism is shown when Ferris assumes that the parking lot attendant does not speak English. The attendant's response to Ferris' question makes this clear: When Ferris asks him if he speaks English, the attendant responds: "What country do you think this is?" Another example of racism can be seen in the casting of the school nurse who tends to Ferris' girlfriend when she is told about her grandmother's alleged death. This woman appears to be the typical house-maid from plantation times caring for her white charges.


  • Classism can be heard in many of Ferris' comments. Even his eyes-in-the-camera comment about "freshmen" shows his feelings that the age group below him is somehow inferior. He clearly sees himself as a member of the privileged class: in addressing the audience as he is coming out of the shower, Ferris says that all he cares about is himself. He is the perfect representative of the "me generation."


  • Sexism can be seen in the character of Sloane, who is doing her homework during the baseball game. Later she comments, "He wants to marry me" in a ditsy manner. The most egregious example of sexism occurs when Ferris' sister Jeanne gets ditsy after being kissed by the delinquent she meets in the police station. One good kiss from a sexy young man is apparently all she needs.


  • Homophobia can be seen in Ferris' treatment of the effeminate maître de at the restaurant. Ferris tells the man, who apologizes for not believing that Ferris is the "Sausage King of Chicago," that it is understanding that allows people such as himself to tolerate lesser people. Students should be asked if they think Ferris would have been inclined to be more respectful of a more masculine man. Ferris says, "If I am going to be busted it is not going to be by a guy like that."


Although by its very nature a reward film does not come with serious work for the students to do, they can enjoy their own day-off fantasies and teachers can ask them to write a narrative about their idea of a perfect day off. Where would they go, with whom, etc? This assignment should be checked for completion but not graded. It may be shared aloud with the class so that students can hear about each other's ideal ditch day.

This article was written by James Frieden and Mary RedClay. It was last updated on November 16, 2013.