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Supporting Literacy with Student-Made Documentaries

An Excerpt from "Supporting Literacy with Student-Made Documentaries" (Classroom Notes Plus, October 2007)

This project presented by Peggy Albers is centered on viewing and analyzing photos and movie clips and composing short multi-media compositions. 

In this excerpt from Day One, the author describes how she introduces students to the genre of documentary/nonfiction, through examples and discussion.

Reading and Analyzing Photos and Movie Images (Day One)

I allow 15 minutes for the introduction to the genre, followed by 35 minutes to look at and talk about camera angles and why photographers and directors use certain angles for particular purposes.

As the first step, I present a two-minute clip from a reality show such as Survivor. I describe Survivor as an example of the documentary/nonfiction film genre and ask students to comment on what characteristics they think make it an example of this genre.

Students generally offer comments like, “it’s not scripted,” “the people aren’t actors,” and “it’s showing how real people act in actual situations.”

I confirm students’ ideas by telling them that the documentary genre is generally explained as film, video, or TV that tries to be factual and objective, that presents information, or that documents actual events without fictionalizing. (I also point out that this definition is subject to discussion, as some people question to what extent supposed “documentaries,” and even so-called “reality shows,” portray reality, facts, or unchoreographed events.)

In this discussion, I prompt students to make connections with prior knowledge by asking them questions like: 

  • Have you seen any other documentaries on television or at theaters? If so, what subjects were they on?
  • What have been your favorites? What did you enjoy about them?
  • Have you or family members ever made home movies or other videos or clips documenting your lives?

We talk briefly about what students have seen and liked, and then I distribute Handout 1: Examples of the Documentary/Nonfiction Genre (available to Classroom Notes Plus subscribers from the October 2007 web page).

We review the examples together as a class, and I present a one-minute clip to illustrate each type. Here’s a list of the clips I ordinarily use:

For History and Biography: Students always enjoy clips on entertainers, so I usually look for one on a famous actor or singer such as Denzel Washington or Jennifer Lopez.

For Documentaries of Behavior, I generally use a clip from Mutual of Omaha’s The Wild Kingdom (example: The Great Cats of India,) but other options include shows like Meerkat Manor, from Animal Planet.

For Reality Shows: I show a clip from Project Runway. (Several seasons are available on DVD.)

For Process Documentaries: Since I design and develop documentary shorts myself, I like to show a clip of mine that documents the potter’s process of throwing a bowl on a wheel.

This also serves as a demonstration of my work. But many other examples of process documentaries are available on the web, such as those at, which range from how to make an origami dinosaur, to how to wrap a present, to how to hang a shelf.

After presenting each example, I ask students, What other shows fit this category?

Students typically suggest additional documentary examples such as the film March of the Penguins (2006), which fits the behavior category; the TV show Modern Marvels (History Channel), which fits the process category; series such as When the Levees Broke by Spike Lee (HBO, 2007), and Baseball by Ken Burns (PBS, 1994), which fit the history/biography category; and films about popular bands, which also fit the history and biography category.

Students also sometimes suggest films like Spinal Tap (1984) and The Blair Witch Project (1999), which provides a good opportunity to discuss the difference between a documentary, a “mockumentary” or parody, and a fictional film produced in a documentary style.

Peggy Albers is an associate professor of English and Literacy Education at Georgia State University in Atlanta, and author of Telling Pieces: Art as Literacy in Middle Grades Classes, with Sharon Murphy, and of Finding the Artist Within: Creating and Reading Visual Texts in the English Language Arts Classroom (forthcoming from IRA).


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