General Lesson Plan for Documentary Lens

By Maryrose O'Neill
Educational Editorial Consultant

The Documentary Lens Web site <> offers a wide array of supplementary teaching and learning material. The lessons and Teacher's Guide were written by Canadian educators across the country to help students achieve their curricular outcomes and develop their inquiry, critical and creative thinking, decision making, citizenship, research, and communications skills and competencies. Documentary Lens will also help students explore how media portrayals of reality affect their perceptions and influence their judgments about current issues.

We know that teachers are looking for resources that will help elementary and high school students understand the essential concepts and abiding questions in current Canadian curricula. We believe that the Documentary Lens Web site will help your students achieve those goals and, at the same time, learn to appreciate multiple perspectives from different times, worldviews and vantage points.

The purpose of this Introducing Documentary Lens lesson is to offer some suggestions to introduce your students to documentary films in general and to some of the elements of the Web site.

Curriculum Connections

Because the films, Teacher's Guide and lessons at Documentary Lens are particularly relevant for the new Canadian Social Studies, Social Sciences and History curricula, there is a focus on those disciplines. However, many of the films and lessons have strong cross-curricular connections to Arts, Language Arts and Media Studies.

Lesson Objectives

This lesson may be adapted for different grade levels. It is designed to introduce students to documentary films and to some of the historical and current issues that are raised in the Documentary Lens collection.

To access their prior knowledge, students list and then use inquiry questions to explore aspects of the documentaries they have seen in movie theatres, on television and at school. Students then review the core concepts and key questions of media literacy and analyze some of the elements and techniques available to documentary filmmakers. Finally, there are suggestions for strategies you might want to use when presenting documentaries in class: having students take purposeful notes, pausing the film for discussion of focused questions, and using the Library Tool available at the Documentary Lens site.

Canadian Social Studies Key Themes in Documentary Lens Films

The following chart offers a sampling of inquiry questions you can use with Documentary Lens films to explore key themes or concepts of the current Canadian Socials Studies and Social Sciences courses. For each of the themes, we also offer suggested links to the different categories of films in the collection.

Theme/Strand/Key Concept Connection to Documentary Lens FilmsApplications and Discussion Points
Multiple Perspectives
  • What is the subject of this film? What do you think is the filmmaker's perspective on this subject? What content choices and film techniques has the filmmaker used to convey his or her perspective?
  • How does this film help you analyze and interpret points of view about issues that concerned people in the past? How might your analysis help you understand different points of view on issues in your own community?
  • Does the filmmaker's perspective foster respect for diversity and an inclusive society? If so, how? If not, how might the film have been changed in order to achieve this effect?

Possible Documentary Lens categories: Aboriginal Perspectives; Art, Culture and Recreation; Politics and History; Social Issues and the Economy.

  • Whose story is told in this documentary? Whose story is not told? How does this story-and the way it is told-help you understand the diversity of Canadian experiences and identities?
  • How do the people in this film identify with their community? What are the common bonds among the people in this film? What challenges do they face in expressing their identity?
  • What film techniques does the filmmaker use to convey the identity of the people in this film?

Possible Documentary Lens categories: Aboriginal Perspectives; Art, Culture and Recreation; Cultural Diversity; Social Issues and the Economy; War and Peace.

  • What insights does this documentary offer about the ideals of good citizenship in the community depicted in this film?
  • How does the film deal with issues of freedom, equality, human dignity, justice, rule of law and individual and collective rights and responsibilities?
  • How does this film help you understand citizenship issues that face you as a citizen of your community, your nation, and the world?

Possible Documentary Lens categories: Aboriginal Perspectives; Politics and History; Social Issues and the Economy; Science, Environment and Health; War and Peace.

Change and Continuity
  • When was this film made? What is its historical context? What is different about the society depicted in this film and your society today? What is similar?
  • How does this film help you understand a community's values and its attitudes towards a particular issue at a particular point in time?
  • What changes do the people in the film experience? What causes those changes? What are the consequences of those changes for the people in the documentary?

Possible Documentary Lens categories: Aboriginal Perspectives; Politics and History; Science, Environment and Health; War and Peace.

Culture and Community
  • Which aspects of a people's culture does this film focus on? Why do you think the filmmaker focused on those aspects?
  • How do the images, themes and message of this film help you understand the filmmaker's attitude towards the subject? What do you think might have been the intended audience's attitude towards the documentary subject?

Possible Documentary Lens categories: Aboriginal Perspectives; Art, Culture and Recreation; Cultural Diversity; Politics and History; Social Issues and the Economy.

