Us High School Documentary Assignment

This year in literature circles, my students read about Hurricane Katrina. After finishing their novels, each group took part in what we called the “Washed Away Challenge.” They worked together to make student documentaries on how the storm affected different groups of people.

Technology is a MUST in today’s classroom, particularly if you want to keep your students engaged and provide them with the 21st-century skills that are imperative in our society. Implementing student documentaries allows for an avenue to incorporate this element and encourage critical thinking around a topic. That being said, I knew that having sixth graders attempt to create their own documentaries could turn into a time-consuming, chaotic endeavor if I didn’t set the tone for the challenge right off of the bat.

Here are five tips that I found to be crucial for students to successfully create student documentaries in middle school:

1. Explain what a documentary is.

To explain this, I shared a hyperdoc with my students that walked them through the elements of a documentary and included links to several mini-documentaries. While they watched, they took notes on each one, and listed all of the common elements they noticed. We used the hyperdoc throughout the entire process. This is where they took notes for research, completed a storyboard, and created their script. It provided a central location for all of their materials. To learn more about hyperdocs, check out the main website here.

2. Provide clear expectations.

Students have to understand the assignment. They need to know the focus of the documentary, what it should encompass, how to find information to include in the documentary, etc. The rubric I shared with my students clearly spelled out the expectations and point values for each component.

3. Break the process into steps.

  • Make sure students have a strong topic. I assigned the topics for my students’ documentaries, which saved time. Depending on the grade and academic level of your students, letting them choose their own topic is an option.
  • Depending on what grade your students are in, provide them with resources. Includea list of credible websites, books, etc. they can use to research their topic.
  • Once the research is complete, have students complete a storyboard that organizes the sequence of the story. My students were required to include the visual from each scene, as well as the narration/script, and music that would be played from beginning to end.  
  • Put it all together using a video editing tool. My students had the option of using their iPhones or iPads if they had them. They could also use Movie Maker on the classroom laptops. Students uploaded their edited videos to their Google Drive and shared the link on a spreadsheet which was included in the hyperdoc.

4. Schedule progress check-ins with each group.

Although we want this project to be student-centered, we are still dealing with kids here, whether they’re primary, middle school, or high school students.  Students need to be aware that the teacher is the facilitator and knows what they are (or aren’t) doing.  If we simply let them loose from the beginning of the creative process until the end, there will usually be a select few who don’t get the job done.

5. Provide a clear timeline.

Rather than having students turn everything in at once, I suggest breaking the assignment into numerous due dates. This will help alleviate overwhelming the students (and teacher) and will allow you to monitor progress.

What are some recommendations you have to create student documentaries?



In this lesson students will:

  • Review and apply the information they have learned from watching the documentary and from Activities One and Two
  • Plan a negotiating strategy along with other members of their group (with each group representing either the U.S. or North Korea)
  • Negotiate an agreement that limits or stops nuclear development in North Korea AND addresses some of the basic human needs North Koreans face.

Note: If your school participates in Model United Nations, club members or the club sponsor would be good resources for negotiation strategies. Information about starting a Model United Nations Club is at:

  • Computers with Internet access
  • Student Assignment Sheet: Preparing to Negotiate
  • Student Assignment Sheet: Charting Escalation

Approximately 90 minutes (45 minutes to prepare in groups and complete the Assignment Sheet, 45 minutes to meet in negotiations)

A. Divide students into two groups to prepare for negotiations. One group will represent North Korea and the second group will represent the United States. Hand out Student Assignment Sheet to help students organize their thoughts.

Group#1: This group will use the following Web sites to assemble as much information as possible about the culture and politics of North Korea and the North Korean position regarding nuclear weapons. (Note: Remind students of media literacy issues here. Since North Korea's Web sites are highly controlled, we simply cannot find some information we would like to know.)

Note: The North Korean Web sites do not mention the pervasive famine that has plagued the country and its people. Some sites that do discuss famine are:, which gives an overview of the politics of famine, and, which focuses on one family's dramatic story.

Group #2: This group will assemble as much information as possible about the U.S. position using the following Web sites.

B. The groups representing North Korea and the U.S. will meet separately to explore their positions (using information from the documentary and from the Web sites); to identify their respective long and short-term needs, interests, fears, and/or concerns; and to brainstorm ideas and resources for a potential agreement. For the purposes of this exercise, students should use the terms positions and interests as follows
Positions: a statement of what a person or country wants
Interests: underlying needs or why the person or country wants something

Note: At this point, teachers might introduce the following ways of handling conflict, asking each group to consider what means might be acceptable to them during their negotiations. Students who are part of the school's peer mediation team might also be leaders here. "Five Ways to Handle Conflict," below, comes from a training program designed for high school peer mediation teams by Community Mediation Services, Inc, (

Five Ways to Handle Conflict:
Compromise: two parties work to figure out a solution wherein they both give up something as well as get something
Confrontation: two parties engage in verbal argument or physical conflict
Accommodation: one party allows the other party to have its way, even though it means disregarding its own needs.
Avoidance: one party chooses to avoid or neglect the problem they have with the other party.
Collaboration: two parties state a problem to one another and work through to a mutual solution.

C. Each side will choose three spokespersons. Other students will be advisors, who must submit at least two written notes or comments to their spokespersons during the negotiations. The spokespersons will then negotiate. Hand out Student Assignment Sheet: Charting Escalation to help students chart the progress of the negotiations.

  1. After the negotiations, discuss students' reactions to the negotiating process and their findings on the issues that escalated or de-escalated them.
  2. Each student must write a two-page persuasive essay in the form of a letter to either Kim Jong Il or to President George Bush addressing the following issues and advising the leaders how to proceed:
    • Where is this conflict going?
    • What are some possible outcomes?
    • How should they avoid further escalation?

History teachers whose students may have been studying World War II and the Cold War may want to take this opportunity to have several students prepare a brief review of factors leading to the Cold War. For teachers whose curriculum has not yet reached this period in history, a brief overview with a focus on Yalta and the Cuban missile crisis is available at:

A more complete Cold War site, with links to key events for each decade from the 1940s to the 1990s is at:

More able students might find grappling with the February 2003 opinion piece, "Coping With North Korea," interesting.

Many communities may have veterans of the Korean War, Koreans adopted by American families, Korean immigrants or descendants of immigrants living in their midst. Ask students to find (through local chapters of Veterans of Foreign Wars or through churches and community groups) some veterans who are willing to talk about their experiences in Korea or other community members with background or ties to Korea.

The following Web site contains a U.S. map with links to chapters of the Korean War Veterans Association for each state:

Before sending students off to interview veterans or Korean-Americans, brainstorm with them to discover what they might want to ask, and how they might proceed to find out about the veterans' experiences, or the lives of Korean immigrants or adoptees. Come up with a list of at least six questions they might ask.

The Scholastic Web site at: has a short introduction to how to start doing interviews for oral histories.

How to Deal with North Korea
This article from Foreign Affairs offers suggestions on how the U.S. should handle the current conflict:

First Person Plural
This documentary tells the story of a young Korean girl adopted by an American family. In 1966, Deann Borshay Liem was adopted by an American family and was sent from Korea to her new home. Growing up in California, the memory of her birth family was nearly obliterated until recurring dreams lead Borshay Liem to discover the truth: her Korean mother was very much alive. Bravely uniting her biological and adoptive families, Borshay Liem's heartfelt journey makes First Person Plural a poignant essay on family, loss, and the reconciling of two identities.

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