If you want to get a teen's attention, show them how an issue affects real people. From bullying and racism to poverty and economics, the topics tackled in documentary movies can open kids' eyes and encourage critical thinking and conversation. Better yet, when these films are shown as part of a lesson, we can help students understand and analyze what they've seen.
Even better, a lot of great documentaries offer resources for educators online. Some offer teaching guides, and others offer lesson plans or discussion questions. These can make it a bit easier to integrate a film into a unit that's already part of your calendar.
These are nine of our favorite classroom-worthy documentary picks. All of them will strike a chord with teens, and they're guaranteed to spark a great discussion.
He Named Me Malala: Moving, intense, and delightful, this film about Nobel Prize-winning Pakistani teen Malala Yousafzai introduces viewers to the real-life teenage girl and inspiring role model.
I Am Not Your Negro: Based on James Baldwin's 1979 book proposal about three of his close friends -- assassinated civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. -- this powerful documentary explores the intersections of race, art, and activism. Both challenging and insightful, the film connects Baldwin's decades-old ideas to current issues and social justice movements.
Available resources: curriculum guide
Underwater Dreams: This feel-good true story is about a robotics team made up of lower-income teens who compete against -- and beat -- groups from renowned universities (including MIT!). Along the way, the film helps reinforce the importance of STEM learning in schools.
Available resources: links for further reading, educational version with teaching materials (free for schools working with Title I students)
Miss Representation: This powerful, uncompromising documentary looks at how women are trivialized and sexualized in popular media -- and the effects this has. The film invites teens -- both girls and boys -- to examine gender bias and be conscious of how they interpret media messages.
Available resources: community screening guide
The Mask You Live In: This moving, edgy, and important film is 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, educational version of the film
A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story: Since discovering a video of herself on YouTube titled "The World's Ugliest Woman," the subject of this doc has delivered 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, screening information
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, additional tools for parents and kids
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: curriculum, action steps
Inequality for All: From former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, this information-packed, often funny film aims to raise awareness about the widening inequality gap in America. To really understand the film, students should know about basic economic concepts, but overall it’s conversational and easy to grasp.
Available resources: discussion guide, curriculum, screening kit