Enhancing American Historical Literacy with Film

I posted an invitation on the College Board AP US History Teachers' List Server for teachers to list ten movies that they felt would be good for their students to watch the summer before taking an AP US History course. The movies should help give students points of reference and a time frame for some of the periods in US History. Sixty four AP US History teachers took the time to vote for their favorite movies. One hundred eighty one movies were nominated for inclusion. Forty six movies got three or more votes.

I don't think that the students today who are entering our classrooms read as much history as we did when we were young. I also don't feel that the MTV generation has seen TV shows and movies that have helped develop a sense of historical literacy.

In the poll of teachers the one movie that stood out above all the rest was Glory (1989). It received votes from 35 of the 64 AP US History teachers taking the survey. It also was the overall points leader by a large margin (10 points given to a 1st place movie, 9 to second...).

The top 25 movies voted upon (ordered by points) were :

Movie Title Points Votes
1. Glory 259 35
2. Thirteen Days 105 19
3. 1776 98 14
4. Iron Jawed Angels 89 12
5. The Grapes of Wrath 88 15
6. The Last of the Mohicans 85 10
7. Gettysburg 77 10
8. Dr. Strangelove 69 13
9. Saving Private Ryan 69 11
10. Matewan 67 9
11. Amistad 66 9
12. The Patriot 59 10
13. All The President's Men 54 12
14. Good Night, and Good Luck 52 7
15. All Quiet on the Western Front 49 8
16. Modern Times 48 7
17. The Best Years of Our Lives 46 8
18. Casablanca 42 5
19. Inherit the Wind 41 6
20. Gangs of New York 41 5
21. Schindler's List 40 7
22. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington 40 5
23. Patton 39 6
24. The Crossing 36 5
25. The Wizard of Oz 36 5

I am sure that if students watched the movies listed above they would develop a better sense of American history and be more prepared to face the rigors of an AP US History course. I think we all know that they would be better off reading ten good books, but we have to face the realities of teaching the MTV generation. As educators we have to adjust to the changing times. Perhaps it is time for us to take a serious look at encouraging our students to watch more good movies in order to enhance their American History literacy.

Jack Nilan
March 18, 2007
Bridgeport Central High School
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