Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project

Four Films Over One Semester

Most students, after they graduate from school, are not going to read books about history. Most will receive information about events from the past through movies that are works of historical fiction. TWM contends that an important part of social studies education is to teach students to recognize historical fiction in film, to analyze it, and then to compare the movie version to the historical record. These are skills that will benefit students throughout their lives.

Most social studies teachers agree that showing well-researched and well-crafted feature films is an excellent way to supplement curriculum. However, watching a film takes up valuable instructional time. The solution is that movies don’t have to be shown during the school day. Hollywood is expert at making its audience care about the stories and characters in its films; thus, most students are receptive to assignments to watch cinematic versions of historical fiction outside of class.

For all of these reasons, TWM recommends that every social studies course include a component of several films per semester to be watched by students at home or at occasional after-school viewing sessions held by the teacher. For the movies watched at home, students should be required to choose films from an approved list. (See TWM’s recommendations for high-quality historical fiction for United States History classes and for World History classes.)

After watching a movie, students should be required to complete an assignment relating to what they have seen. TWM provides a Film Study Worksheet for Social Studies Classes for a Work of Historical Fiction. The first five questions on the worksheet will lead students to understand that a work of historical fiction is a story using the devices of fiction, including a protagonist, an antagonist, a conflict, a resolution, and characters with various personality traits. Five additional questions require students to analyze the relationship between what was shown in the film and history.

TWM users can access TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Project in word processing format that can be easily printed and distributed to students. The document is designed to be modified by teachers to be suitable for their classes. The project also includes a contract for parents and students to sign. Use of the contract is optional.

Review and modify the assignment as appropriate for the class and its instructional goals. For example, TWM suggests four movies a term, but this number can be changed. Students can be assigned to watch specific movies if enough copies are available. Students can be required to make short oral presentations about the films they have watched, in addition to or instead of written responses. Students can also be separated into groups of four or fewer with each group being asked to give an oral presentation in response to a question on the worksheet. For middle school or junior high school classes, the worksheet can be simplified by eliminating some of the questions or by only requiring a single device of fiction to be discussed (Question #4) and only one striking image to be described (Question #6). In addition, where there is no reasonable way for students to research the accuracy of the movie, question #7 can be deleted.

An example of a worksheet adapted for the film Music Within with suggested responses, is available at the Music Within Film Study Worksheet with Suggested Responses. This film is about the life of Richard Pimentel who has advocated for the rights of the disabled and was one of the people most responsible for the passage in 1990 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The acceptance of the disabled as full-fledged human beings and the removal of restrictions against their participation in the general society was one of the five great advances in human rights in the United States that came to fruition or that began during the 20th century (see the Learning Guide to Music Within). TWM suggests using the film to teach students about one of those advances. In the case of this movie, there is not a lot of research material available that students can access in order to verify the accuracy of the movie. Therefore, question #7 from the Worksheet has been changed to ask a specific question about the film. Information (provided in the Learning Guide) about the accuracy of the film will need to be given to students by teachers in the form of a lecture.

TWM has developed two lists of movies which are available to attach to the assignment, one for United States History classes and another for World History classes.

TWM offers Learning Guides for most of the recommended films; most of the Guides analyze the historical accuracy of the movie to which they relate. In addition, each of the recommended films have been selected for artistic merit. (TWM believes that teachers should be seen as role models who insist upon quality in the media they present. For some students, watching films assigned by a teacher will be their first exposure to movies of excellence.)

TWM suggests that students review all of the questions on the Worksheet before they watch the film and that they take notes during several three to five-minute breaks during the movie.

And don’t forget about novels! It’s good for history students to read historical fiction. Try requiring students to read one or two novels of historical fiction per semester, perhaps coordinating with their ELA teachers. The prompts in TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Project can easily be modified to refer to a novel, rather than a movie or film.