Learning from ‘Lincoln’: 5 Tips for Using Video in the Classroom

Drawing of Abraham LincolnIn recognition of Abraham Lincoln’s importance to American history, Steven Spielberg recently announced that every middle and high school in the United States will be sent a free DVD of “Lincoln” along with teaching and classroom guides.

Spielberg’s generosity, with a price tag that will easily number in the millions, inspired me to take a look at how teachers can best use video as a teaching tool. Despite the common — and inaccurate — perception that teachers use video to babysit their students, the appropriate use of video can be a springboard to great learning experiences for your students. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I want to pay “Lincoln” its due.

“Lincoln” is an excellent recounting of the final days of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s personal and political struggles leading up the to the passage of the 13th Amendment. Rather than offer a wide-ranging biography of Lincoln’s life, the film focuses on a narrow window of time near the end of the Civil War when he became torn between securing an early peace or securing the passage of the constitutional amendment to outlaw slavery. It’s amazing to think that a historical figure from over 100 years ago would dominate our box office, but Lincoln’s influence cannot be underestimated.

It’s clear that his personal journey through incredibly trying and difficult times has resonated with Americans, as we all have addressed our own crises of country and of conscience. Since his death, over 15,000 books have been written about Lincoln and we turn to his story time and time again in our search for inspiration. I believe we need his perseverance and belief that America has a special place in the history.

So, Lincoln’s experiences and “Lincoln” the movie have much to teach us. Even if you don’t get the opportunity to show the film in your school, keep these suggestions in mind when bring a movie into the classroom:

1. Make the experience active, not passive

The last way to use video is to simply have the children watch it with no activity on their part. Children should, at the very least, be expected to take notes on the film, focusing on a specific topic, theme or event, and the students should be expected to retain and apply these notes to a future class activity.

2. Don’t commit to the whole thing

Many teachers who use a film in class think they need to show the entire movie. Instead, teachers should select the specific scenes and events that support the learning that surrounds specific events in the movie. Grabbing the most relevant parts of the film keeps it focused exclusively on supporting other class activities.

3. Let different students watch for different reasons

Rather than have all students watch the film for the same reasons and experiences, consider dividing the viewing into different subjects. One group can specifically record a character’s use of language to establish character traits. Another group can look for and record the director’s use of sound to set mood and a third group can focus on the production design. The class can then come together and report on its findings in each area.

4. Compare films with similar themes

For example, students can watch the original “Rocky” (an Academy Award winner) and ‘My Left Foot’ (another Oscar winner) and compare the characters’ attempts to overcome adversity and challenges. This can be accomplished by showing just snippets of both films and doesn’t require a huge outlay of class time.

5. Do your homework

On a more practical note, always preview any film that you want to show in class, get specific permission from your supervisor and have parents sign permission slips for their children. I personally know of three incidents (none involving me) in which well-intentioned teachers casually used films that addressed topics or scenes that were wholly inappropriate for the classroom. Please don’t get caught up in something like that.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.


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