Top 5 Videos for a Middle School American History Class


Since I began teaching, I have held the belief that when showing a video in class, the daily allotment of time dedicated to watching the video should not exceed 15 minutes. (I teach 50 minute class periods. In a block schedule I would be willing to watch two, separated 15 minute blocks of video). I think it’s important to chunk these videos for three reasons.

First, students in my class already watch short (8-10 minutes max) videos that I create for my flipped classroom. Keeping video segments in class to less than 15 minutes keeps in line with students are accustomed to when watching videos for homework.

Secondly, research has shown that students have 10-18 minutes of optimal focus time with 3-5 minute “break” intervals in between focus time segments. I need to remember the purpose of showing the video. The purpose of using videos in the classroom is not so I can get some correcting time or because I was too lazy to plan lesson. The real purpose of showing videos is to engage students using a different medium than lecture. For students to get the content and remember the parts of the video that are important, it needs to be chunked.

Finally, chunking a longer video into 15 minute chunks gives the students something to look forward to the next class. Not all students are going to enjoy watching videos in class. Not all students enjoy [insert teaching technique here]. But for the students who do enjoy and learn best from videos, they will be more engaged on more days of class.

5. Redtails and 4. Flyboys

These two movies are rated PG-13 so showing them in their entirety to my class wouldn’t be possible (I teach 12-13 year olds), but segments of both are good for students to see the evolution of war in the skies. As an added bonus, they are Hollywood released movies (2012 and 2006) so students tend to enjoy watching them more than documentaries.

3. BBC’s Space Race

An engaging four part series on the race to outer space. The series focuses on the USA versus the USSR and the victories each side wins on their way to the moon. At 4 hours long, it’s probably not possible to show the entire thing. I like to show a 10-15 minute clip from each of the four episodes.

2. The Civil War by Ken Burns

A documentary series on the Civil War that uses stories and still photography to explain major battles and emotional stories from the time period. Another long series (over 10 hours), finding segments that fit the content for the day is an excellent approach to using this tremendous resource.

1. America the Story of Us

A twelve part miniseries created by the History Channel, America the Story of Us takes topics from American History and “recreates” them using 21st century special effects and reenactment rather than documentary. Topics covered include the Civil War, Westward Expansion, the United States in the new millennium and many others. The reason I rank this #1 is because of all the video segments I’ve shown from a number of different movies and documentaries, my students enjoy watching this the most. In addition, the topics are covered from a historical perspective with commentary from historians, celebrities, and politicians.

Honorable Mention: Glory and Gettysburg

These are two Hollywood released movies that are relatively historically accurate, but because the movies are older (1989 and 1993) students at the middle school level have a hard time engaging to the content. Also, Glory is rated “R” so finding appropriate segments may prove challenging.

Are there other videos you use in your classroom that engage your students?