If you want to get kids' attention, show them how an issue affects real people. From bullying to STEM to autism, the topics tackled in documentary movies can open kids' eyes and encourage discussion. And when they're shown as part of a lesson, teachers can help students understand and analyze what they've seen.
As the definition of literacy continues to broaden -- encompassing skills for analyzing not only text-based media, but also visual media, audio, and more -- it’s important to include documentary films as part of the classroom content selection. Happily, lots of documentaries either about or targeted at middle school-age kids come with educator resources, so they're easy to integrate into an existing unit or use in after-school programs.
These are nine of our favorite documentary picks for middle school classrooms. They're not always easy to watch, but all will strike a chord with middle schoolers and are guaranteed to spark a great conversation.
It's heartbreaking and difficult to watch, but this frank documentary is essential viewing for middle 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.
Teacher tips: Because the movie addresses suicide and self-harm, it's important to front-load and frame these intense topics carefully. Make sure you know which students could feel especially triggered by the movie and create a safe space for students to share their own experiences. Emphasize how kids can be empowered to help each other and what resources are available. Classes could even come up with action plans to address whatever bullying might exist in their school.
Available resources: Tools for Educators
The stories shared in this informative, intense film aren't always easy to hear -- it touches on topics ranging from inequality to human trafficking, child marriage, and more -- but nothing graphic is shown, and kids who watch are guaranteed to want to talk about it.
Teacher tips: Before watching the movie, kids can create a timeline of their own childhood up to this point, highlighting the most important events. And what do they plan for the future? Since some kids will be shocked by what girls face in various places, make sure to prepare them for some of the more intense issues, like rape and trafficking. Then explore what their timelines might look like and how past events might affect the futures of the girls in the film. Focus on the resilience of the featured girls and how they see education as a path to a better future.
Available resources: Curriculum & Tools
Moving, intense, and also delightful, this film about Nobel Prize-winning Pakistani teen Malala Yousafzai introduces viewers to the inspiring role model while simultaneously making her a relatable teen. Meet your students' new BFF.
Teacher tips: One way to frame this one is through the idea of superheroes: Usually, something extraordinary happens to an ordinary person, and their lives change. How is this also true for real-life heroes? Some kids in your class have probably heard her name, so tap into their prior knowledge before watching the movie, then talk about how her path follows one similar to a superhero's. What does it take to be a real-life hero? Have kids explore topics that are important to them, and document their steps to make a difference in that area.
Available resources: Students Stand with Malala
Powerful and poignant, this film follows 11-year-olds from around the world (Australia, Bulgaria, China, France, Germany, India, Morocco, Japan, Sweden, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States) as they share their thoughts, triumphs, and challenges.
Teacher tips: Encourage kids to find connections between their own experiences and the ones in the movie, then explore the differences. What do they have in common with one or more of the kids in the film? What's different from their own experiences? Consider having students become virtual ambassadors to a featured country and do research around school, family, and culture.
Available resources: Educational Screenings Kit
Want to show teens that they have the ability and the talent to make a difference? Then check out this empowering story of young people who learn the skills to create something (a new farmers' market for their rural community) and actually get to do it.
Teacher tips: Seeing these teens and adults work together to solve a problem/provide a service in their community can be a jumping-off point for a similar project in your own community. Ideally, and depending on your resources, kids can identify a problem to solve or a service to provide. Then they can figure out the best ways to implement the plan (and hopefully do it!), which can be a great cross-curricular opportunity.
Available resources: Educational DVD Copies
This incredibly moving documentary beautifully captures the emotional story of a young man with autism and his lifelong love of Disney movies, which allow him to process the world and communicate with the people he loves. It's sweet, funny, and relatable.
Teacher tips: Teachers can take this in a number of directions: You could talk about ASD and other learning differences that can affect how people interact with the world. Kids can then connect that to their own learning process and identify something -- like the Disney movies in the film -- that helps them in their process. Or you can focus on communication and the power of storytelling. Which stories serve as a window into your students' world? They can create personal stories that might also help others.
Available resources: Curriculum for Educators
Kids are sure to be inspired by the story of Jessica Cox, a young woman born without arms who's had a significant impact as a role model, motivational speaker, and activist for people with disabilities.
Teacher tips: Jessica's story is a great example of overcoming what seems like a limitation and working with it in order to excel and thrive. Kids can identify their own strengths and challenges and create a visual representation of how they can overcome those struggles. In a museum-style exhibition, kids could display their artifacts with an artist's explanation.
Available resources: Educational and Private Screenings
Looking for a story to drive home the importance of STEM in schools? Try this feel-good true story about a group of low-income teens who beat groups from renowned universities (including MIT!) in a robotics competition.
Teacher tips: Talk about the students' journey to success. What roadblocks did they encounter? How did they overcome them, what character strengths helped them, and how did others support them? With awareness around your classroom climate, you can also discuss the issue of documentation and what it means. If someone is undocumented, what are some of the potential challenges? Finally, talk about STEM and its importance. How do the students in the film show that STEM can go far beyond the classroom? Kids are bound to want to create something after watching, so capitalize on that inspiration and let them innovate!
Available resources: Including working with Title I Students, STEM, and the DREAM Act
Holy girl power, Batman! This knockout film looks at the historical context of Wonder Woman origins and explains how she's changed over the decades -- yet how the need for girls and women to see powerful images of themselves really hasn't.
Teacher tips: Kids can explore gender representations from different decades and determine what the messages are -- and have been in the past -- for girls and boys. How have things changed, if at all? Why does it matter? For a broader conversation, kids can talk about why representation matters in general and create their own superheroes to show which qualities and characteristics they'd include.
Available resources: Guides
For more great strategies on using film in the classroom see our resources on the topic.