Here's a thought: What if there were more critical thinking in our schools?
"Re: Thinking," a new documentary, spends time at several public schools that are said to be teaching students how to think, as opposed to what to think.
A school administrator explains early in the hourlong film that young children are naturally curious and teach themselves to walk and talk.
"Over those first few years of life, everything they learn is based on the fact that they want to learn it," the educator says. "And all of that seems to come to a screeching halt when they get into formal education."
The film by Deborah C. Hoard and Rachel Ferro is set to have a premiere in Washington on Wednesday, with the requisite panel discussion by some of the educators who appear in the film, as well as a representative from the U.S. Department of Education. The film is going to be available for free online from Oct. 19 to Nov. 2 at www.rethinkingmovie.com.
The documentary does not spend a lot of time laying out criticisms of overly rigid educational practices, although there seems to be plenty the filmmakers could have pointed to, from schools that focus too much on teaching to the test to charter schools with inflexible behavioral rules. (Writer Scott Santens had a recent commentary in Education Week on the topic of teaching critical thinking.)
The three schools featured in "Re:Thinking" seem to be on the progressive side. The film says the three embrace "a culture that values thinking over memorizing information" while still meeting state standards.
The three are Green Hills School, a K-8 school in the Green Township school district in New Jersey; the Bard High School Early College program in Long Island City, Queens, a partner with the New York CIty school system; and the Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca, N.Y.
Derek Cabrera, a cognitive scientist at Cornell University, explains four fundamental patterns of thinking: distinctions, systems, relationships, and perspectives. (The film is based on the work of Cabrera and his wife, Laura Cabrera, the founders of the Cabrera Research Lab at Cornell.)
The goal of teaching thinking "is to produce a citizenry capable of thinking critically and thoughtfully and prepared for the rest of their lives," one educator says in the film.
There are quite a few talking heads, but this short documentary succeeds in showing aspects of this theory in action at the three schools.
At the Lehman Alternative school, we see students engaged in exercises designed to teach the them to view some hot-button international issues from the perspectives of various stakeholders, including terrorist groups.
At the Bard High School program, educators are implementing the Common Core State Standards while also trying to keep the focus on thinking skills.
"Straddling both worlds is what we're doing now," a teacher there says.
At one of the other schools, a student tells his classmates he's reading the Dale Carnegie classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People.
"It says that 85 percent of your job is based on how well you work with people, and the other 15 percent is your knowledge," the student says.
"Re:Thinking" seems designed to foster a conversation about teaching methods and how critical thinking can be incorporated in different kinds of schools facing different organizational and accountability pressures.
Consider the conversation started.
From the days when instructional films like these were shown via projector, students have enjoyed watching movies in class. Teachers have too. But it’s often hard to justify watching a two-hour film when there’s so much else that has to be done.
But, what about an eight-minute film? That’s the average length of our Film Club features, and these short documentary films do much more than just entertain. They challenge assumptions and offer new perspectives. They tell stories that often remain hidden, and introduce us to people and places foreign to us.
As with other short texts like stories, poems and articles, mini-documentary films can stimulate discussion, debate, thinking and writing. And, they can serve as a refreshing break from print media to help students explore curriculum themes and practice important literacy skills.
Below, we present eight films we’ve featured in our Film Club series that have already captured students’ and teachers’ attention. In addition, we offer practical teaching ideas, along with responses from students and teachers, for how you can use these documentaries, or films like them, to teach close reading and critical thinking skills.
And if these aren’t enough, our Film Club “meets” online every other Friday during the school year. Bring your students to join the conversation.
1. Explore a Theme or Big Idea
What makes these mini-documentaries so powerful is that they can present a compelling theme, such as justice, adversity or freedom, in just a few minutes.
Take “San Quentin’s Giants” (above), a film replete with sports metaphors that explores the themes of failure and redemption through a prison baseball team. Z.H., a student from Connecticut, comments:
There were a lot of moments in this film that stood out for me. It was especially moving when the guys talked about how meaningful baseball was to them, and how they finally had something that they could focus on and be proud of, instead of just focusing on the fact that they were in prison. This stood out because they now have an opportunity to do some good and hopefully change their life for the better. They’ve come together to be a team, to become better people and to get away from all of the bad things that happen within prison.
What would your students see in a film like this one? To what in their lives might they connect it?
2. Provide Rich Content for Writing Tasks
The themes and issues tackled in these films create organic opportunities for students to practice analysis and writing. In just a few minutes, students can watch one of these films and have a genuine reaction.
In each Film Club feature, we ask open-ended questions to prompt students to write. For example, what moments in this film stood out for you? What messages, emotions or ideas will you take away from this film?
After watching “Kite Fight” (above), Trinity Lewis, a student from Charlotte, N.C., responded:
My reaction to this documentary is that, I loved how they still manage to be happy when they fly the kites, when they are in poverty. They buy parts of the kite that cost 25 cents, and use a trash bag, wire and glue to put it together. And in the process they get cut, bruised, bleed and hurt and don’t cry but still manage to stay happy. When kite fighting, these children feel free. I think the message of this documentary is being free, the emotion is being happy.
3. Provoke Discussions and Critical Thinking
Learning how to hold a civil discussion is a critical skill. So is learning how to reflect on our own biases and prejudices.
The film “Who Sounds Gay?” tackles a tricky subject for many classrooms. But in just a few minutes, the film challenges many students’ assumptions and creates an opportunity for them to practice sharing their points of view and building on what their classmates say, while using the film as evidence.
