Created for sixth- to 12th-grade educators, the new one-stop destination houses a full library of classroom-ready content — aligned to state and national standards — about historical events and issues that Burns has highlighted in his films.
“Ken Burns in the Classroom” includes hundreds of video clips, lesson plans, activity suggestions, discussion questions, handouts and interactives to help educators integrate the films into their classroom instruction.
I did a Q&A with Burns about the new online resource connected to the films:
Q) You tell stories that reveal America’s history. Why is storytelling such a powerful teaching tool and do you see any evidence that teachers are trying this approach more to engage students?
Storytelling is the most powerful tool for human connection, and this flows directly into teaching. Weaving stories into instruction itself is something teachers are doing — recognizing that stories help students connect to and retain information. We’re also seeing that fostering student media creation is increasingly top of mind for teachers, of which storytelling is an important component.
Q) This initiative sounds like it could be an enormous resource for teachers. How does this differ from the materials you and collaborators have produced in the past?
We hear incredible stories from teachers about the ways they use our documentaries in their classrooms, and we wanted to build on that amazing work they’re doing in the classroom. This is the first time we’ve centralized all of these resources in one place in a way that is user-friendly and showcases materials both by film, as well as by historical era, and with the added feature of allowing teachers to search for materials across films by keyword and by topic. We hope this will become the go-to destination for teachers interested in implementing our films into their classroom instruction. The site will continue to evolve over the next couple of years as we add content from more films, as well as features and functionality that will resonate with social studies, English teachers, science teachers and others.
Q) Whom are you working with to create the materials and how did you select them? Can you describe the process your team has gone through to create packages of materials? How long has this taken to complete?
Many of these materials were originally developed when these films premiered and were authored by longtime educators who had been using the films in their classrooms. After this project started more than a year ago, we’ve been working closely with PBS, PBS member station WETA, and their networks of teachers — including several PBS Digital Innovator teachers — to update older materials, create additional materials for existing films and new materials for new films, such as “Country Music.” The materials for “Country Music,” for example, were authored primarily by a group of professors from Belmont University in Nashville, with input from teachers affiliated with PBS.
Q) How have teachers used materials you have created in the past and how have students reacted?
As I mentioned, we heard from teachers across the country about the variety of ways they use these materials. Some have mentioned the emotional power that showing video clips can have for students — and that their students develop a better understanding of and more deeply connect to historical events when viewing segments of our films. Others have mentioned that our films allow them to expose their students to the use of primary source materials to create narratives, as well as provide a powerful opportunity to get their students to engage with the words and interpretations of prominent historians. We’re excited to hear about all the new, creative ways teachers will be using this site and these resources, and stories from students, too.
Q) Can you describe what some of the resources are for one of the films and how you would hope teachers would use them?
We’ve created resources in a variety of formats to help teachers across subject areas, and with different needs and experiences, integrate them into their instruction. Our collection of resources for “Country Music,” for example, broadly explores American history and culture through song. It includes video clips, activity sets, and lessons plans for music, social studies, and English Language Arts classrooms from fifth through 12th grade. The materials explore musical style, lyrical analysis, songwriting, and the ways in which changes in American society over time affected how country music was made. We’d hope to see social studies and music teachers, for example, use an activity about African American roots and influences in country music to connect to current events topics, and help students better understand the role of race and inclusion in country music narratives.
Q) Do you have a favorite among your works? And what’s next?
“College Behind Bars,” directed by my colleague Lynn Novick and produced by Sarah Botstein, will air on PBS on Nov. 25 and 26. Sarah Burns and David McMahon, one of our other production teams, have been working on “East Lake Meadows," an extraordinary story about a public-housing project in Atlanta that helps us better understand how race and policy are interwoven. We are also deep in production on films about Ernest Hemingway, Muhammad Ali, America and the Holocaust, the American Revolution, and others. They are all favorites.