Bring Your Lessons to Life with Videos

Take advantage of pupils' fascination with exciting, visual presentations by using movie clips to demonstrate key concepts.

By Barry Nitikman

kids watching movies

Over the years, I have found that using movie and video clips to enhance my instruction has been one of the most effective teaching tools available. Simply put, in an age where children are constantly exposed to visual images, it only makes sense to use video to bring the curriculum alive in a way that promotes full engagement and interest. In the digital age, it is so simple to access video resources that there is no reason not to use this vital tool. Even if your classroom technology is limited, videos are effective for reinforcing concepts and lessons. So, whether you have groups of students rotating to watch a video clip on a laptop screen, or the whole class viewing a movie on a big screen, get creative as to when/how to incorporate video into your curriculum. 


Where to Get Videos

First, let's address the most basic question: Where will I get the videos, movie clips, or feature-length films that I want to use with my class? Start with YouTube. Honestly, almost anything you could ever want is right there, easily available and downloadable. You will not be selling or distributing any resources, so there are no legal concerns. Besides YouTube, there are many online resources. Begin by exploring Lesson Planet, PBS, BrainPOP, and Teacher Tube. Once you get going, you'll start finding other websites with great video resources. Aside from online, you can obtain DVD's from the library or a video store. Your school and/or district office likely has a variety of resources available for classroom use. In order to save time, ask your district or school's media specialist to help you brainstorm resources and to help you obtain them. 

Download Videos for Classroom Use

Here’s how to download videos from YouTube, or any other online source, in the simplest possible way. First, get the latest version of RealPlayer, download it, and install it. This will take you about three minutes. From then on, virtually every time you watch a video or clip anywhere on the Internet, in the top right corner of the clip you’re watching, you’ll see a “Download This Video” flag. You can click on it, and the video will be delivered to your hard drive, ready for use. For the record, there are various other apps that will download videos quickly and easily, but I've found RealPlayer to be the easiest. Note: When you initially set up RealPlayer, you can tell it to put the videos anywhere. Just create a folder and name it something like “Downloaded Videos” or “School Videos,” and you’re set.  

Using Cloud Storage

Use one of the major cloud storage services to store your videos so that they are accessible to you anywhere you have an Internet connection. With cloud storage, after you save the videos at home, they are instantly available at school; no need for carrying around a DVD or a flash drive. Note: I still use a flash drive, or I e-mail shorter videos to myself, but strictly for backup purposes in case the Internet connection fails.

I really like Dropbox for cloud storage. You can have several gigs of data storage in the free version. Google Drive is also a good cloud storage option. It may be the best option for most people because it is part of the Google suite of tools, such as Gmail and Google Calendar. Sign up for Google Drive and you will get 5G’s in the free version. For both of these clouds, you just drag and drop. Do you want to show a movie tomorrow, or have all your Johnny Tremain resources available at school? Drag them into Google Drive or Dropbox and you're ready to go! Especially for video clips and movies, clouds are a must-have.

Let's Get Started

Virtually any subject that you can think of is available on YouTube. Just for fun, try a search for anything you’ll be teaching tomorrow: decimals, multiplying fractions, literary genres, inferences, chemical reactions, etc. If you haven't thought very much about how videos can enhance your lessons, these search results will be eye-opening. With the RealPlayer download feature, you can obtain any of these resources almost instantly.

It is important to note that YouTube videos are of varying quality. Also, once you have your search results, you must check the content for the academic level. The chemical reactions videos you find that are intended for fifth graders are going to be very different than the ones intended for high schoolers. Always watch the video first to make sure it’s a good fit for your class. 

It should go without saying that videos are not a replacement for teaching; they are meant to enhance your lessons, not to replace them. Keep these questions in mind as you plan: Will this video clip make the lesson clearer? Will it help to bring an otherwise dry subject area to life? Will it give my kids a visual example to enhance what we’ve been studying? 

