When I first started teaching in Los Angeles in the early 2000s, my third and fourth grade students organized a protest against a school-wide balloon release because they had just learned about the ways deflated balloons can harm marine life. We also marched down Vernon Avenue with signs imploring people to beautify the neighborhood after a unit on civic pride. In March 2006, my students hung signs on the chain-link fences around the school in support of the 500,000 people who marched in downtown Los Angeles to protest the immigration reform bill H.R. 4437.
More recently, my students wanted to write poetry about Trayvon Martin and hold fundraisers for the Haitian earthquake survivors. I have no doubt that if I had still been in the classroom, we would have discussed Ferguson and Eric Garner, and gone to see Selma. And though I am no longer a classroom teacher, I felt a sense of pride when I read about the many educators who did engage their students in discussions and lessons on social justice after recent events. There is a small army of teachers out there who are teaching students what it means to speak up, as activists, and more simply, as humans.
Our students are not growing up in a bubble. In fact, they are more connected and informed than any other generation in history. News travels fast over social media and students of all ages are privy to information that adults used to try to withhold from them. But now they see it all.
Current events give us a platform for discussing and debating right and wrong. When students develop their understanding of fairness and equality, they grow and learn about the world. Teachers who design units around themes of social justice keep students acutely engaged. We are all drawn to stories, yet when a story’s ending leaves us unsatisfied, we think deeply about it—what message is the story trying to send? What ending would I have been satisfied with? How can I rewrite that ending?
Weaving stories of social justice—especially those that show why we all need to keep fighting for equality—into classroom lessons keeps students asking questions and considering alternatives. Movies are a simple way to bring new voices, new perspectives, and new narratives into your classroom. We’ve compiled a list of six free, social justice themed videos that you can find online. Of course, you’ll want to preview them to make sure they are appropriate for your classroom, but we think you’ll find something that will resonate with students and generate great student discussion and activism.
6 Free Social Justice Themed Videos
- All But Name: I first read about this 6-minute documentary in an amazing article about social justice movies from Teaching Tolerance. This video chronicles the story of an undocumented man struggling to pay for college because he’s ineligible for financial assistance. Frisly Soberanis stars in this short film to share his story of what it’s like to be raised in a community, have roots in a city, and yet be totally overlooked because of citizenship status. Not only does he not qualify for financial aid, but Frisly’s undocumented status also leaves him without the chance to get a job that requires documentation. This video would work well with these lesson ideas on immigration reform from PBS Newshour.
- Occupy Bakery: This 7-minute short film is adapted from the documentary, The Hand That Feeds. This film tells the story of Mahoma López, an undocumented worker who was fed up with being exploited by his bosses at a popular New York City bakery. In the video, López talks about the constant stress and fear of working for someone who hires undocumented workers, fully aware of their legal status, and holds that knowledge over them—never offering fair wages or adequate time off. Mahoma reached out to the directors during the Occupy Wall Street protests and they chronicled his story of organizing other workers to take the steps toward forming their own independent unions. You might want to watch this video with your students while studying labor unions.
- Mo’ne Davis: I Throw Like a Girl: Directed by Spike Lee, this 16 minute video features 13 year-old, baseball world series star Mo’ne Davis. She wowed sports fans in the summer of 2014 with her 70 MPH fastball. She was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and her story was highlighted on ESPN. This film shows how her family supports this humble athlete who defies gender stereotypes as a baseball, football, and basketball star, all while maintaining a straight A average in school. Mo’ne’s story would be a great introduction to a larger unit on gender equality. Use these Unicef resources to get started!
- The Beast Inside: Tilwan, a homeless teenage, raps and sings, as well as tells his story over the captivating hand-drawn graphics in this 4 minute animated short. The film is part of Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness. In the film, Tilwan recounts an experience of not being able to get a job based on his appearance; the manager of a fast food restaurant tells him he looks like the kind of guy who would steal. Tilwan then leaves the interview and gives the shoes on his feet to a family worse off than himself. Use this film, along with resources from the Poverty Education Center to create a unit on poverty and homelessness.
- Smile Pinki: Pinki, a five-year-old girl in a rural Indian village was born with a cleft palate. Her family was too poor to afford the fairly simple surgery that cures the birth defect. This 39-minute documentary tells the story of when Pinki met the people at Smile Train, a nonprofit organization based in the US that provides monetary support to local doctors so that they can perform cleft palate surgery for free. The film won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject. You can use Pinki’s story, along with these lessons that Teaching Tolerance put together to help students better understand the health care disparities for people in disadvantaged social groups.
- Separate and Unequal: This 53-minute episode from the Frontline archives, a fantastic resources for free videos to use in the classroom, is about the growing racial divide in American schools. It focuses on the attempts of white families in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to create separate school districts for their children by starting their own city. The parents who want to secede argue that the local schools are too poor to save and that the best thing for their children is to just start over with a new school district. PBS gathered these fantastic resources to accompany the film, as classroom lessons on the fight to end “Separate but Equal” in schools.
Other Social Justice Resources for Your Classroom
It can be sometimes be uncomfortable to have frank discussions with students about social justice issues, but that may be all the more reason to make it a priority. By talking with children about topics that other adults in their lives avoid, you may give voice to students who feel marginalized.
The great news is that you don’t have to go it alone. There are plenty of rich and stimulating resources available for classroom educators. One way to start bringing social justice into the classroom is to read this Huffington post blog and this article from Edutopia, Creating Classroom for Social Justice.
Also, start to seek out social justice curriculum from Teaching for Change and Rethinking Schools. Both sites offer magazines, books, and lesson plan ideas for teaching about equality related topics.
Plan for students to engage with the community. Have students brainstorm areas in school or in your town or city that need improvement. Then create an action plan for students to help them take an active role in developing a solution. This list from Teen Life shares 50 ideas for community-related projects that may interest your students.
Remember to listen. Sometimes current events impact our students more than we realize, and we just forge ahead with our daily lessons plans without checking in to see what’s on our students’ minds. Ask students about issues that are important to them, and let them reflect on what’s going on in the world around them.
Our students are future policy-makers and need to be given the opportunity to understand multiple points of view. A curriculum with strong social justice themes helps students understand and put a voice to their feelings about current events. Movies are accessible classroom tools that help give students a broader perspective on what’s happening in the world. We’ve put these resources together for you so that you can help your students see the world more clearly.