17 Recommended DVDs for Elementary, Middle School, and High School Classrooms

The right audiovisual element in a familiar lesson or a new unit can spark new excitement, encourage deeper examination, or inject an element of fun. Check out these 17 DVDs to use in the classroom, from elementary to high school. 

Freshening up a familiar lesson or putting together a new unit is an ideal time to look at the components that go into each unit or module. The right audiovisual element can spark new excitement, encourage deeper examination, or inject an element of fun. It can also add clarity and serendipity to what might otherwise be just another class period. A video can capture essential elements of a complex topic, and present them with accompanying graphics and interviews, all edited succinctly together. Sometimes, hearing and seeing experiences through the voices and eyes of peers can bring viewers more deeply into a topic or unit. Check out these 17 recommendations for DVDs to use in the classroom. 

Elementary

Weston Woods, founded in 1953 and now part of Scholastic Books, adapts high quality, often award-winning children’s books to an audiovisual format. The original text and illustrations are lightly restyled with animations and other techniques for viewing and listening. These DVDs include read-along and descriptive caption options. The cases include curriculum standards, before and after viewing activities, and enrichment activities geared towards educators. Curriculum guides are also available for streamed videos. One or more of these DVDs could neatly fill a niche for social-emotional learning, science, folk tales, or any 10-15 minute slot in the school day.
 

Chicken Little. Adapted from the book by Sam Wedelich. Music by David Mansfield. Animated by Virginia Wilkos. Weston Woods. 2021. 5 min. ISBN 9781338738537. $59.95.
PreS-3–Bespectacled Chicken Little (who prefers the term “petite”) is at the center of accidental pandemonium. Chicken Little’s expressive face and voice enliven the familiar story. VERDICT Delightful on its own, with potential as a not-so-subtle introduction to verifying information and not believing everything you hear.

If You Come to Earth. by Sophie Blackwell. illus. by Sophie Blackwell. Narrated by Dani Martinek. Music By Ernest Troost. Animated by duple. Weston Woods. 2021. 12 min. ISBN 9781338773736. $59.95.
PreS-3–A red-cheeked boy tells space visitors what they might expect to see on planet Earth, from clothing and weather to “what grown ups do for work.” Difficult topics are gently touched on (“Some of us have more food than others.”), opening the door for discussion when desired. VERDICT Detailed drawings of clothing styles, family make ups, and weather possibilities parade on view, and the images portray a range of skin tones. Illustrations avoid stereotypes and show the diversity in human bodies, emotions, and occupations.

The Oldest Student. by Rita Lorraine Hubbard. illus. by Oge Mora. Narrated by Nikki M. James. Music by Michael Bacon. Weston Woods. 2021. 15 min. ISBN 9781338751833. $59.95.
PreS-3–Mary Walker was enslaved until she was 15, and then worked a variety of jobs and raised a family, but she never learned to read. At 116, she learned to read her family Bible, as well as the signs outside her window, and much more. The camera pans across and shows close-ups of Mora’s intricate collage illustrations, and zooms in and out on the historic photographs included in the book, bringing Walker’s story to life. VERDICT Walker’s perseverance through tough years and as a student well past the age of 100 will inspire!

Tiny T. Rex and the Impossible Hug. by Jonathan Stutzman. illus. by Jay Fleck. Narrated by Ron Butler with Sophie Amoss, Johnny Heller, and others. Music by Ernest Troost. Animated by Galen Fott. Weston Woods. 2021. 9 min. ISBN 9781338692082. $59.95.
PreS-K–Tiny wants to cheer up his friend Stegosaurus, and he’s determined that ­having short arms won’t hold him back. Tiny’s peppy exercise movements and a purple pterodactyl that flies across the screen will keep viewers giggling. ­VERDICT A bright and funny tale of kindness and perseverance.

We Are Water Protectors. by Carol Lindstrom. illus. by Michaela Goade. Narrated by Carole Lindstrom. Music by Ernest Troost. Animated by Galen Fott. Weston Woods. 2021. 8 min. ISBN 9781338784114. $59.95.
PreS-3–Lindstrom narrates this adaptation, accompanied by flutes and drums. Water is important to all of Earth’s inhabitants, and a young Ojibwe girl vows to keep the black snake from poisoning the water for others. VERDICT Goade’s Caldecott-winning art is faithfully and beautifully adapted, with rising mists and a serpent’s glowing eyes, to reinforce that the need for clean water connects us all.

Middle School

Middle school students can dig in their heels and reject adult input, especially when surrounded by peers. These films put adolescents at the center of the story, and let them speak in their own words, authentically capturing the attention of middle grade audiences.
 

