The New York Times website has great resources for teachers. There are gems throughout the website that can be used as teaching tools, texts, and learning opportunities all teachers need to know about. One of these gems is Op-Docs.
Op-Docs is a short documentary series begun by The New York Times Opinion section in 2011. Today it comprises more than 270 short, interactive and virtual reality documentaries. Each film is produced by both renowned and emerging independent filmmakers.
As the Times states these documentaries are, “films driven by the creative and journalistic interests of the filmmaker and that will also challenge the New York Times audience to see the world in new ways. Op-Docs spark conversations, tell memorable and astonishing stories, introduce powerful and unexpected individuals, make thought-provoking arguments and give viewers unforgettable cinematic experiences.”
Documentary film, done well, can engage and instruct through storytelling. But a film can’t stand alone as an instructional method. Watching the documentary should only be part of the process. Discussion questions and related readings need to be included in the mix to prompt reflection and to illustrate the topic more completely.
The Op Docs have so much potential in our classroom for teaching critical and close reading to writing different text types for different purposes. So many of these short films showcase aspects of life that are hidden or unspoken.
I was moved by San Quentin’s Giants about the San Quentin prison baseball team. This Op Doc showcases how baseball is a vehicle for reform, reflection, and purpose for the incarcerated players. When the film begins the images show men playing baseball, one might think it is a local or community baseball team until the camera zooms out in the background the viewer sees the barbwires around the buildings and the people on the periphery wearing prison jumpsuits.
Again, these documentaries are used to inform viewers about the people, places, and things presented in the film. Some might describe these types of films as a “slice of life” that presents an angled representation of a subject.
If we asked students to create documentary films what might they present on film with research and narrative? Whereas San Quentin uses storytelling and interviews, the Op Docs A Conversation with . . . about race are interviews and testimony with people about race, racism, and perspective. The testimony of the people interviewed are a catalyst for classroom discussions. Think about what these same conversation might look like and sound like in school. From our students’ perspectives what will they say about race, class, or gender in their school and community.
After watching a number of these Op Docs with my students and discussing the research and filming elements involved, I asked students to research and investigate the issues that are hiding in our school. Who are people worth shining a light on their life? Wright’s Law really puts into perspective how much we might not know about someone.
When I posed this question to my students some students wanted to address bullying, a common theme in schooling today. Whereas, another group researched video game playing and addiction among young people because of the influence of Fortnite. In completing this project students had to gather relevant data from multiple sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information in documentary film writing.
First, research is conducted, then students have to decide how they wanted to string together the facts and testimony. The Op Docs blends a bit of narrative with information and argument writing. We studied closely how to start the documentary by visually hooking the audience right from the moment the film starts. This might be a statistic about the topic presented in the film or a sound bite from an interview conducted with a member of the school community. Then, students introduced the topic and elaborated by including both visual and audio footage to offer perspective on the topic. This, in turn, is like support material in an essay or research paper. Students are still working on their projects and I should share some finished films soon.
Any person can actually submit a op-doc to The New York Times and this can be an authentic assignment for students to create as a project based learning opportunity. The New York Times is looking for “films that are driven by the creative and journalistic interests of the filmmaker and that will also challenge the New York Times audience to see the world in new ways. Op-Docs spark conversations, tell memorable and astonishing stories, introduce powerful and unexpected individuals, make thought-provoking arguments and give viewers unforgettable cinematic experiences.”