Warning: this should be obvious, but it is so important that I want to make special mention of it here. Don't show a scene from a film without first reviewing it in its entirety! Watch it first; and not just idly have it playing as you check e-mail. Watch it! The highly permissive modern standards allow for quite salty language even in PG movies. However, language is not the only issue. I will never forget the time a first-year teacher showed a British video about gladiators. In the middle of the clip, there was a brief discussion concerning the origins of the word gladiator. The discussion was inappropriate for a classroom, and the teacher escaped infamy only because the British accents meant that certain words weren't pronounced in a way that American kids could understand what was being said. Watch everything first!

Bring Life to Classroom Concepts  

Videos can enhance student interest while simultaneously bringing clarity to educational concepts. Here are a few of the areas where movies can be used to bring concepts to life:

  • Conflict/Resolution  
  • Plot Elements/Story Arc
  • Character Studies  
  • Inferences/Conclusions/Generalizations   
  • Theme/Moral   
  • Chronology/Sequence

Below, you will find some examples of video clips from movies that I have used in the past. Feel free to use these ideas, but the main reason I am listing them is because I know that they will inspire you to think about using scenes from movies to enhance your teaching. You'll probably start thinking right away about all sorts of possibilities!

Note: Some of these clips are from PG–rated movies. I never show anything with profanity or anything that could be considered remotely inappropriate. In some of these clips, I mute the sound for a moment to get past the inappropriate language. The effort to censor is minimal compared to the value of showing the video clips.

October Sky, The Right Stuff, and Apollo 13

I use all three of these for the same presentation when I teach astronomy. The combination of these movies provides an exciting and engaging picture of the space program. It is especially effective for showing NASA's long road to getting rockets to launch successfully without exploding- let alone to take men to the moon. These resources provide a very dramatic sequence to illustrate this point.

I start with the opening scene from October Sky. It is a wonderful, true story about a boy from a coal mining town in Virginia who grew up to be a NASA engineer. The scene, which is very brief, shows the boy riveted, watching the night sky, as Sputnik passes overhead. The scene is very brief, maybe two minutes long. However, be sure to begin after a boy makes a joking comment about fondling a girl. 

Following this clip, I go right to the DVD of The Right Stuff. I use the first scene on the second disk (it’s a two-disc set), which shows the many failed attempts to send off rockets at Cape Canaveral. This clip is about three minutes long; you can find it here. After watching the clip, explain that the men who are featured prominently watching the launch attempts are the astronauts who will one day ride aboard the spaceships. This makes it all the more dramatic when efforts fail, one after the other, in the most spectacular fashion. Students will see gigantic, booming, horrific explosions that will have them oohing and aahing. The final launch attempt ends humorously, providing a moment of relief.

I then segue right to Apollo 13, showing the full launch sequence, which is close to twenty minutes long. I start with the astronauts suiting up, and continue until they are safely in outer space. After seeing so many of the failed attempts, watching a successful launch is both powerful and inspiring.

Quest for Fire

I show this to my class as a vivid presentation of what it would have been like for early man to learn to create fire for himself. There is a scene in the middle of the movie where a member of a tribe that does not know how to create fire, and must keep the current fire alive to survive, meets a man from a tribe that has conquered fire. Thus, he learns how to make a fire. The scene is emotional for the tribesman, who cannot believe what he is seeing. Ron Perlman brilliantly plays this role. Before showing this video clip, I recommend that you discuss with your class the need for mature viewing. Everyone needs to refrain from laughing at the actors' ape-like mannerisms and facial expressions in order to experience the depth and drama of the scene. I assure you that the power of this clip is tremendous if you set it up right.

Note: In its entirety, this film is NOT appropriate for school kids.

1492: Conquest of Paradise

This scene gives a vivid and exciting view of what it was like to be a sailor hundreds of years ago, and for Columbus and crew as they sailed towards San Salvador. The scene, depending on how much you decide to show, starts as they are boarding the ships in Spain and includes several points I want the kids to see:

  • The excitement and drama of their leaving.   
  • The difficulties and tensions aboard the ships as the sailors start to believe they are lost. They are terrified and mutinous.   
  • Columbus inspiring them to continue.   
  • The ecstatic initial sighting of land and the subsequent landing and claiming of the land for Spain.   
  • Their inland march and initial contact with the Taino. I end the scene when the chief of the Taino erupts in laughter.

