Curriculum, High School

Ten Films to Use as Primary Texts

Teachers tend to show films simply to accompany primary texts in the classroom. In English we’ll show To Kill a Mockingbird as we read the novel, in Social Studies we show films like Passchendaele to accompany our lecture on the historic event. In Chemistry we’ll show those amazing James Bond knock-off films to teach chemical bonds, and so on.

Alternatively, we may also show films to kill off a class when we can’t teach (like if half the students are away for a sports event).

However, I find it particularly effective to occasionally use a film as the primary text in a classroom and base lessons and curriculum off if it. Modern students relate better to films and are more familiar with them, so it is often very nice for them to work with texts they are more familiar with. Additionally, you will often receive work and answers from them that you would have never expected. Here are ten of my favourite films to show in class:


10. Cast Away

In teaching English, Cast Away is absolutely wonderful for teaching literary devices in a different way. Students can visually see such devices as Symbolism and Dramatic Irony.

When implementing this lesson, I like to wait and use it as review for before the final. By the end of the year, Short Stories, Poetry, Novel Study, and Dramatic Literature will have covered all of the literary terms they need for the final and/or provincial, but to review in an interesting way, have them watch the film, write down all of the devices they see and then write an essay that discusses three. The lesson will cover basic essay-writing, ability to compare, and cover literary terms and devices.


9. Hairspray

Hairspray (I prefer the remake to the original) is a fun and hilarious film that students love (regardless of gender). It deals with American 1960s history and racial segregation. Additionally, you can discuss irony/parody as the film takes very serious race and body image issues and makes them humourous.

I use this in Junior High because it’s a good way to introduce students to heavier writing assignments and topics while not being too daunting. It isn’t serious enough or hit enough learning objectives to justify it in high school. However, when students are first learning to write essays, it’s a good topic to write on. Alternatively, it can also be a good source for students to answer serious questions and begin learning how to draw connections between text and world and also learn how to answer academically.

8. Super-Size Me

The documentary attacks fast food and the health and obesity crisis in America. Super-Size Me is great for a Health, Biology, Sports Medicine, Gym, or Foods class.

Morgan Spurlock uses the most famous fast food restaurant chain in the world, McDonalds, to physically show viewers how terrible junk food and lack of exercise are to the body. Have students answer questions while watching the film and then work in partners or groups after the film to discuss their answers.

If you have time and still want to focus on the film while transitioning into healthy choices, have students research and present a diet and lifestyle plan which works to the opposite effect of Spurlock’s McDonalds diet and results in a healthy body and mind.


7. The Sixth Sense

M. Night Shyamalan’s first and best film, The Sixth Sense, is wonderful to show to students. I love to show it when dealing with plot and foreshadowing. Because the film is not as new as it was when I was in high school and junior high, it works really well in the higher grades of junior high (grades eight or nine) or in high school because many students have not seen it and are unaware of the surprise ending.

The DVD special features have a segment which discusses symbolism and foreshadowing (such as the use of the colour red and Dr. Crowe’s lack of physical and verbal interaction with other characters).

In junior high, this is great to use in a short story unit and have students write their own stories (have them include a detailed plot summary and diagram) which includes foreshadowing and symbolism. In high school, you may want to revert to the traditional essay to prepare them for finals and/or the provincial.


6. Shrek

Shrek is a phenomenal movie when dealing with parody. Students love it because they all recognize the fairy tales that the film is based off of.

Have students in junior high or lower level high school use this as a basis for their own parodies. First, have them answer detailed questions on what parody is in relation to the film, then when they have a solid understanding, have them work in groups to create their own parody projects.

5. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat

If you are teaching Religion, students always enjoy Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. While Jesus Christ Superstar is always another popular option, I prefer to show Joseph because teaching the Old Testament tends to be a bit duller than teaching the New Testament.

I simply have students answer questions on the most important points from the film and bible points. Further on in the curriculum, I will often revert back to Joseph and have students make their own stories or retellings of biblical stories in a humourous and fun way.

4. Drugged: High on Cocaine

This is a great documentary to show to students in Health or a life-planning course like CALM or Planning 10 (they differ from province-to-province).

As a student, I specifically remember watching films which simply acted to scare us into refraining from drugs. However, Drugged: High on Cocaine is informative on how cocaine and crack are distributed and sold, how they affect the body, and how they destroy lives. I appreciate showing it because I feel that students are too intelligent to be moved by simple do not do drugs films. Drugged shows them the intricacies behind the drug and gives students more than just surface reasons to avoid the drug.

3. What the Bleep Do We Know

I love to show What the Bleep do We Know to students at the beginning of the semester in Math and Science courses. The film is both story and documentary. It unveils all that we do not know and creates possibilities which we rarely think about.

I show it because I really like to emphasis the fact that there is no one hundred percent correct answer, which students often forget in Math and Science. I enjoy showing the film because I feel that it inspires students to become more passionate about learning, especially in subjects which are often taken too seriously and taught too dryly.


2. Across the Universe

I absolutely love Across the Universe and will use any excuse to show it to a class. I like to have students use it as a guide to create a project in which they take artwork of one form and combine it together in an interesting way to create a different story.

While Across the Universe uses music from the Beatles to create a distinct story, I encourage students to find a way to do the same. For example, they may use poems by a specific author or on a specific topic, or letters from soldiers, or magazine articles, and so forth, to create a separate (while also related) story. I always make sure to discuss various points that were included in the film that relate back to the Beatles’ lives and music and encourage them to find ways of mixing interesting facts in with their stories.


1. Waiting for Superman

No matter what course I am teaching, I love to show Waiting for Superman at the beginning of the year. The film focuses on the education system in the United States, which is failing students horribly. It discusses the discrepancy between schools based on socioeconomic status and the fact that bad teachers are never gotten rid of, but simply moved from school to school.

After the film I will either have students do a bit of research on the education in other specific nations, or else show a power point and lecture on these points.

I do this to demonstrate that, despite its flaws, the education system in Canada is extremely good and students should be grateful and recognize what they have been given. Additionally, I use it to lead in to my points about never accepting anything but their very best and refusing to do such things as curve grades (if the best paper in one of my classes deserves a C, I will never give it an A simply because it was better by comparison).

Overall, I use this film to inspire and to illustrate to students how thankful they should be for the education they are receiving and which everyone deserves.


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