Confessions of a Social Bully. Good Docs. 2017. 15 min. ISBN/UPC unavail. $559. Streaming options avail. Transcript, discussion guide, middle school lesson guide included.
Gr 5-9–At 22, Natasha, who is white with long brown hair, recounts her treatment of Jane, a middle school friend she targeted with relational bullying. Natasha admits she was sneaky and does her best to enlighten viewers about her motives: maybe to combat jealousy of Jane and to build herself up and feel in control. Black-and-white drawings depict Natasha and Jane’s middle school lives. VERDICT A brief yet powerful conversation starter, with a bully most middle schoolers can relate to. Natasha’s self-reflection tells viewers that the bully and the bullied can and should ask for help.

Connectivity Project: Interconnections. Bullfrog. 2021. 45 min. ISBN 9781948745581. $350. Streaming options avail. Study guide included.
Gr 6-9–Educators can use this film’s three 15-minute segments together or separately to emphasize interdependence and how individual actions have broad effects. Interconnectivity tackles chaos theory, using the food chain and examination of ecosystems to foster respect for our surroundings. Plants Have Wings follows bike riders restoring butterfly habitats across Iowa. Speaking Out: Love Canal tackles pollution and how actions by adults and students can make a difference. Speaking Out: Love Canal also has tie-ins for political science and history topics. VERDICT Versatile and energizing, this a good choice for science and ecology classes.

Curtain Up! Good Docs. 2020. 67 min. ISBN/UPC unavail. $559. Streaming options avail. Transcript & discussion guide included.
Gr 6 Up–This feel-good film follows elementary students from P.S. 124, a majority-Asian school in New York City. Dedicated drama teachers stage Frozen Kids, an adaptation of the blockbuster musical, with an energetic and intense cast. From the nail-biting role announcement, through rehearsals, choreography, school debut, and a theater festival, filmmakers follow students at school and occasionally at home. Clearly some parents have as much invested in the musical’s success as the youngsters themselves. VERDICT Students will enjoy seeing behind the scenes of a musical. Lessons for dealing with disappointment, the value of hard work, and remaining gracious under stress are baked into the film.

Rap Squad. Video Project. 2020. 30 & 56 min. ISBN/UPC unavail. $89, schools & libraries. DVD + digital file. $129, school & libraries.
Gr 7 Up–Two white teachers at a predominantly Black school in one of Arkansas’s poorest counties oversee Rap Squad, where “angsty young poets” create music and lyrics on personal topics of violence, art, education, and justice. These young hip hop artists, with the support of idealistic adults, hone their communication skills and self-expression to entertain and for social action, most notably to advocate for funding for an updated high school. VERDICT Likeable students, teachers, and some budget-minded residents share screen time. The shorter version focuses on rap as self-expression, while the longer version explores the political issues more robustly.

High School

Films that expand upon a “one correct answer” viewpoint allow maturing students to question the world and themselves. While each of these films presents a wealth of good information, they also include multiple viewpoints, leaving room for class discussion or nuanced analysis, rather than presenting a right/wrong dichotomy or offering a one-size-fits-all solution.
 

Bag It. Reel Thing Films. 2010. 45 & 65 min. ISBN/UPC unavail. $150, schools & libraries. Streaming options avail.
Gr 8 Up–Concern in the uptick in use of disposable plastics in the last 18 months puts single-use plastics back in the spotlight. Narrator Jeb Berrier is a scruffy and engaging everyman in this 2010 release, on a journey to use less disposable plastic. He acknowledges plastic is convenient and has uses, but interviews with scientists and activists show the downside to single-use plastics. This is a callout to the plastics industry’s lobbying that disguises and downplays some severe harms. The suggestion to try a plastic-free day could be a school-wide activity. ­ VERDICT An important and timely film with a humorous and positive spin. Very occasionally Berrier’s wry jokes (“nut sack”), and the delivery-room footage of a birth make this best for high school students. Extras include short interviews with scientists and activists.

Ale y Yose. Video Project. 2020. 25 min. ISBN/UPC unavail. $89, schools & libraries. DVD + digital file. $129, school & libraries.
Gr 9 Up–Alejandra and Yoselina are DREAMers: brought as children to the U.S. by undocumented parents and are now teenagers in Oakland, CA. Interviewing each other and filming typical activities with friends and family, the girls are sometimes unsure or silly, and other times juggle appointments with immigration lawyers, college prospects, and their shared dedication to being activists for positive change. VERDICT Four-letter words pepper the film, as befits its teenage protagonists. Consider for social studies, social justice, and history classes or discussions of transitioning from high school and part-time jobs to life’s next challenges.

