Movies have taught me so much about the history of the United States and the world. It was “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” that educated me on the real-life effects of the military drafts during the Vietnam War. “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” taught me how Germans and Jews lived in Nazi Germany. The film “The Impossible” showed me the devastating consequences of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Southeast Asia.
I’ve been raised in a culture that celebrates motion pictures but fails to deploy their power in classrooms. By including movies in history class, teachers could accommodate students of different learning styles, increase engagement and create a welcoming environment.
During the pandemic lockdown, I watched the movie “Spotlight,” which details The Boston Globe’s investigation of the Boston priests accused of child sex abuse. I was immediately enthralled by the film’s ability to highlight the history of journalism and power of the media. The actors brought national attention to their characters’ experiences and allowed viewers like me to learn about this investigation for the first time.
I am grateful for my education, but the schools I attended in my Vietnamese-American childhood in Queens lacked the materials to help me visualize what’s happened throughout history.
I’ve been raised in a culture that celebrates motion pictures but fails to deploy their power in classrooms.
The written and printed texts we were exposed to made the learning process uninteresting for many students. By limiting every historical event to the margins of a page, we were more likely to annotate individual lines than grasp the significance of past events.
That’s led me to wonder: Why read a speech from a protest when you can listen to it straight from the cinema?
For visual learners, films can be the best way to retain information on a certain topic; they are especially valuable if they include footage from real events. For textual learners, the use of films deepens our understanding by allowing us to consider history from a multitude of perspectives. For many of us, films push us to contemplate the harsh realities our communities have faced.
As an advocate for educational equity, I believe we need to uplift stories that have been silenced throughout history; we can do this by showcasing them in a variety of media, especially film.
Movies like “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” highlight the stories of changemakers who brought radical transformations to their communities but have not been recognized for their hard work by most of the American public. Movies like “Minari” and “The Hate U Give” illustrate the wider struggles our most marginalized communities endure. Each of these movies teaches us something new about the lives of people from historically disadvantaged groups and encourages us to advocate for greater change.
Related: What do classroom conversations about race, identity and history really look like?
Scientific research also backs up the benefits of including films in history education. A research study from the Academic Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies found that moving images, by attracting students’ attention, aid retention.
In my experience, using more films in the history classroom raises students’ engagement, participation and understanding of historical concepts.
In the future, I hope that our history courses will incorporate more films and find a better balance between movies and texts in our day-to-day lessons. Doing so will create more welcoming and accessible classrooms to students most impacted by inequality.
William Diep is a rising sophomore at Columbia University studying history and American studies and a graduate of the New York City public school system.
This piece about films and education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.