Magazine Feature

Toolkit for Lights, Camera, Social Action!

Engage the budding filmmakers in your class with this activity!

There are so many different examples of how film can be a useful tool in teaching about social justice. “Lights, Camera, Social Action!” illustrates how documentaries can support literacy development and help students become critical consumers of film. Students also benefit from opportunities to get behind the camera themselves. In this toolkit, teachers and students are offered a series of steps for conducting a meaningful study and project around filmmaking. Students will learn about the power of documentaries and have the chance to participate in that power by researching and working on social issues that are meaningful to them.


Essential Questions

  1. What are the steps that go into making a documentary film?
  2. How can filmmaking and the artistic expression it provides deepen students’ involvement in locally relevant issues of social justice?



Gaining Knowledge

  1. Use documentary film and a variety of other texts to introduce a new topic or theme to your class. Because you will be spending significant time with it, it’s important that the topic or theme has depth and breadth and will be relevant to your students’ lives.
  1. Familiarize yourself with existing documentaries on the topic before introducing it to students. Select one that you will view with students in class. Depending on time available, you may decide to watch more than one. If you’re concerned about lost class time, you could host a movie after school.

If you’re looking for help identifying a film and teaching ideas, here are two good resources:

  • Teach with Movies provides an index of documentaries and nonfiction films, as well as lesson ideas for various subject areas. 
  • The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences teamed up with Young Minds Inspired (YMI) to create “Searching for the Truth,” a teacher’s guide that engages students in exploring how film can be both an art form and medium of communication.
  1. As you watch these films, ask yourself and your students the following questions. Keep charts in your classroom to document the answers and notes you and your students take.
  • How do documentary filmmakers teach their audiences about the issues they are presenting? What specific strategies do they use?
  • What parts of the film were particularly meaningful to you? Why? How did the filmmaker grab your attention? What specific strong reactions did you have?
  • How does this film present this issue in a way that a different genre could not do? In what ways is it particularly effective?
  • If you were making a documentary about the same issue, what would you do differently, and why?


Applying Knowledge

  1. After viewing and discussing the film, ask students how the documentary’s big ideas connect to their own lives. From there, brainstorm a list of related issues that are important in your school or community and lend themselves to investigation via documentary film. 
  1. Explain to students that they will be making their own documentaries! Their task is to apply what they’ve learned about the documentary film medium to an issue that is unique and important to them and their communities. Have students vote or come to consensus on the topic that seems most relevant and engaging. Alternatively, you may break students into small groups and have each group work on a different topic.


Seeking Knowledge

  1. Once topics are chosen, have students decide on three to five people in your school or community who would be good to interview on the topic. Next, students practice interviews by drafting questions and role-playing with one another. Then, provide them with time and support to conduct and record interviews with the people they have identified. Coordinate with your school or district media specialist to arrange the use of video recording devices or, alternately, use a smartphone or tablet to record the interviews.
  1. In addition to interviews, have students take footage of other things they feel are relevant to their topic. This might include taping classes, lunch or recess times, scenes from nature and conversations between other people; any number of things could work, depending on the issue they are working with. The key is for them to have enough engaging and informative fodder from which they can develop a coherent narrative or argument. Have students upload and catalog their footage at the end of each day so they know which interviews, scenes and events can be found in which video files. 
  1. Require that students also do sufficient research on their topics in addition to filming and recording. Depending on the topics and your resources, this research can happen online, in the classroom, as homework or in the library. An interview with a librarian can really help add information to a documentary. 


Analyzing Information

  1. Once students have gathered lots of content—research notes, interviews and B-roll footage—allow them class time to look over what they have. Some guiding questions for this analysis stage:
  • What have they learned? Did our original premise or thesis change at all?
  • What information is missing? Do we need to go back and get more information?
  • What material do we have that will be most engaging and interesting to our audience? 
  • What would be a sensible organizing structure for a documentary film on this topic?


Telling a Story

  1. Explain to students that the next step in filmmaking is to create a storyboard. They should work with their group to plot out the sequence of their documentary from start to finish. Students may be familiar with storyboards from writing projects and will simply need to put in the added step of what visual will go along with each step. Remind them to use the attention-grabbing strategies they identified earlier in the lesson. Students will want to choose the template that makes most sense with their own plans and planning style; there are various free storyboarding templates like these available online.
  1. Provide time for students to experiment with free video editing software, available online. iMovie is another low-cost option for those using Macintosh products. Then, provide ample time for students to edit their films according to the plans they made with their storyboards.


Sharing Our Stories

  1. Plan a film festival! The viewing is a chance to celebrate a job well done, get critical and supportive feedback and, most of all, engage others in the issues being presented via the films. Invite other classes and people in your school and community to come enjoy the work your students have done. Provide opportunities for questions and conversation about further social action that could potentially happen as an outgrowth of this project.
Add to an Existing Learning Plan
    Illustration of person holding and looking at laptop.

    New Virtual Workshops Are Available Now!

    Registrations are now open for our 90-minute virtual open enrollment workshops. Explore the schedule, and register today—the first workshop begins October 16th and space is limited!

    Sign Up!