Getting your film into the classroom (and other educational settings)

Part 1. Introduction

Making an independent documentary involves many decisions. The filmmaker should really think through what they want the documentary to accomplish before they start shooting. If the documentary might be used in the classroom or other educational setting, then planning for the educational market should be integrated into all phases of production.

As filmmakers ourselves, we at NerdsMakeMedia understand how overwhelming independent documentary filmmaking can sometimes be. It often takes much more time and resources then originally intended. Most documentary makers don’t want to think about how the film will reach its audience until after it has finally been completed and submitted to festivals. Unfortunately, film festivals are sometimes the only plan.

This paradigm is sorely in need of an update. A clear educational strategy can have financial yields for select films.1 For others, it could mean greater impact for the film, with it reaching more of the kind of audience the filmmaker is seeking.2 Therefore, filmmakers should seriously think about whether this is a possible path for their film before a single frame is shot.

Not all documentaries are, or can be made suitable for the classroom. However, if this is something you are considering for your film, you should ideally consult an educational specialist who can provide guidance about the topics that teachers are teaching these days, and ways they are incorporating video into the curriculum.

It is also in the interest of documentary filmmakers as a whole to reach a greater number of younger viewers. The more exposure to high quality, engaging non-fiction stories kids get in the classroom, the more supportive of them they will be later in life.

A very small percentage of filmmakers are fortunate enough to secure significant funding from major sponsors such as PBS or NEH. Part of that support will include the educational component. However, for the majority of independent filmmakers the following considerations are offered. These will include ideas for how to craft the documentary itself, as well as suggestions for possible supplemental educational materials to support use of the documentary for learning.

Part 2. Things to think about as you shoot and edit the documentary (and how an educational consultant may help you at this point)

The first way an educational consultant may be useful is that they can help you to start strategizing about possible educational outreach very early on. Having some sort of educational strategy will make you more attractive to potential funders. Funding organizations are increasingly concerned with measurable outcomes and will often be reassured that you have given some thought to (and are budgeting for) education and reaching students. Even in a crowdfunding campaign, some donors will be impressed that you are already thinking about how to engage this audience. Being affiliated with someone who has recognized expertise early on can add credibility to the project and help secure other endorsements.

An expert may also be able to provide guidance and ideas that can shape the kind of interview questions you ask, footage you shoot, length of the film (or films) you edit, etc. As a filmmaker, you are thinking primarily about how to best tell the story. Somebody with an educational background will give you a different perspective, one on how the film can be used as a educational tool that has enough “teaching moments” to be useful in the classroom and connect to the standards that need to be taught that year (Rekkas, 2016).

Does this mean that you will have to sacrifice the quality of your story? Absolutely not. Documentary filmmakers are already familiar with the idea of a 90 minute “festival length version” and a 52 minute “broadcast length version”. Given the way media is consumed these days, filmmakers need to also be thinking about other shorter lengths that would be more useful for teachers and other educators to use. The documentary American Promise is feature length, but also has an 80-minute version, and a 35-minute version for youth. The filmmakers also often use clips for educational purposes.3 In addition, for individual screenings they will often work with hosts to determine which are the best clips for the audience (Jones, 2015).

These are some examples of different lengths to consider. In general, 10 - 30 minutes is a good length for classrooms because it allows for time for discussion afterwards. For some classes even 30 minutes could be long, considering that in some schools 45-minute classes are the norm, and the films would need proper introduction and closure activities (Rekkas, 2016). However, some teachers are willing to use longer films, either by showing a film over more than one class, screening one DVD chapter for each class (Schier, 2011) or assigning the film to view as homework.

In addition to having different lengths, different versions can have different focuses and content. Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson’s documentary Kuma Hina features a transgender woman who is an honored and respected kumu, or teacher, cultural practitioner, and community leader in her native Hawaii. They also created A Place in the Middle that serves as a shorter companion piece. It focuses on the story of one of Kuma Hina’s 11 year old students and tells it in a manner better suited for the early grades (A Place in the Middle, 2015).

