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Video Time Machine Engages Students, Energizes Curriculum

Voice of ExperienceTeacher Max Fischer uses his video time machine -- a VCR with snippets of movies that offer teachable moments -- to bring Ancient Rome and other parts of his history curriculum to life. Included: Guidelines for selecting worthy video clips.

Max W. Fischer
The classroom was in rapt attention as Daniel Day Lewis's character, "Hawkeye," maneuvered in and out of hand-to-hand Algonquin and English combatants. At that moment, the French and Indian War being reenacted before those students' eyes was as real as today's headlines. The cinematic depiction of the British retreat from Fort William Henry in 1757 that I referred to as a "time machine clip," transformed the staid textbook presentation of the Anglo-French struggle for empire into a mesmerizing event. That clip from the 1992 movie The Last of the Mohicans forever changed the way I taught history.

Ironically, it was that James Fennimore Cooper novel that ignited a love of history in me when I was a child.

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As a history teacher, I have learned that the optimized use of short cinematic "snippets" highly engages students in the topic/concept at hand. Such snippets are great motivators; they capitalize on students' visual/spatial intelligence as they give students a sense of actually being involved in a variety of historical events.

Clips from the time machine are versatile too. They can dramatically hammer home previously discussed points, or they can function as an anticipatory set to draw students into an upcoming topic.


In a recent unit on the rise of the Roman republic, I used several videos to dramatic advantage.

  • After discussing the social structure of Roman culture and how plebeians were forbidden to marry aristocrats, I played a 3-minute clip from The Little Mermaid. The Little Mermaid and Ancient Rome?!?!?!? The three minutes I selected revolved around Ariel's father, King Trident, finding out about Ariel's rescue of -- and subsequent feelings for -- a human. King Trident rages about how humans are ". . . spineless, rotten, fish eaters." The scene, even though a fantasy, epitomizes the chasm between two classes of society. I could have used a scene from West Side Story or Footloose or other films based on the "Romeo and Juliet" plot of love denied. I reasoned, however, that the novelty of the animated video and the students' attachment to it in their younger years made it the best choice.

  • Later I used an 8-minute clip from the 1960 extravaganza Spartacus. In that classic film, two Roman legions are methodically deployed on the field of battle before the climatic clash that crushed the slave rebellion of 70 B.C. The scene I chose highlighted our discussion of the Roman military organization of disciplined legionnaires, their standard unit of legions, and their ability to engage in individual combat (unlike that of the Greek phalanx).

  • As an anticipatory set, I used a 7-minute clip from the legal drama A Civil Action, with John Travolta. Travolta's character, a lawyer, dismisses a suburban Boston's mother plea to bring suit against several area businesses suspected of leaking toxic chemicals into the local water supply. His interest is piqued, however, when he decides to investigate the stream on the edge of town and finds direct-source pollution in the form of hazardous effluent being discharged into the stream from a tannery. That clip set the stage for our introductory lesson of forms of modern water pollution as contrasted to those in ancient cultures.

I teach history, but the movie snippet can be used in most any subject area. With the assistance of readily available guides, a teacher is likely to find a movie that dovetails appropriately with most any topic. VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever (Visible Ink, Detroit) is an annually produced reference that categorizes all movies ever made into their various subject matter. Buying a used edition is an economical way to access the lion's share of movies listed. Recently, online sites have been developed to offer a similar service. allows a free search for movies, by category, while offers, for a relatively modest fee, instructional guides to accompany many movies.


Copyright Law
And Video Clip Use

The Copyright Revision Act of 1976 allows that...

The "fair use" of a copyrighted work, including copying for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether any given use is "fair," a court is required to consider the four non-exclusive factors listed in Section 107 of the 1976 Copyright Act:

* The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit education purposes;

* The nature of the copyrighted work (whether it is an artistic masterpiece or merely a laborious compilation of readily available but voluminous data);

* The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

* The effect of the use upon the potential market value of the copyrighted work."

For additional information, see the following resources:

* ALA Library Fact Sheet 7: Video and CXoyright

* TV in the Classroom

* Guidelines for Off-Air Taping for Educational Purposes (Kastenmeier Guidelines)

Although I am a proponent of this non-traditional instructional tool, there are some guidelines to follow:
  • It's called a snippet for a reason; keep it short. Two to ten minutes should be enough. If the video clip is longer than that, too much class time is taken away from other portions of the lesson. Furthermore, by keeping it short, the teacher enhances the chance that the students will become proactive. Stopped at the right moment, students' interest may rouse them to search for more information on the Net, or to seek out a book on the topic. At the very least, they may rent the video.

  • Make sure the clip you show is accurate and pertinent to your topic. Hollywood is . . . well, it's Hollywood. What makes for good dramatic entertainment isn't necessarily based on fact. Know the actual history that surrounds the movie's portrayal.

  • Have a predetermined focus. Prompt students before the video to look for relevant information drawn from previous lessons. For an anticipatory set, warn them to be prepared to respond to selected questions after the clip ends.

  • Use good "teacher sense." Although on rare occasions I've used scenes from "R" and "PG-13" rated movies, discretion is critical. I never allow a scene that spews profanity, and presenting gratuitous violence can understandably be asking for real problems from parents. Most of the "combat" footage I use has made the rounds on television for decades and usually isn't controversial. The Academy Award winning Gladiator was a box office blockbuster, and it's tempting to use some of its scenes in my classes as we explore various forms of Roman entertainment. My teacher sense tells me, however, that those scenes are too graphic to be used as instructional material. If you deem an "R" rated movie clip as a must, I would advise that notices first be sent home to parents, to give them the opportunity to be informed and to decide whether or not their child sees the clip.

  • Your own television and VCR are your best friends. I do not have to rent most of my clips. As I was I building my library of self-taped clips, I checked the listings in the Sunday paper's TV viewing guide and sought out the alphabetized listing of the week's films. I noted one or two I thought might help make a point about a subject I cover in class, and taped those films. If I needed only a 5-minute portion early in the movie, I taped over most of the rest, being careful to accurately label the video components of my tape.

As part of the multiple-intelligences philosophy that drives my instruction, cinematic video snippets are integral in engaging students and turning them into motivated learners. They truly are three to ten minutes of a virtual time machine.

Hear These Voices

Have you seen these Voice of Experience essays by Max Fischer?
* Middle Schools Are Getting a Bum Rap
* The Power of Written Praise
* The Schoolhouse Rocks: Using Music to Engage Learning
* Teaching Religion in Public Schools: Removing the Angst
* In Search of National Board Certification: One Teacher's Perspective
* Lessons Learned from Howard Gardner and the TV Remote Control
* Teachers As Writers: Have You Been Thinking About Publishing Your Best Lessons?

See more Voice of Experience essays from previous weeks.

Care to reflect on a classroom experience that opened your eyes? Click here to learn more.

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.

Article by Max Fischer
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Updated 01/08/2007