Review by Vanessa Aranda, Common Sense Education | Updated February 2020

Ken Burns in the Classroom

Critically acclaimed documentaries repackaged meaningfully for classrooms

Subjects & skills
Subjects
  • English Language Arts
  • Social Studies

Skills
  • Communication & Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking
Grades This grade range is based on learning appropriateness and doesn't take into account privacy. It's determined by Common Sense Education, not the product's publisher.
4–12
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Pros: Clips from Ken Burns' masterful documentaries combined with ready-to-use teaching materials.

Cons: Some of the premade lesson materials lack rigor.

Bottom Line: Top-notch documentary clips offer opportunities to expand students' perspectives, but some lesson materials might be underwhelming.

Teachers can preselect whole-class clips or allow student choice in perusing the options and focusing on an area of interest within a given era, topic, or film. For a quick and easy activity, look no further than the discussion questions offered alongside most clips. These can serve as primers before students watch something, as well as review discussions afterward. Students can also create and share their own essential questions based on their viewing.

For a more involved activity, teachers can use a media analysis framework. Task students with identifying a main idea, evidence or details, drawing, inquiry, and analysis of the film clip. Students can then share out on the class whiteboard prepared with each of the categories. In classrooms with 1-to-1 devices, groups of students can each focus on a different segment of a longer film (or individual group members can focus on individual segments). They can then answer discussion questions and/or use a 3-2-1 strategy to reflect on what they watched. Students within each group can have a discussion, and then teachers can facilitate a whole-class debriefing.

If classrooms use a lot of Ken Burns' work, why not encourage students to be their own digital storytellers? Students could create their own mini-documentaries or another creative showcase -- like a comic strip or book -- on a history topic of their choice. To up the ante, ask students to incorporate three methods of storytelling that they noticed Burns using, such as re-created narration or showing primary sources. This focuses students not only on high-quality research, but also on engaging delivery and presentation of the material. 

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Ken Burns in the Classroom is a free American history website offered by PBS LearningMedia. The site combines Ken Burns' critically acclaimed documentaries with ready-to-use teaching materials and lessons. Each documentary is available in precisely chunked and archived segments of one to nine minutes each. All of the clips can be searched by keyword, topic, era, or film. Clips include related videos, relevant teaching materials, and a Share to Google Classroom button.

For Ken Burns fans, a PBS sister site is linked at the bottom of the Ken Burns in the Classroom site, providing more research and access to more things Ken Burns. 

The research and production of the film clips is unparalleled, but clever classroom activities will be needed to fully grab students' attention. However, the careful carving of the films into digestible (and easily browsed) pieces for students -- along with the printable handouts and premade lessons -- makes it incredibly easy to bring Ken Burns' work into classrooms. The activities, teaching tips, discussion questions, and handouts go beyond recall questions, but they vary in how well they encourage deep learning. In most cases, it's up to teachers to take it to next level, especially in, for instance, an AP-level class. Expect to do some further development of what's offered on the site. Teacher materials are also not scaffolded or differentiated, so expect to do some modification to fit your students' needs. Some films offer English subtitles to help with this.

One of the most useful aspects of Ken Burns in the Classroom is how well clips are organized. They're not just broken down by era or keyword; they're also organized thematically so that students can dig into concepts with or across eras. For example, the film The West is broken down into "Migration and Innovation," "Intercultural Encounters," and "Land-based Conflict." By orienting analysis according to these themes, teachers go beyond a timeline or key term approach to history, and focus more on analyzing change and continuity over time.

Overall Rating

Engagement Would it motivate students and hold their interest? Is it visually appealing? Would it inspire teachers to try something new or change their instruction?

Students will need a good lesson plan to fully appreciate the mastery of Ken Burns' work, which can be a bit dry. Thankfully, the site is easy for teachers to find the just-right video and lesson. 

Pedagogy Does the tool help teachers promote a more student-centered experience? Will students gain conceptual understanding or think critically? Does it deepen teachers’ pedagogical thinking?

Ken Burns' documentaries feature high-quality research and multiple perspectives. Films are chunked into manageable clips with ready-to-use lessons and handouts. Learning activities vary in quality and depth.

Support Can students and teachers get assistance when they need it? Is it created with people of different abilities and backgrounds in mind? Is learning reinforced and extended beyond the digital experience?

Some videos feature English subtitles (and you can filter for them), and the site is accessibly designed. Films feature a wealth of materials for easy use in classrooms. Language translations would be a nice addition.


Common Sense Reviewer
Vanessa Aranda Classroom teacher

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Featured review by
Richard W. , Classroom teacher
Classroom teacher
Non-Stop Resource destination for Social Studies
For my classroom this product is a more than just a reliable source of information. I use it to introduce new topics, practice vocabulary, start discussions, and of course show videos. Using videos in my classroom before this website was difficult for the simple fact that finding historically accurate videos that are highlighting one topic is next to impossible. With this site I know that the information is accurate and highlighting only the information that is needed for the lesson. The website als ...
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