A third thing an expert might be helpful for is to give you a better sense of whether your topic is actually a good fit for the educational market at all. Some films fill a niche or need and are eagerly anticipated by teachers; others simply won’t be. Good preliminary research should always be done to make sure that your film is as unique as you originally had thought. However, it is not enough for a film to be unique to be useful in the classroom. Somebody with educational expertise will be able to give you a sense of whether your film will be a good fit for the curricula and subjects teachers are teaching these days. Knowing what kind of film you have beforehand will affect how you eventually go on to distribute your film. This will not only maximize whatever money you can make from it, but save you much time not spent going down the wrong path (Dancoff, 2013).

Academic or institutional pricing is simply charging more money for a film based on the fact that many more people will see the film then a single user, and the filmmaker should be compensated for this fact. While some institutions will purchase a film at retail price if that option is available, others have the budget and habit of purchasing the institutionally licensed copy when offered. If your film is a very good fit for the educational market and doesn’t have broader appeal it might make sense to start by only selling at a higher academic price and target this market aggressively until it is tapped out. Afterwards you could make a version available at a retail price. While it never hurts to always offer a version at an institutional rate, for other films it might make more sense to immediately offer a retail version as well to take advantage of interest among the public before it cools down (Dancoff, 2013).

If your original version contains some profanity or other material that might prevent an otherwise useful film from getting into the classroom, consider making a "G rated" version. In fact, this might be a good way to drive institutions to purchasing the academic version when you also want to have a retail version available for the general public.

Part 3. Creating educational supporting materials to encourage use of the film in education.

Hiring an education professional to create supplemental materials may run between $4,000 - $10,000, depending on what is produced. We suggest that this should be part of most initial budgets even if you later need to focus on other priorities instead.

There is a real range of supporting educational materials that can accompany a film – from a very simple one-page sheet of a few discussion questions to an extensive curriculum that spreads over several days. In between those two extremes there are a number of other options of varying length and complexity. Unfortunately, there is little consistency in how they are named and what they include (Seavey, 2011).

Also, it must be understood that social issue documentary films often have a goal beyond just educating the audience – more than just “knowledge for knowledge’s sake”. Rather, the goal is for that new perspective to lead towards action or social change. Therefore many educational materials created for documentary film may actually be a blend of education and outreach/community engagement advice. For the purposes of this paper, we are going to ignore the outreach component, although we see it frequently in all of the following types of products we have found being offered with documentaries:

  1. Description of the guide itself (“About this guide”) – tells the purpose of the guide, how it supports using the primary scenes and subject of the film for educational purposes etc.
  1. Discussion questions – as the title implies, a list of questions to help inspire discussion. As long as they are well focused, there can be as few as 5 for this to be useful to an educator (Schier, 2011)
  1. Supplemental activities. Examples include:
    • Worksheets to fill out before, during or after a film
    • Anticipation Guides - a list of statements that support or challenge the viewers preconceived ideas about key concepts that will be presented. These can be placed in a worksheet where students can note whether they agree or disagree with the statement, both before and after viewing the film (All About, 2016)4
    • Other questionnaires about the students’ pre-existing knowledge or attitudes
    • Games or other student activities
    • Ideas for student-led additional research
    • Etc.
  1. Additional resources (may be called a “Resource Guide” or “Learn More”). Examples include:
    • Links to additional websites to learn more
    • List of supplemental literature to consult (both primary and secondary sources) – considered very valuable by teachers (Rekkas, 2016)
    • Etc.
  1. Summary of the film – story and characters
  1. Character biographies – more in-depth information about the characters
  1. Background information (also called an “Introduction”) – additional political and/or historical or other contextual information not in the film itself - also considered very helpful by many teachers (Rekkas, 2016).
  1. Epilogue or Update (what happened to characters or situation after film was completed)
  1. Director’s statement
  1. Actual resources:
    • Charts and statistics
    • Infographics
    • Checklists
    • Maps (possibly interactive)
    • List of vocabulary and/or definitions
    • Timelines of events (possibly interactive)
    • Other tools5
  1. Explanation of how the resource aligns to state or national educational standards (such as Common Core, National Council for Social Studies etc.6)
  1. A Discussion (or Facilitator’s) guide - in some cases this is really little more than discussion questions, but in others may include some combination of all of the above. In our opinion, a true “discussion” or “facilitator’s” guide should, as the name implies, at least provide some sort of guidance on how to conduct and manage the discussion. This might not be necessary for an experienced educator, but potentially valuable for those without a teaching background called upon to present educational films in other settings. These guides may include:
    • Icebreakers
    • Things to say
    • Things not to say
    • How to manage possible “traps” in the discussion (i.e. people who talk to long, try to derail or monopolize the conversation etc.)
    • How to structure the conversation
    • How to manage time
    • Study, Screening , Educator’s or Teacher’s Guides, Toolkits and Fact Sheets – these vary most in length and offerings. In general they will include some combination of the above.7
    • Curriculums/lesson plans – while understanding of these terms varies, they generally are a fairly complete guide on how to conduct a class or training, covering “what students need to learn and how it will be done effectively during the class time”. They include learning objectives, learning activities and strategies or methods to check student understanding (Milkova, 2015).

