Giving students an essay to write as the main outcome of a unit of study can be repetitive and therefore disengaging. In order to give students a fresh enthusiasm for the art of essay writing, present the topic instead as a documentary-making project. This approach has additional benefits in the sense that it stresses the art, not just the science, of essay writing. By recording themselves as part of the process of making the actual film, it also gets students to reflect carefully on how their own voices come across and the importance of speaking clearly, steadily and lucidly when presenting to an audience.

Case Study: Making a documentary film on the causes of the American Civil War (Year 9)

Phase 1: Focus on getting students to gather the essential information about the topic in the most effective way.

In my case, my study of the causes of the American Civil War begins with a teacher lecture, then an illustrated timeline task whereby students start to build up a folder of high-resolution images based on the most interesting events and developments. They also research key events in more detail by watching clips from the superb Ken Burns documentary. The complete scheme of work and supporting resources for this topic can be found on this page of my website ActiveHistory.

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Phase 2: Focus on how documentary makers construct a narrative.

I do this firstly by watching Ken Burns being interviewed on “The Art of Story” which is a brilliant synopsis of how the historical writing process is a balance of science (empiricism, research) and art (imagination, emotion). We then watch the opening minute of several documentaries to see how they use silence, subtle music, carefully chosen images and a narrative ‘hook’ to engage the viewer from the outset (in particular, I use the opening segment of the first episode of “The World at War” which is fantastic in this respect).

Phase 3: Focus on selecting the main factors, connecting them together in an analytical way through topic sentences, and ‘top and tailing’ this with a brief introduction and conclusion.

In this phase students are effectively writing their essay, but they are seeing this merely as one part of a creative process and so are much more engaged. They start by choosing the five most interesting events in their timeline and explain how each one increased the tensions which erupted into war. Next, they have to connect these factors in five key sentences using “connectives” (“As a result…Nevertheless…This meant that…This highlighted…This accelerated…This was the result of…Because of this…” and so on). Following this, they have to develop each sentence into a full paragraph with substantiating explanation and detail. Finally, they have to design their own narrative ‘hook’ to serve as an introduction, and decide how to round the story off.

Guidance and mark scheme from active history.co.uk

Phase 4: Focus on recording the script and developing it into a film.

In this phase, we start with a lively and humorous discussion about what usually marks out school film projects as being amateurish. Students usually identify such things as a monotonous, rushed, mumbling narration, irrelevant and low-resolution images and intrusive background music. These are clearly therefore the things to avoid! Students record their narratives into Audacity, import these into IMovie or similar, and then overlay the images they gathered in Phase 1 to produce their movie.


Here are several examples of final projects produced by my Year 9 students at the International School of Toulouse.