Documentaries In The ESL Classroom

thedocumentary_e-vite.jpgEFL Geek’s post on Prison Break in class and an ELT Notebook’s YouTube lesson plan were well-timed for me because I’ve been thinking about how to incorporate another form of video in class: documentary.

As I mentioned in my post on the other bloggers’ lessons, I don’t consider myself a documentary junkie or anything – in fact, it’s pretty rare for me to watch a documentary. However, a good one tends to leave a good impression, and social issues are interesting to me and also get students talking.

I recently saw Fast Food Nation (not a documentary but based on a non-fiction book) and I feel as though I might be scarred for life. Well, not really, and there were several over-the-top moments where I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. It’s a meat-packing plant – can the film end without someone’s leg getting chopped off? And the presence of rats goes without saying. I’m still not really sure if I think it made valuable points that wouldn’t have really seen the light of day otherwise, or if it was almost insultingly simplistic. I do think it did a responsible job of presenting the situation facing many undocumented workers in the US (based mainly on my impressions) as well as the young people working in the chain restaurant (based on, sadly, my own experience).

I’m fairly sure I would never show the full version in class – the more graphic parts would probably get some teachers fired – but it would be interesting to incorporate it.

How would I use it?
I tend to be more focused on the content than the language; the class would need to be fairly advanced.

I think there are a number of places where you could stop the film and get students to predict what will happen next. It would also be interesting to compare students’ preconceptions about low-wage work or undocumented workers in the US with what’s in the film. I wasn’t good at figuring out symbolism in high school English, but there were a few obvious examples here which would likely transcend any language difficulties (“Why didn’t the cows run free?”)

Ideally though, I would incorporate it into my Dream Team ESL Syllabus of Social Issue in Current Film.