Student Documentaries in History Class

Every year, I have my students make documentaries (or digital stories) in class. If you would like to see my previous exploration into the realm of digital storytelling, you can check out those posts here.  I regularly revise the assignment and, coming to my new school Ransom Everglades, was excited to try it with a new crop of students in a fresh environment. As always, I was blown away by the work that my students produced!

Whenever I present this lesson for students, I do it in several phases. First, I always do a video that shows them my expectations in terms of presentation and research. This year, I decided it was time to upgrade my video and did a new one about the treacherous general, Benedict Arnold. You can see my sample video below:

While well produced videos are always nice to look at, I emphasize to my students that the primary objective of this project is research, synthesis, and developing a formal argument. The big change that I made this year (after receiving some meaningful input from a colleague) was that instead of allowing students to choose more “Biographic” or “Information Based” topics, I provided them prompts that required more analysis and research. For example, “How did George Washington receive his reputation for honesty?” or “What role did old world conflicts play in the Revolutionary War?” I was hoping that this would encourage students to do more in-depth, critical research.

Framing the Project

Like all projects I give to students, I break this assignment up into chunks. First, I establish the parameters of my project.

  • You must fully address the prompt.
  • Videos are a minimum of 2 minutes and a maximum of 4 minutes (excluding a “works cited” credits page).
  • All citation must be in Chicago Manual of Style (this is the Social Studies Department’s official citation format for research papers, I like consistency).
  • Due dates for each step are firm.

Picking a Topic:

I give my students a list of acceptable topics but I also encourage them to choose a subject on their own that interests them. We do our first day in the library so that students can do some preliminary research on the content before deciding what they want to do. I do not allow them to change topics once they have committed – so I advise them to choose carefully!

Research, Research, Research!

The most important aspect of this project is the research. I do require my students to use a minimum of two books (or sections of books) as well as

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

one academic journal. I also allow and even encourage them to use online resources, however I require that if they do they must apply the CRAAP Test. Not only is it a catchy name (my students never forget it), but it is also a sophisticated tool developed by California State University at Chico to help researchers (students, teachers, professors, lay-individuals) to assess content (with an eye to online material).

Another component in this is finding appropriate images, videos, or music for you overall product. As such, Digital Literacy (how to appropriately incorporate, cite, and use online content – this includes addressing issues of copyright), is a primary component in this assignment. I address this in my article, “How to Find License Free Content for School Projects.”

Outlining the Project

Example of a Storyboard

Example of a Storyboard

Just as you don’t sit right down and write a research paper without first drafting an outline, you should not craft a video without outlining it. As this has an image component, I require students to do a Storyboard. This is simply an image based outline. You can use any tool that you would like to do this. I personally just use PowerPoint.

This step helps them to organize how they will relate their information as well as arrange their images in the overall project. Just as the final research paper should not be identical to the first outline, it’s acceptable (even expected) that students move around, add, or remove images as the product evolves. I require that students turn this in early on, before they start actually building their project.

Writing it Out!

There is an important writing component to this project. Students must write out a “script” of what the narrator or actors will say in their project. This is the second required assignment in the process (after their storyboard has been approved).

I simply have students do this in essay form, but I do know that other educators want them to write it out as a formal script. This is where I emphasize that spelling, grammar, and punctuation do in fact count towards their final grade!

Assembling the Video

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This is a time intensive component of the project and I strongly encourage students to not wait until the night before to do this. Some of them listen, but a few have learned some hard lessons about waiting until the last minute. Remind them that unexpected issues can and do arise, they need time to address them! I’m very available after school the day before the project is due (if they have a problem). I am less available at 3:00 am the morning of…

In terms of video making software, I am very flexible. They can use any platform that they would like, the most popular are: iMovie (for Mac and iOS), MovieMaker, Adobe Premiere, and the YouTube Video Editor. My colleagues often ask if I teach the students how to use the software. The answer is – no. They learn as they use. Video editor software today is highly intuitive and easy to learn. I do offer help if they run into an issue, but I give them a check list to try before they come to see me:

  • Google your problem
  • Search “How To’s” on YouTube
  • Read the instructions of the software that you’re using – they all have a “Help” section or a “How To”
  • Ask a classmate or a parent for help

Creative problem solving is an important skill for students to learn and this project provides numerous opportunities for them to do just that!

Publication and Presentation

The last component of this project is that the students publish their work in order for us to view it as a class. Your publication methods will vary based on age group, school policies, and student access to material. At my school, students cannot access YouTube. However, we do have Google Apps for Education. I have my students upload their final videos to Google Drive and then embed the link on our class blog. However, you may have students play it from their own device or share on a class youtube channel. This is an important step as peer review is key in academic inquiry.

My students’ final projects were amazing. Here is a very small selection:

As you can see, they did some excellent work here! If you would like, you can download my Documentary Instructions and my Documentary Rubric. Just please provide proper citation if you use it!

Potential Pitfalls

While this is an excellent projects, there are a few potential pitfalls to keep in mind.

  • Students do not have equal access to resources and equipment. To compensate for this, I like to provide ample in class time to build the project.
  • Do not grade the bells and whistles, focus on content. It’s easy to be blown away by a flashy project even if the content is mediocre. This is where I find a rubric handy.
  • You may want to reach out to parents to avoid concern about a “tech” project (especially in a Social Studies or English Class). I wrote an article, “How to Gain Parent Buy-In for Classroom Technology Integration.”

Overall, have fun and learn as you go!

38 thoughts on “Student Documentaries in History Class

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  7. Rebecca Schouvieller

    I’ve looked through how this project has evolved over the years and I think it’s a perfect next step in developing my junior’s research abilities. I really appreciate the sharing of your wisdom!

    You said that you’ve progressed to making these more mandatorily argumentative. I’m wondering if you can also share the topic sheet or clarify how they find their topics. I saw that they signed up for topics, but did you say, “Revolutionary War, go!”, narrow it down to broad categories (“Women & Minorities” “Military History”), have a list of specific terms/people, or give them the very smart questions that anchored their videos (“Were the rebels terrorists?”)?

    Thank you very much.

    1. Jennifer Carey Post author

      I’ve shared the topics with you on Google Drive. Feel free to make a copy and modify. I tried to give them specific “questions” to answer that would require more research and for them to make an argument, otherwise you end up with a lot of biographies or retellings of battles.

      1. Bianca Neri

        Hello. I’d love to see the list of topics shared on Drive. I’m thinking of having kids make a mini-doc as you have here but within a specific unit…or maybe open it up to more freedom. I’d love to see your topics as inspiration! Thank you!

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  21. Matt Laser


    I enjoyed reading this post about the American Revolution documentaries. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind sharing the list of pre-approved topics you allow your students to choose from. I am working with 8th graders and I would like to compare your list with the list I am preparing.

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  24. shannon george

    I also would love to see your topics for your students. I am trying an assignment like this with my history class and am excited, but also want to learn from your experiences.

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