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If you teach Latin America, you should know that the Consortium on Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University has a film library with more than five hundred movies—documentaries and feature films—for North Carolina teachers to borrow free of charge. These films make social studies concepts come to life by offering a direct view into the sights and sounds of life in Latin America.

Showing a movie in class may seem like a “break,” but teachers know that the power of film can be a “break-through” for students. The key is in connections to instruction, good preparation, and follow-up.

How can you use films to bring home the realities of Latin American life and culture? Here are some ideas for making a film from the Latin American film library a true part of your instruction.

Introduce the theme before you introduce the film

To make the most of viewing a film, introduce students to the themes in instruction, so you can explain and provide context before you view the film together. Connect with the themes not just in your planning, but in your teaching. Let students know explicitly and in detail just what you want them to watch and listen for. Tell them how their viewing will link to their learning. If there are terms and concepts that may be new to students, give them a thorough grounding in their meaning.

The Consortium’s curriculum to accompany the film Life and Debt is a good example of careful preparation for viewing. Before seeing the film, students learn about the mission of the International Monetary Fund and analyze the meaning of economic terms describing the challenges of the developing world, so that they have an understanding of the root causes of the poverty they will be seeing. To keep students on track during viewing, the curriculum offers guiding questions to answer.

Film, especially documentary film, is powerful and immediate. We see people affected (and sometimes afflicted) by forces we may have known only in the abstract (for example, poverty in Life and Debt or the realities of emigration in Letters from the Other Side). Suddenly the consequences of these forces are brought to life for us, made present through individuals we can see and hear. Preparation and context help students to process these images as part of their learning. In fact, many conventional reading strategies work well, with some adaptations, for pre-viewing a film.

K-W-L works for viewing as well as reading

For most films, the standard K-W-L (“what I know, what I want to know, what I learned”) graphic organizer for reading makes a good framing device. This gives students a chance to put into words what they bring to the film, what they expect from the experience of viewing, and then, afterwards, what new information or insights they achieved. If students are already completing K-W-L organizers for reading, they’ll be familiar with the process. It will also give the message from you that viewing the film will be just as important a part of their learning as assigned reading.

The Consortium library’s Letters from the Other Side offers a poignant view of post-NAFTA Mexico, and the impact of immigration on families on both sides of the border. To prepare for viewing, students should write down what they know of NAFTA and immigration — as sketchy as it may be at that point — and then push themselves to formalize questions for viewing. Teachers can combine these for the whole class, pooling knowledge and exploratory questions, before the class views the film.

The “what I learned” section provides a solid post-viewing assessment. And, to keep the learning going forward, students can re-visit and update their “what I know” notes, and add to their “what I want to know” questions. The final discussion can focus on just how students can learn more about the themes presented in the film.

Making predictions

Even very young students can prepare for a film by predicting what they will see and learn about. To get kindergartners ready for Cinco de Mayo, you might begin by asking students what they know about the holiday already and what they expect to see in the film. When they make their predictions in informal writing or in drawings, students form some basic anticipations, which gives them a context for viewing.

Most students know very little about Cinco de Mayo, apart from what they see at the grocery store or on television. But even if their predictions reflect the simplest, most commercial view of Cinco de Mayo, it’s a beginning. Do they say that Cinco de Mayo is Mexican Independence Day? That it’s the most important day of the year in Mexico? Make notes without comment. Now you’ve set up an opportunity to test their assumptions. Will their predictions come true, or will they see and learn things they hadn’t even thought of?

After viewing, young students can discuss what they saw that surprised them, and why they were surprised. The post-viewing is an opportunity for assessment, as well as a springboard for more exploration. Just as more experienced students update their K-W-L charts, young children can decide how they want to continue their cultural learning.

Asking essential questions

Every film, documentary or feature, brings up and addresses essential questions about life and the world. What kind of pressure does international debt bring to the lives of ordinary people? How has NAFTA affected families? Why do we celebrate cultural holidays?

A good post-viewing activity is to challenge students to answer specifically and in writing the essential question from the various points of view offered in the film. After viewing Life and Debt, for example, students might frame the essential question as “What is the best way to support developing nations?” and answer it from the point of view of IMF’s officials and Haitian farmers, noting the reasons for the difference in perspective. And, after thoughtful study and viewing, students can add their own answers to the essential question. That response could be the springboard for developing a wider project on debt in the world economy.

Building on learning

When the film is over and you turn the lights back on, be sure to continue the learning through discussion and writing, as well as other projects. At first, especially if the film is emotionally engaging, students will need to respond informally, sharing their surprise or outrage. Let them express their reactions, but be ready to turn their energy and engagement to further learning.

While interest is high and memory is fresh, students should note not only what they’ve learned from the film, but what questions remain for them. A class list of further questions to explore can give form and immediacy to a return to the “regular” instruction through reading. Those questions can light students’ way back into the textbook chapter, and give them a reason for digging through data.

Some films inspire students to action, as well as further study. Encourage students to research organizations addressing the political or economic problems they’ve been studying. Make arrangements for representatives from reputable non-profits to come to the class and speak about the issue and possible solutions. The Consortium is a good source for speakers about Latin American challenges and culture.

The Latin American Film Library

The Consortium’s Film Library offers films for viewing at all levels — from kindergarten through adult learners. You can search for a film by country (“Mexico” or “Honduras”), by keywords (“immigration” or “Cinco de Mayo”), feature or documentary, and language (Spanish, Portuguese, and many indigenous languages with English subtitles, or English). A separate K-12 recommended films list notes what level (elementary, secondary, or both) would benefit most from viewing.

The Consortium also offers specific guides for teaching over forty individual films, from brief (ten-minute) documentaries to full-length classic feature films. Some guides offer pre-viewing and post-viewing activities as well as a class project linked to the themes of the film.

To explore the film database, go to the Consortium web site and click on “Film Collection.” North Carolina teachers can order films free of charge, if picked up. If you have any questions about a particular film, you can call the Consortium at 919-843-8888. Here are some guidelines for borrowing:

  1. The Consortium encourages teachers to place their requests at least two weeks before the desired show date to ensure that items will be available.
  2. You can pick up films at the office, or have them send to you via FedEx. Borrowers are responsible for the cost of return shipment.
  3. You can borrow a film for three days if you pick it up, or for seven days after you receive it by mail. If you need to borrow the film for a longer time, you can request permission for an extension.

For more information, go to How to Borrow from the Resource Library on the Consortium’s web site.