Strategy Share: Exploring the World Through Documentary Filmmaking

The following post was written by 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Bryan Johnson, a fifth-grade teacher from Tacoma, Washington, after his expedition to Galápagos. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship is a professional development opportunity for pre-K–12 educators made possible by a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.

Bryan gathers footage for his students while on his expedition as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow. Photo by Ian Devlin

I recently found myself face-to-face with a giant tortoise.

I was filming his eating behaviors in a field on Santa Cruz Island in the Galápagos Islands—not for a nature show, but for a group of 10-year-olds.

Months before, when I learned that I was selected as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow for National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions, I began to look for a way to engage my fifth-graders in the experience. What I discovered was a strategy that intrinsically motivates students, providing them opportunities for meaningful learning and a powerful way to share their knowledge. It is also a strategy that any teacher can put into practice, whether they are going on an expedition or not.

Documentary Filmmaking for the Classroom

Filmmaking may sound like an activity for older students, requiring a specialized teacher and expensive equipment. However, current technology has put this medium at our fingertips in ways that elementary-aged kids can access.

If your school doesn’t have iPads or tablets, then your students are probably bringing miniature versions in their pockets. Between the camera features and editing software that come standard on most portable devices, students have everything they need to share their thoughts and their learning in video form.

In our media-rich world, this skill is useful. In our students’ future world, it may be necessary.

Step 1: Pre-Learning

Before students get into the act of documentary filmmaking, deep pre-learning is required.

In my class, we immersed ourselves in books, maps, websites, and videos about the Galápagos Islands. We asked questions, found answers, and then developed deeper questions. Students gradually formed specific interests and made small groups to specialize their focus.

These focus groups led to my “expedition assignments,” which were the questions I should ask and images I should capture. The same process works if you are not going on an expedition.

Regardless of the subject matter, before students can start gathering images and information for a documentary, they must know their subject well and focus their inquiry. Without focused questions, a documentary film will feel lost.

Step 2: Production

With focused questions in hand, it’s time to start answering them.

I was able to interview Galápagos naturalists using the questions written by my students. Their answers guided me to the photos and video that I captured during excursions. On my return, I handed my students the footage, and they conducted research online and in books to confirm and support the answers given.

Your students don’t need you to fly to remote locations, though.

Can their questions be answered by local specialists? Set up interviews.

Are there organizations or individuals that students can contact by email? By going to the source, student learning is a more authentic experience.

If the topics of your students’ documentaries are local, such as a nearby watershed or community nonprofit, they might be able to gather their footage first-hand.

Or, to make a documentary of the history of your school, filmmakers won’t even need to leave the building!

Bryan’s students edit a film. Photo by Bryan Johnson

Step 3: Scriptwriting

Next, students should look for connections within the gathered information.

How can they convey their knowledge in a way that feels more like a story than a string of related information? We used a two-column format, with one side scripting the narration and the other side planning the visuals to support it.

The narration must be clear and succinct, something that is hard to teach students when writing reports, but easier with documentary films. Students understand that their audience does not want to hear rambling details. Show them excerpts from professional documentarians such as Ken Burns or David Attenborough, taking notes on the focus and purposeful use of words. The supporting images, whether still or video, should always complement the narration in ways that build the viewers’ understanding.

Students can record their narration as voiceovers directly into the editing app (we used iMovie, which comes standard on most iPads), or they can use a sound recording app such as Garage Band or Voice Memos. To increase interest and fun for students (and their audience), try adding green screen scenes. With a $3 app and some green fabric, this technology allows students to be “on location” and able to interact with their visuals.

Step 4: Post-Production

The final editing process can be deeply collaborative, with much discussion between teammates about what to keep and what to cut. Watching these interactions led me to understand one of the biggest benefits of student filmmaking: awareness of audience. When students produce a research paper, they are writing for their teacher. When students produce video, their audience can be large, diverse, and important to them.

Before starting this project, students knew that their films would be shown at an all-school assembly, an evening community screening, and on YouTube for years to come. I didn’t have to say much more to keep the audience on their minds throughout their work. Their purpose quickly became to entertain and inform that audience, and the motivation to do so seemed unending. They were not doing this for me, and that was the point.

Step 5: Showtime

When their films premiered to an auditorium full of enthralled elementary school students, my students felt a sense of accomplishment—not just for all that they learned, but for what they had taught others. I knew that my students gained skills for using technology to create rather than just to consume. Even if some of them never use filmmaking to tell their stories again, it was clear that the experience was empowering and the learning was deep. As the credits were rolling, I was already getting excited for the possibilities of future filmmaking in my classroom.

Educators: Learn more about Bryan’s filmmaking project here

Lindblad and NGS

The Strategy Share series features innovative teaching ideas developed by Grosvenor Teacher Fellows following their field-based experiences on voyages with Lindblad Expeditions.

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