Some feel that offering a curriculum/lesson plan might be the most appealing since they provide such well thought out guidance and precise steps to follow that little preparation work needs to be done, and less experienced presenters have less think about. However, in addition to the extra work and expense, they might not be useful for experienced educators who have to work with pre-existing curriculum/lesson plans or prefer creating their own. These people may just want to be able to fit a film into something already established.

Part 5. Conclusion

It is truly in the interest of both documentary filmmakers and educators to make more and better use of documentaries in the classroom and for other educational purposes. There are many ways that filmmakers can make their documentaries more appealing for this audience. While some may involve considerable effort, many others are relatively simple and easy to implement.

For the documentary art form to thrive, the next generation should be encouraged to more fully partake of the many wonderful documentaries being created these days. Take the time to think about these considerations early on in the filmmaking process, and obtain professional advice if you can.

Part 6. One last note

By the time you are ready to commission educational supporting materials, your film, website, publicity materials etc. should have developed a unique and coherent look and feel. A style guide will help those developing these products to align them with your “brand”.8

Part 7. References

A Place in the Middle | Hawaii Educators. (n.d.). Retrieved December 20, 2015, from

All About Adolescent Literacy. (2016). Retrieved January 17, 2016, from

Carroll, Cozette, Kooyoomjian, Jill et al. Strong at the Broken Places: Turning Trauma Into Recovery A Study and Resource Guide. Retrieved December 20, 2015.

Dancoff, Judith. (2013). Educational Distribution DIY. Retrieved December 20, 2015.

Jones, Jessica. (personal communication, December 21 2015).

Milkova, Stiliana. Strategies for Effective Lesson Planning. Retrieved December 20, 2015.

Rekkas, Katherine, (personal communication, January 15, 2016).

Schier, Steven. (2011, August 8). Telephone interview.

Seavey, Nina. (personal communication, April 20, 2011).


1 An example would be Judith Dancoff’s experience with her film Judy Chicago and the California Girls

2 An example is the work of Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson with their film A Place in the Middle

3 See examples at the Southern Poverty Law Center - Teaching Tolerance educational models

4 Go to for a free blank template of an Anticipation Guide

5 An example would be the “Survival Plans” of some of the characters in Strong at the Broken Places: Turning Trauma Into Recovery, available for free download at

6 An example is contained in the Teaching Guide for Mr. Stokes’ Mission, available for free download at

7 Go to for an example of an Educator’s Guide featuring director’s statement, discussion questions, standards alignment, resources, background information and epilogue or to request free download of a more involved Educator's Guide that also includes student activities

8 Go to for a good example of a coherent, well thought-out graphic design across all components of the film, website and supporting educational material