All of this takes about twenty minutes. There is no other way to get across the sheer drama of the whole adventure, and also what it was like to be a sailor in the fifteenth century. I make the point that these sailors are claiming land which does not belong to them. Also, that they brought disease and ruin to the native tribes, and that they considered the natives to be less human than themselves. The purpose of the video is to convey the drama and realism of exploration.

Note: There are two inappropriate things that you will need to mute the sound on very briefly. One is where a sailor comments about what he thinks the sea smells like. Later on, one of Columbus’ captains mutters that he is a lucky ---. I just lower the sound for a split second. However, if you use a screen capture program to record the scene, you can fix these two elements for good.

Jurassic Park – The T-Rex Scene

This is a great example of inference. I emphasize that in writing, an author uses inference to make the action more vivid in order to increase the emotional effect on the reader. I want my pupils to learn to use inference to add excitement and power to their writing. In general, it is usually much more effective to cause readers to infer something, than it is to just come right out and say it. We discuss many literary examples, and then I show them a couple of clips which illustrate this idea.

In this scene, the kids are sitting in the car, in the rain. They experience the impact tremors, knowing something is approaching. The tension builds as the characters grow more anxious and afraid. My point is that the director (Spielberg) chooses to show the approach of the T-Rex in a more subtle way than just having him show up and attack the kids. The tension is palpable, and it builds because of the subtle inference that something is making the puddles shake. We can’t see it, but because the gate is de-electrified, the sheep have been eaten, and there are agonizingly slow, deep, water-shaking thuds, we can infer that a T-Rex is on the way. After this, of course, I can’t possibly not at least show some of the actual attack. I usually stop right after the man on the john is taken. It is a moment of comic relief in an otherwise relentless, action-filled sequence which can be a little scary for some viewers. I would not show this to kids below fifth grade. If you have any doubts, check with parents prior to showing this clip. (Over the years, a few kids have chosen not to watch this clip, which is fine.) 

Saving Private Ryan 

This powerful and disturbing Spielberg film is unequivocally inappropriate for students to watch (even high schoolers). However, this one clip is appropriate for demonstrating inference. It is the section where a mother receives the terribly sad news that three of her sons were killed on D-Day. First, we talk about how death notification was carried out: a black official car shows up at your house, and you know that it can be only one thing, the death of your loved one. The scene is beautifully done. If you set it up properly, the kids will be stunned and very sober after viewing it. Everything is inferred, causing the audience to mentally fill in the details, which is quite powerful.

Note: End the scene immediately after the mother sinks to her knees and is comforted by the priest because profanity comes just as the next scene begins.

Spinal Tap 

This Rob Reiner film is full of wildly inappropriate material that would cost you your teaching position if you showed it to your class. However, if you can just capture one memorable scene, it can make one point in a hilarious and forceful way: the importance of accuracy in using math symbols. There is a scene where the characters (a mythical heavy metal band) are working with a set designer to create a model of Stonehenge for a stage show à la 1980s stadium rock. They give her a design indicating inches instead of feet. Needless to say, the results are embarrassing and hilarious. The scene is immediately followed by loud profanity, so either screen capture it, or don't use it in your classroom.

Eyes on the Prize and Similar Films

For MLK Day, or for any time when you are teaching about the civil rights movement, there is no more powerful and shocking way to make your class aware of the evils of the Jim Crow laws, than to show actual, graphic footage from that dramatic time. I show a variety of scenes, making sure that they see "white” and “colored” drinking fountains, train stations, restaurants, etc. I also show the classic footage of police dogs attacking protestors, and George Wallace standing on the school steps to deny entrance to black children. I want the class to be shocked, offended, and sobered by what they see. They should feel the injustice in a palpable way.

YouTube is full of these scenes. If you want to watch a quality film in its entirety, there are several, including Eyes on The Prize.  I also highly recommend Ruby Bridges, a terrific film about the girl who was the first black pupil at a formerly all-white elementary school in New Orleans. This is a very inspiring and dramatic story.

I encourage you to start using videos whenever appropriate, and also to think creatively as to how you can use scenes from movies to make your lessons even more exciting and meaningful for your kids. Once you begin, you will constantly find more clips to use, sometimes when you least expect it!