The Land: Places and People
  • What are the physical characteristics of the places in this documentary? What are the human characteristics of those places? How have physical and human characteristics shaped these places?
  • What challenges do the people in this film face in their environment? How do they use the natural and built resources in their community?
  • How have the culture and experience of the people in this documentary influenced their perceptions of these places?

Possible Documentary Lens categories: Aboriginal Perspectives; Politics and History; Social Issues and the Economy; Science, Environment and Health; War and Peace.

Individuals, Societies and Economic Decisions
  • What economic systems are at work in this film? What are some of the causes and effects of the economic decisions made by the people in the film's community?
  • How does this documentary present the interdependence of people and their natural resources?

Possible Documentary Lens categories: Politics and History; Social Issues and the Economy; Science, Environment and Health.

Power and Governance
  • What system of government control is in evidence in this documentary? How is power distributed within this society? What are the implications of that distribution on issues affecting the people's well-being and freedom?
  • What political and social governance challenges do the people in the documentary face? Who makes the decisions that affect the lives of these people? What challenges do the people face as a result of those decisions?

Possible Documentary Lens categories: Aboriginal Perspectives; Politics and History; Social Issues and the Economy; War and Peace

Global Connections
  • How does this documentary demonstrate an understanding of global interdependence among Earth's peoples? How might the message of the film help foster global awareness and citizenship?
  • What global issues are addressed in this film? What is the filmmaker's point of view on the opportunities and challenges of those issues?

Possible Documentary Lens categories: Art, Culture and Recreation; Cultural Diversity; Politics and History; Science, Environment and Health; War and Peace

Suggested Resources

  • Behind the Camera (from the Documentary Lens Web site): an interactive online article that uses excerpts from the Documentary Lens films and interviews with filmmakers to demonstrate the purpose, history, modes and techniques of documentary films.
  • Teacher's Guide to Behind the Camera (available through the "Teachers" link on the Behind the Camera pages): notes and activities to help students understand the process that documentary filmmakers go through and to give students tools to analyze documentary films as media portrayals of reality.
  • Teacher's Guides to Documentary Lens Themes (from the "Teachers" section of each Documentary Lens theme): discussion questions for the films in each of the thematic categories: Aboriginal Perspectives; Arts; Culture and Recreation; Cultural Diversity; Politics and History; Science, Environment and Health; Social Issues and the Economy; and War and Peace.
  • The Center for Media Literacy (an American non-profit educational organization that promotes media literacy, headquartered in Los Angeles):
  • Media Awareness Network (a Canadian non-profit organization that develops media literacy programs for young people):

Introductory Activities

You may wish to incorporate sections of the Behind the Camera online article as part of these introductory activities. "What is a Documentary?" and "The ABCs of Documentary Cinema" are useful for students unfamiliar with documentary film. As students learn to appreciate the challenges and planning that go into making such films, they will be able to use these rich learning resources to develop their inquiry and critical thinking skills.

Activity 1: What is a documentary?

Step 1 Explain that documentary films are created to educate audiences. In general, they share one or more of the following goals:

  • To document a subject in order to preserve knowledge.
  • To reveal something about the subject of the film.
  • To allow the viewer to experience what it's like to be the subject (whether the subject is an airplane pilot in World War II or an artist creating a snow sculpture in the Canadian shield).
  • To advocate on behalf of the subject.

(Adapted from Behind the Camera, from comments by Dave Douglas on the NFB Web site XS Stress: Teens Take Control.)

Step 2 John Grierson, the founder of the National Film Board, said that documentary films demonstrate the "creative treatment of actuality."

Ask students to think about Grierson's description as they list some of the documentary films that they have seen on TV, in movies and in school. For example, students may have seen documentaries in Social Studies, Science, Health, Art or Language Arts classes. Ask each person to think of one memorable documentary and write brief notes in response to these questions:

  • What aspects of the "real" world were shown in your memorable documentary?
  • How might Grierson's description of documentaries as "creative treatments of actuality" help explain the impact the film had on you?

Step 3 Another appeal of documentary films is that they invite viewers into worlds and communities they may not know. Ask students:

  • What are some of these unfamiliar worlds that you have participated in through documentary films?
  • How did filmmakers present those worlds in such a way that you could understand the film's subjects?
  • What were some of the viewpoints that filmmakers presented of those worlds?