Flat Town. Video Project. 2020. 30 min. ISBN/UPC unavail. $79, schools & libraries. DVD + digital file. $129, school & libraries.
Gr 9 Up–Ville Platte, described as “Mayberry with a Cajun accent,” holds an annual Tee Cotton Bowl, pitting a 90-percent white private school against a 60-percent BIPOC public high school. This longtime rivalry has developed into a tradition that appears to have the friendly backing and support of town leaders and many citizens. Interviews include a Black supporter from city hall, a prayerful coach, and school supporters on both sides. VERDICT No conclusion is drawn by the filmmakers: Is this a racist holdover or a venerable town tradition? Prepared educators could tie to broader topics, including removing or relocating Civil War monuments, and problematic mascots and team names.

The Lesson. Video Project. 2020. 60 min. ISBN/UPC unavail. $89, schools & libraries. DVD + digital file. $139, school & libraries.
Gr 9 Up–Juxtaposing German history classes within the last six years with film footage from the 1940s, the film explores whether Germany is ripe for a pro-Nazi resurgence. Some interviewed students feel the persecutions of World War II are the previous generation’s issue, and not personal to them. A chilling assignment asks students to enumerate and defend the efficiencies of a concentration camp. Fans throwing Nazi salutes at current sporting events and anti-immigrant rallies give further food for thought. VERDICT Germany’s reckoning with a painful past is a topic that stands alone. This film could also introduce discussion of the U.S. approach to dealing with slavery, and what future generations owe to those wronged in the past.

El Susto. 2021. 76 min. UPC 677355304956. dist. by Uncork’d Entertainment/Darkstar Pictures. Educational license avail.
Gr 9 Up–Prior to COVID-19, Type 2 diabetes was second only to heart disease for cause of death in Mexico. Folklore attributes the onset of this chronic condition to a fright or shock (susto), but science points to detrimental health effects of the growth of consumption of sugary beverages. Coca-Cola is called out by name, and the soda industry in general is portrayed as focusing on their bottom line at the expense of consumer health. Portions are in Spanish, with subtitles. Attentive viewers will catch an f-bomb in a tweet threatening a health activist. VERDICT El Susto combines science, nutrition, public health, and politics with marketing and consumer awareness tie-ins.

No Fear No Favor. Bullfrog. 2021. 66 min. ISBN 9781948745574. $350. Streaming options avail.
Gr 9 Up–International game wardens protecting against poachers report that it is not enough to educate and patrol for safety; local populations must have alternatives for feeding their families and making a living. Filmed primarily in Zambia’s Kafue National Park, some scenes feature cute baby elephants at a wildlife orphanage, while others show butchered animals and the death of a pangolin. VERDICT This ultimately hopeful film portrays education and the creation of alternative income sources (tourism, conservation) as a sustainable way to protect animals. Previewing to gauge the intensity of some grisly shots might well make sense for some educators.

The Divided Brain. Bullfrog. 2021. 78 min. ISBN 9781948745635. $395. Streaming options avail.
Gr 9 Up–Neurologist Iain McGilchrist makes a case that the known differences in right and left brain processing could be a driving factor in current societal and worldwide behavior changes. McGilchirst, with actor John Cleese and interviews with researchers, explores the idea that left brain thinking (detailed, analytical, competitive, system-oriented) is gradually gaining dominance over right brain thought patterns (holistic, community, big-picture) and skewing human communications and actions. Interviews with scientists who do not agree with McGilchrist appear toward the end. VERDICT This film, inspired by McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary, is sure to spark discussion.

Unadopted. Good Docs. 2020. 33 min. ISBN/UPC not avail. $559. Streaming options avail. transcript & study guide avail.
Gr 9 Up–Noel, an intense and relatable young man, aged out of foster care without finding his forever family. He had so many placements, he doesn’t clearly remember them all. He was separated from living with his siblings along the way. With an armload of files from his lawyer, he tracks his progress from “adoptable” to “long-term foster,” and reads descriptions of himself he says are inaccurate, along with mental health notes that come as a surprise. Supplementing his personal experiences, Noel interviews other long-term fosters, one of whom finds a forever family. VERDICT Noel is a thoughtful and prepared interviewer at the heart of a film that doesn’t offer neat answers. Experiences of children of color in foster care are specifically addressed.


Maggie Knapp, Trinity Valley Sch., Fort Worth, TX

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