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10 Best Documentaries for Teaching Social Studies
posted by: Melissa | March 24, 2017, 05:55 PM   

This week we’re continuing our series on documentaries in the classroom with documentaries for social studies classes. You can find our previous entry on documentaries for science classes on our blog.


It’s tempting to think that good documentaries for a social studies class are easy to find, but that is far from true. Often the long-form, in-depth documentaries that appeal to adults are too slow and too complex to hold students’ interest. Here are the documentaries that we recommend for classroom use:


  1. Clouds Over Cuba – This bills itself as an interactive documentary and its interactivity is a wonderful way to convey both the facts of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the feel.
  2. Crash Course – As with science, these short-form, PBS-created documentaries are the gold standard for showing films in the social studies classroom. They cover a wide variety of topics including sociology, philosophy, economic theory, and civics.
  3. Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property – This PBS documentary is a bit longer, but it does a good job of going in-depth to the Nat Turner rebellion, the issues surrounding it, and the results that it had.
  4. Nuremburg Remembered – This short documentary focuses on the Nuremburg trials using actual film footage, newsreels from the day, and interviews with eye witnesses. Lesson plans are included.
  5. Hands-On History – The BBC produces many documentaries aimed at students that happen to be both engaging and informative. You can find a short playlist on YouTube and a quick search will help you find more of these quality productions.
  6. How to Win the US Presidency – This British documentary explores the different factors that influence the outcomes of American elections with an outsiders perspective.
  7. Colonial House – This is a series, not a single documentary, and the episodes tend to be on the longer side, running around an hour, however it does a wonderful job at conveying the difficulty colonists faced in the early days of settling the continent.
  8. America at Work, America at Leisure – These primary source video clips will need some couching to help students absorb what they’re being shown, but the sheer variety of film clips from different time periods will help students visualize what life was really like.
  9. Expedition Unknown: The Vanished Empire – With so little known about them, it’s hard to find documentaries or sources to pique students’ interest in the Minoans. However a recent episode of archeologist Josh Gate’s TV show, Expedition Unknown, did just that. At 45 minutes, the episode is perfect viewing for a class period.
  10. First Peoples – This series of documentaries focuses on early human populations in each of the continents, making it a perfect fit for World History teachers.

What social studies documentaries do you watch?

Share below!


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