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Middle School Movies That Support SEL in the Classroom

Help students recognize and understand social and emotional themes in popular films.

Danny Wagner | December 18, 2018

No matter how we discover them, the best films move us in ways we've never imagined. No matter how old we are, they can make us both laugh and cry, and they help us learn more about ourselves and how we relate to others. Of course, many popular movies deal with social and emotional issues, and these can be great for teaching SEL in our classrooms.

The films on this list are excellent for encouraging students to reflect on and discuss a wide range of social and emotional issues. As teachers, we're in a unique position to give these films the context they demand. Social and emotional learning doesn't usually come from watching a movie by yourself -- it comes from the rich discussions that form when you're watching a movie with others and relating what happens in the film to real life. Because of this, it's crucial that we don't merely show these films without also giving kids time to reflect on and discuss what they're watching. As students watch, help them interpret the films you show, and give them direct invitations to ask questions and think critically about what they're seeing on the screen.

Note that our list includes some films that address complex and mature themes. One of the benefits of kids seeing these films in school, versus on their own, is that teachers can help guide and facilitate conversations about these issues. However -- as with any movie you select for your classroom -- determine ahead of time what's OK for your students and the community where you teach, and always follow your school or district's policies around showing films in the classroom.

Here are 10 movies for the middle school classroom that support students' social and emotional learning:

Inside Out1. Inside Out

Self-Control, Teamwork, Empathy, Integrity

A modern animated classic about emotions, Inside Out will help kids understand the power of our feelings and why it's important to express them -- whether it's happiness, fear, or regret.

 

Science Fair2. Science Fair

Communication, Curiosity, Perseverance, Teamwork

Following different student groups competing in an international science fair, this documentary highlights the perseverance and teamwork required to make it to the top. Help students analyze the variety of personality types they'll see in the film -- from shy to self-possessed and beyond -- and how they help or hurt the contestants' goals.

 

Far From the Tree3. Far from the Tree

Communication, Compassion, Empathy

This moving documentary is about parents learning how to raise kids who are unlike themselves -- whether they have a disability, identify as LGBTQ, or have committed a crime. Students will see how these parents grapple with empathy and develop tolerance and then consider how their own families handle their unique characteristics.

 

RBG4. RBG

Integrity

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg headlines this documentary about her life and career. Politics aside, students can see how Ginsburg maintained integrity in her private trials and public fights for gender equality.

 

Wonder5. Wonder

Empathy, Perseverance

Kids will get emotional as they watch this story of a fifth-grader born with a facial abnormality. Bullying is a strong focus in the film, and students can talk about why it's important to try to understand what their peers are going through and when to stand up for others.

 

Won't You Be My Neighbor6. Won't You Be My Neighbor

Compassion, Integrity

This highly acclaimed biopic of Fred Rogers' life showcases his passion for inspiring integrity and kindness. Whether or not they know who he is, students can argue whether the show's discussion of tough topics with young kids had a positive or negative impact on kids' social and emotional learning.

 

Arrival7. Arrival

Communication, Compassion, Curiosity

Communication is front and center in this sci-fi alien tale. Faced with important choices around compassion, the characters make decisions that will get students debating the consequences of how we talk to, and learn to work with, each other.

 

Liyana8. Liyana

Courage, Empathy, Perseverance

A unique mix of live-action documentary and animation, Liyana tells the emotional story of a group of African orphans and the fictional tale they created. The tale is based on their own experiences, which can be emotional and will open up students to new perspectives.

 

Black Panther9. Black Panther

Courage, Integrity, Teamwork

This popular Marvel superhero movie is a great opportunity to take a film that kids already love and show them how their favorite characters handle integrity, decisiveness, and teamwork. You can also discuss the effect the film has had in African American communities and why it has produced such gratitude and pride.

 

Eighth Grade10. Eighth Grade

Communication, Courage

This R-rated film is certainly the most controversial pick on this list; the director has hosted special screenings of Eighth Grade in schools across the country. Discuss as a class whether the characters and issues surfaced in the film are true to real life, and talk about how students might deal (or have dealt) with these types of experiences. For more information about showing the movie Eighth Grade in your classroom, be sure to check out this article, as well as our discussion guide for schools.

 

Top photo credit: Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action