Movies that can Teach High School Students Important Lessons

Movies have become an important part of high school teaching and learning. English teachers can use them to supplement or replace a novel; History teachers can use them as a hook or as background material for a historical period; and Science teachers can use them to demonstrate a scientific principle in action or to promote the idea that science is ‘cool’ and important.

Used correctly, a good movie can be much more than a two hour diversion for students. It can give the whole class a shared experience which can then be unpacked in meaningful discussion. Here are a few recommended movies which are worth discussing and which may provide life-long learning to students:

Spider-Man (2002)

“With great power comes great responsibility,” says Uncle Ben to Peter Parker, but the young man who will become Spider-Man doesn’t quite understand what he means. That’s okay, because few people do. What powers do most students have, and what can they do with them to help people in trouble? Students may realise that their youthful energy, relative wealth, education and social networks enable them to achieve great things on behalf of others, and that it is not what you have that matters, but what you do with it.

 Bowling for Columbine (2002)

Sadly, extreme school violence is all too familiar in America and elsewhere. This movie examines some of the causes, but is it a fair examination? “Bowling for Columbine” is a documentary which may occasionally play fast-and-loose with the truth in order to make a statement, but it also features some very revealing insights about violence in modern society. When studying this, or any other documentary, it is important for students to think about how points are being made, as well as what is being said.

Schindler’s List (1993)

Twenty years on from its original release, there is still no better movie about the Holocaust. “Schindler’s List” is a great history lesson, but it also has important things to say about the nature of good and evil, and where prejudice may lead. Oskar Schindler is in some ways every bit as much a ‘super-hero’ as Peter Parker, and the horrors of the death camps are not so different from things going on right now in your students’ world. For a rather different look at the horrors of war, try the heartbreaking anime, “Grave of the Fireflies” (1988). Incidentally, although widely seen as an anti-war film, director Isao Takahata says that its message has more to do with educating young people to respect what their elders have endured.

October Sky (1999)

Some movies are simply inspirational, and “October Sky” is one of them. This story of Homer Hickham and the Rocket Boys teaches young people that with the right attitude dreams don’t have to be out of reach, no matter where you’re from. For a more serious look at the rewards of perseverance and determination, Will Smith’s “The Pursuit of Happyness” (2006) is also recommended.

The Truman Show (1998)

“Plato’s Cave” is given new life in this intriguing film about the social chains which restrict personal freedom. It is also deeply about the role which the media plays in keeping those chains tight. Students may want to consider what restrictions they have in their own life and what might be causing them. “The Truman Show” is also a very useful prop in teaching about ‘reality TV’ and the modern obsession with celebrity.

Wall-E (2008)

How the environment is treated in the next few years will be important to all young people. “Wall-E” makes statements about pollution – and about looking after one’s own physical wellbeing – in a non-threatening but thoughtful way. It is ideal as an introduction to other science-fiction texts, or to movies such as “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004) or “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006).

The idea that visual texts have themes and subtexts which can teach critical life lessons is important to a generation which will most likely spend more time watching than reading. Teachers owe it to their students to explore the meanings in movies, and use them as true learning content rather than simply as entertainment.