History in Action - Using Film to Support History Teaching

19 Jun 2017 BY Samantha Clarkson in Using Film to Teach...

6 mins
Dunkirk (silhouette)
Dunkirk (silhouette)

Films that explore important historical stories are never far away. This year we have already seen Hidden FiguresViceroy's House and Their Finest in cinemas, and this summer sees the release of Christopher Nolan's highly-anticipated Dunkirk - and with it our new Dunkirk: The Dynamo Challenge resource, packed with activities and ideas for using the film to support the curriculum. Register for this great new resource below, and receive an exclusive Welcome Pack!

Feature films - alongside archive film and eyewitness testimony on film - provide access points to a wide range of history topics for all students. Well-chosen and contextualised film is a fantastically inclusive stimulus for discussion, debate and enquiry, supporting students through a familiar medium to tackle less-familiar and sometimes more challenging sources. Developing and presenting ideas and arguments through simple filmmaking is also an important means for students to synthesise and discuss concepts, and improve their reading and writing skills.

The possibilities for using film in the history classroom are many and varied; here are a few recommended activities:

Starting with stills

  • Give students a set of stills from a film and ask them to sort them into narrative order, then write a 1-2 sentence caption to explain the action. Students could also add speech and thought bubbles, and/or comment on any sounds or music that might be present.
  • Ask students to compare the film source with other written and visual sources. Building up the components of a film text helps them undertake the reverse activity of breaking apart sources for analysis and interpretation.

Words to film

  • Choose a written source like a newspaper article or diary entry and ask students to divide it into six sections according to the narrative, then cut up the source or simply annotate it. Then ask them to film six stills, one to accompany each section. They may not use dialogue, but must use their space, props, facial expressions and body language to create a visual representation.
  • To plan their stills, students can create a simple storyboard using a large sheet of paper divided into six squares, sticking the six sections of their source underneath each simple sketch.
  • Using a tablet or mobile phone, students can create their six stills. These can be inserted into iMovie to create a simple film, or inserted into a PowerPoint. 

Physicalising a written source in this manner enables students to consider the purpose and content, and create a visual aide-memoir, which is useful for revision.

  • This activity can be completed in reverse by working with a piece of archive film, breaking it down into approximately six sections and creating a piece of writing, such as a newspaper article reporting on the events in the film. BFI Britain on Film is an excellent place to access film sources from the last 120 years - www.bfi.org.uk/britain-on-film

Feature Film enquiry

  • Choose half a dozen key scenes from your chosen feature film.
  • As students watch each clip, ask them to complete a KWL (Know, Want, Learnt) grid. An example of this activity can be found on page 6 of our Race resource
  • Working in small groups, ask students to create 2-3 enquiry questions using how, why, what, who or when, or statements.
  • Support students to create a list of other evidence types that they could use to carry out their enquiry, and the advantages and limitations of each evidence type.
  • Provide students with signposting to a range of evidence to carry out their enquiry and respond to their question or statement, using PEE (Point, Evidence, Explanation).
  • Students can present their findings in a verbal, written or film presentation.

Five top tips for working with film across the history curriculum

  1. Remove elements of the film text such as the sound, visuals (play the sound only) and editing (work with stills) to encourage engagement, questioning and interpretation.
  2. Encourage caution, interrogation and critique of film, as you would with any other source. All films are subjective and flawed.
  3. Stop and start films, regardless of their length, and build in time to revisit entire short films or particular sequences. Provide opportunities for students to ask questions, as well as being prepared with open questions to lead discussion.
  4. Use the emotional power of film, making sure to explore the differences between empathy and sympathy, and view these texts with an historian's eye.
  5. Use simple filmmaking as a planning tool for writing. Filmmaking helps you to assess students' progress and understanding, and for them to share ideas and engage in peer-led learning. Films can be revisited by a class time and time again to support revision and coursework.

A longer version of this article appeared in Teach Secondary.

Samantha Clarkson

Samantha Clarkson, CPD and Resources Coordinator, Into Film

A qualified teacher, Sam works with teachers, educators and professional bodies to research, deliver and evaluate training for educators of 5-19 year olds, enabling children and young people across the UK to learn through film and filmmaking.

This Article is part of: Using Film to Teach...

A series of articles that highlight how the medium of film can be used to teach a wide variety of subjects and themes.

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