7 Great Movies for the High School Classroom

Thought-provoking documentaries -- many with teacher materials -- will get kids thinking (and learning).

September 21, 2015
Betsy Bozdech
Executive Editor, Common Sense Media

CATEGORIES In the Classroom

If you want to get a teen's attention, show him how an issue affects real people. From bullying to poverty to economics, the topics tackled in documentary movies can open kids' eyes and encourage conversation. And when they're shown as part of a lesson, teachers can help students understand and analyze what they've seen.

The great news is that many documentaries targeted at teens come with lots of resources for educators -- making them easy to integrate into a unit that's already on the calendar (or you can have them on tap when there's a sub or bad weather). These kinds of movies also could be assigned for homework or used in after-school programs.

These are seven of our favorite classroom-worthy documentary picks; all will strike a chord with teens and are guaranteed to spark a great discussion.

A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story: Once dubbed "The World's Ugliest Woman" on YouTube, Lizzie turned cyberbullying into a powerful message about standing up to bullies, believing in yourself, and loving who you are.
Available resources: Action items to support Lizzie's cause.


He Named Me Malala: Moving, intense, and also delightful, this film about Nobel Prize-winning Pakistani teen Malala Yousafzai introduces viewers to the real-life teenage girl and inspiring role model.
Available resources: Sign up for a free school field trip to see the film, with teacher materials.



Bully: This no-holds-barred film is frank and often heartbreaking, but it's also essential viewing for middle and high schoolers. Ultimately it encourages kids to stand up to bullies rather than stand by, and it reinforces the fact that everyone can make a difference.
Available resources: Educators' DVD/toolkit, viewing guide, online workshop, and more, plus additional tools for parents and kids.


Underwater Dreams: This feel-good true story about a group of low-income teens who beat groups from renowned universities (including MIT!) in a robotics competition helps reinforce the importance of STEM in schools.
Available resources: Related links and opportunity to buy educational version with teaching materials included.


Fed Up: Persuasive and bold, this look at sugar's role in America's obesity epidemic offers engrossing interviews with scientists and researchers, accompanied by plainly laid-out information and a call to action.
Available resources: Quiz, discussion guide, action steps.



Inequality for All: This information-packed, often funny film aims to raise awareness about the widening inequality gap in America. Plus, it's conversational and easy to grasp.
Available resources: Discussion guide, curriculum, recommended reading.



The Mask You Live In: This edgy but important film is both effective and moving, a deeply affecting look at media messages about masculinity and what it really means to be a man in today's society.
Available resources: Curriculum and educational version of the film.


Rory Bradley

I'd add to this list The Fault in Our Stars and Thirteen. Probably showing thirteen in the classroom is not a great idea, but it does show how a teenager can change under the influence of society.