Activity 2: Documentary film and media literacy

Depending on your students' degree of media literacy, you may want to introduce documentary films by reviewing the core concepts and key questions of media awareness. Students could be asked to respond to the key questions as they relate to a particular documentary that you are using in class. The following list of key concepts and questions is from the Center for Media Literacy (see Resources bellow).

1. All media messages are constructed. 1. Who created this message?
2. Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules. 2. What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
3. Different people experience the same messages differently. 3. How might different people understand this message differently from me?
4. Media have embedded values and points of view. 4. What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?
5. Media messages are organized to gain profit and/or power. 5. Why is this message being sent?

Activity 3: What goes into making a documentary?

Within the documentary medium, filmmakers make artistic choices to help them get their message across to their audience. Throughout the Documentary Lens lessons, there are many activities that will help students critically analyze these choices.

You may find the following questions useful:

  • Does the film use a narrator? If so, what role does the narrator play? What attitude does he or she take to the subject? How does this attitude contribute to the film's overall message?
  • If there is no narrator, who are the speakers in the film? What forms of interviewing or other techniques are used to introduce these speakers? What perspectives do the speakers present to the audience?
  • Is the filmmaker a character within the film? If so, what role does he or she play? What attitudes, worldview, and perspective does the filmmaker reveal? How does this role help clarify the film's message?
  • What does this documentary reveal about the world? How does the filmmaker help the audience experience the world with new eyes?
  • What story is told in the film? What script is used? How has the editing of the film affected its final message?
  • What kind of camera shots-for example, wide shot, long shot, close-ups-are used? How does the choice of shots advance the story in the film? How do these choices help the filmmaker get across the message?
  • What sounds are used in the film? What dialogue, music, voice-overs, commentary, and sound effects? What purpose do they serve?

Activity 4: Watching documentary films with a purpose

Taking Notes To keep students focused on the specific curricular purpose for which you are showing a documentary, you may want to have them take notes that tie in with general or specific outcomes related to your course. You can direct students' attention to the understandings, attitudes, or skills that you want them to take away from the learning experience.

For example, the second activity in the Documentary Lens lesson on César's Bark Canoe asks students to list the materials, technologies and skills that they think a person would need to have to build a canoe. Students do the third activity while they watch the film: they work in groups of three to track a) the materials César Newashish uses to build his canoe, b) the tools and technologies he uses, and c) the skills that he demonstrates during the process shown in the film. Students use a worksheet (appended to the lesson) to organize their tracking notes.

Pausing the film Another learning strategy is to pause the film at particular points to discuss aspects of the film that are the focus of the class activity. For example, in the Film Analysis activity of the lesson for Winds of Fogo, it is suggested that the teacher pause the film to point out important media images and to replay relevant passages of the film. At the same time, students use a Worksheet for Media Analysis to answer questions about media agencies, categories, technologies, languages and audiences related to the documentary.

Activity 5: Using Documentary Lens tools

As an introduction to the use of documentary films in you classroom, you might have your students view excerpts from different films related to the curricular fundamental concepts or themes and skills development in your particular course of studies. (Viewers may watch either excerpts or the entire film at the Documentary Lens site.)

Step 1 The Library Tool of Documentary Lens allows you to create a collection of film clips or excerpts in the site's online collection. For example, in a high school 20th century Canadian social studies or history course, your students are to develop their critical and creative thinking skills or competencies as they explore social, political and media perspectives on historical events. Using the Library Tool, you could gather together a series of film clips from World War II NFB documentaries.

  • From the "War and Peace" category, you could collect excerpts from Heroes of the Atlantic (1941), The War for Men's Minds (1943) and Proudly She Marches (1943).
  • From the "Social Issues and the Economy" category, you could add an excerpt from Home Front (1940).
  • From the "Politics and History" collection, you could add an excerpt from Voice of Action (1940).

Step 2 To help students focus on specific curricular goals and outcomes, you could give them a list of questions to respond to as they watch the excerpts from NFB documentaries made during World War II. For example,

  • How might Canadian public opinion in the early 1940s have been shaped by these NFB documentaries?
  • Who were the audiences for these films? Where would these audiences have watched the films?
  • Whose stories were told in these documentaries? Whose stories were not told?
  • What indications do you get that the makers of these films were trying to achieve a specific purpose? What persuasive verbal and visual techniques did the filmmakers use?

Notes: Before they view the excerpts in this activity, students may need some background and context on the films. You could either read students the synopsis that is available in the About the Film link, or you could cut and paste this text to make student handouts.

Also, please note that the directions for creating libraries of film excerpts are available at the Library Tool page of Documentary Lens.

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