Film and Digital Storytelling for History Classrooms

As a professor of history, I am generally more inclined to show film clips from documentaries (occasionally showing one in its entirety) than I am to show feature films. My favorites for women’s history courses are A Midwife’s Tale, The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter, and No más Bebés. For my U.S. History survey, I have used Ken Burns’s documentaries on women’s history and the Civil War, Ishi the Last Yahi, Atomic Café, and Berkeley in the Sixties. None of these are without flaws, but issues in the films can become jumping-off points for discussions about the construction of knowledge.

However, the Teaching and Learning History in the Digital Age readings and videos made me think more deeply about feature films.  I have shied away from using them because they so often have inaccuracies for the sake of the plot and because they fictionalize character traits to create familiarity. For example, James Deutsch criticizes “Hidden Figures” because he is troubled by the “chronological discrepancies of key events, which Hollywood filmmakers deliberately commit to streamline their plots.” But being able to unpack these inaccuracies is a really important tool that students should learn. They will be watching historical films, and it is important that we help them think through the choices directors make and don’t just label films as good or bad. As author Tim O’Brien has argued, “fiction is the lie that helps us understand the truth.” Ideally, filmmakers do not make up events and chronology, but we do expect them to interpret. Composite characters and actions attributed to a historical figure may be within the realm of the director’s interpretation of their character.  After all, films today need dialogue.[1]

Digital storytelling can also add to history education. Not only does its incorporation via websites and films enhance the classroom learning of visual learners, but it can enhance learning if we ask our students to create digital projects. As Kelly Shrum notes, having students produce short documentaries “changed their thinking about their topics, as well as about the nature of producing knowledge.” The process forced them to “examine their purpose, intended audience, main point, and narrative arc.”[2] When students write a 500-word essay for the instructor alone, they rarely consider the selection of evidence and the narrative arc as significant beyond their grade.

Moreover, as Lendol Calder writes, if history can be a “form of moral inquiry,” there is no better tool than storytelling.[3] Storytelling allows students to inhabit the position of another person and empathize with their context. Storytelling helps us consider what options were available and what structural limits individuals faced.

[1] James I. Deutsch, “Hidden Figures” Journal of American History Volume 105, Issue 1, June 2018, Pages 232–233,; Natalie Zemon Davis, “Film as Historical Narrative,” In Slaves on Screen: film and historical vision (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000). 

[2] Kelly Schrum, “A tale of two goldfish bowls . . . Or what’s right with digital storytelling,” In D. Cohen & T. Scheinfeldt (Eds.) Hacking the Academy: A book crowdsourced in one week (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2012). 

[3] InterVarsity Alum: Dr. Lendol Calder on “Uncoverage” (2011) at

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