I love documentaries. They can be wonderful texts to teach from. We finished watching Michael Wood’s “In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great”. The students and I all took Cornell Notes while we watched. Although I preview all videos before I show them, I find that if I am taking notes with students I can model the process more effectively, I can remember better what I told them was important, and I slow myself down. We took about three pages of notes for the four episodes.
I only allowed “clarification” questions during the showing of the film. This was to help students focus on what they wanted to write for their note. Any other question, comment, or anecdote needed to be written down separately from their notes and wait until the end of class to be expressed. This was very hard on all of us, but it made the film go so much faster. It also required students to decide if their comment was worth the bother.(Including me.)
The film concluded and students felt they had a pretty good grasp of who this guy was and how he changed the world. Then, I showed them a National Geographic documentary responding to Oliver Stone’s movie. Wow. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Students were in an uproar about what they weren’t being told. They howled when the film gave the battle of the Persian Gates a complete miss, and when it neglected to tell them which of the many ancient biographers the film was referencing. They were frustrated by the actors, the music, and the sensationalism. They felt that the film had a clear bias, and one they might not have recognized if they hadn’t done other research.
We talked about the danger of superlatives and how they often convey bias. We also talked about how they often co-opt meaning for the viewer. People who are not paying attention can easily buy into words like “greatest”, “biggest”, “most flatulent”. I’m glad my students are beginning to see bias and are reading documentaries at a much higher level.