For example, Alexandra.apples from Mississauga, Ontario, writes:
This film sheds light on a topic that has crossed my mind more than once. When I hear a man with a “gay voice,” I can’t help but wonder about his sexual orientation. I’m being curious, not judgmental. Even though I speculate innocuously, that man’s voice could negatively affect the way others, such as employers or law-enforcement officials, treat him. This discrimination is unfair for many reasons, and this film highlights another one: a man’s voice doesn’t always indicate his sexual identity.
4. Open a Window to a Different World
Films can give us a glimpse into someone else’s life. They can bring us inside a stranger’s home or a foreign country. They can chip away at social and class divides.
The film “Ivy League Trailblazers” introduces us to the nation’s most prestigious universities through the eyes of first-generation college students.
Louis.f.pcsi is one of dozens of students from Paris who responded:
Before this video, I barely envisaged the fact that students could feel rejected because of the low incomes of their family. I was amazed to hear that some of the students had difficulties to get along with the other students because of their social differences, or that they were disadvantaged to them due to their lack of culture. I was surprised to hear that they felt lonely, different than the rich students.
5. Practice Watching, Listening, Notetaking and Responding
For each Film Club feature, we provide a double-entry chart (PDF) for watching a film that helps students record and consider the aspects they find most important or interesting. In particular, we instruct students to jot down notable quotes or details from the film, and to add their own observations, comments or questions.
Arjun G. from Des Moines pulled out a quote from the film “Wright’s Law” and responded:
The moment that most strongly resonated with me was when Mr. Wright said, “There is something a lot greater than energy. There is something a lot greater than entropy. It’s the fact that. . .what’s the greatest thing? Love.”
I always thought that there was a rigid dichotomy between science and love, but Mr. Wright seemed to break it down. He stands to show us that to be an amazing teacher, to connect with students, one has to be aware of his own existence and aware of one of the most fundamental forces in human experience: love.
6. Challenge Stereotypes
These films certainly don’t shy away from difficult or important topics. Adam Strom, the director of scholarship and innovation at Facing History and Ourselves, writes about how two Times Op-Docs, “A Conversation About Growing up Black” (above) and “A Conversation With White People on Race,” can be “… used to illuminate racial divides, and to bridge them. Both of these short videos offer insight into the ways that race and identity shape our perspectives.”
As a teaching idea, Mr. Strom suggests, “teachers might organize a cafe conversation between the people featured in the two videos to explore point of view.”
After watching the five-minute film above, Ryley, a student from Tennessee, writes:
I was very impressed with how these smart young men addressed this issue. Their different challenges that they face daily gave me a different outlook on how African Americans are still being treated so harshly here in the United States. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.
7. Bring Current Events and Issues Into the Classroom
Sometimes these films surprise students, or even shock them or make them angry. “China’s Web Junkies” is a film about a Chinese boot-camp-style treatment center for young men “addicted” to the Internet.
One student, Spencer, writes: “This is actually a pretty good idea. We should definitely try this in the U.S. because a lot of people are addicted to the internet here.”
Zielly Hiller, a student from North Carolina, strongly disagrees:
Spencer, I understand where you are coming from, but drugging people makes no sense. They think that this is a disease, or something, when it’s not. Sending these kids to a military camp? Are you serious, China? I mean, really, we spend a lot of time on the internet too, but these kids spend more time on it. Like the guy said in the video, Loneliness. Maybe it’s loneliness. They don’t have that freedom, they can’t be as carefree. Cut them at least a little slack. Because they are lonely, they might not have as much control from being alone so much. I understand these kids. and they aren’t the only ones. At least someone, anyone, out there in China, please, befriend someone. Show them that they are not alone. Pass this on. It could help a lot of people.
On March 11 we will be featuring a film about a transgender teenager, and in the coming months we hope to highlight films about the global migration crisis and the presidential election. Join us!
8. Make Connections to Students’ Lives
As much as these films help us to see a different world, sometimes the most powerful moments are when students make connections to their own lives — and perhaps even see their own lives a little differently.
“Summer’s Choice” introduces us to Summer, a talented teenager who is torn between her goal of attending art school and wanting to help support her family. After watching the film, Racy P., a student from Illinois, writes:
I fully understand that Summer feels compelled to help her grandma, but when you have an opportunity to do something great with your life, you have to believe in yourself and not hold back. I think that Summer is resilient, and is always trying to help others before doing something good for herself. Sometimes you have to break the circle and go to new places, be more independent, and take some time to think of yourself. I think she should have experienced that and went to Art school and hopefully she will sometime in her life.
Students might be inspired by these films to actually make their own mini-documentaries. After all, so many students walk around with their own personal video cameras on their smartphones. One teacher tells us:
I want to express how much NYT’s Op-Docs have influenced my teaching and my students’ learning. I now have students create their own mini-docs using smartphones or basic hand-held cameras (putting them together using iMovie or MovieMaker software). OK, they may not be NYT quality, but these products still offer viewers a glimpse into issues in their own discourse communities.
Additional Resources for Teaching With Short Documentary Films
The New York Times isn’t the only organization featuring short form documentaries that can be used in the classroom.
Global Oneness Project offers free multicultural stories and accompanying lesson plans for high school and college classrooms.
PBS’s POV offers free resources for educators, including hundreds of online film clips and related lesson plans, discussion guides and reading lists for teachers.
Please let us know in the comments section how you use short documentary films in your own teaching.