Closer Readings Commentary

Ken Burns Asks: “Who Are We As Americans?”


On May 9, 2016, Ken Burns will deliver the 2016 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The lecture is the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities. NEH Chairman, William D. Adams, has said of Mr. Burns, “His work combines deep humanities research with a rich feeling for American life and culture and unparalleled public reach and appeal.”

The National Endowment for the Humanities has been Mr. Burns’s partner from the beginning of his career, starting with his documentary Brooklyn Bridge.  

Documentary Film as a Learning Tool

One of the most vivid memories many of us have of documentary films is the chattering sound of the 16mm projector as it cast images of places never seen and people never met. The flickering light against the screen and the distorted monophonic sound presented historic figures gripped in conflict, maps and charts, and brief clips of academic “talking heads” imparting their expertise on young, impressionable minds.  

Documentary films were—and still are—effective instructional tools for delivering information and insight to students: after WWII, studies conducted by the U.S. military found that putting sound to pictures facilitated the translation of abstract concepts into solid understanding and helped maintain student interest. The films had the added benefit of being shown more than once to increase retention. Some research shows that audio-visual media is four times more effective than the lecture and twice as effective as reading for helping students retain information.

Of course, it isn’t just a matter of setting up the projector, turning it on and having data magically transferred from the film to the students. As any good teacher knows, understanding is further improved through the active learning methods of demonstration, discussion, practice, and teaching others. When students are engaged in classroom materials that provide opportunities for discussion, practice, and teaching, student learning is enhanced.

In the thirty-seven years that Ken Burns has been pioneering documentary filmmaking, he has also been maximizing its potential as a learning tool for students and the general public. He has done so by raising and exploring, through film, some of the most serious issues in our national history. If there is one constant that runs through most of Mr. Burns’s films, from Thomas Jefferson and the Civil War to his most recent ones, it is the troubled history of race in our democracy dedicated, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, to the proposition that “all men are created equal.”

Jackie Robinson and the Color Line

Mr. Burns’s latest film, Jackie Robinson, brings the question of race to the history of our national game by telling the fascinating and inspiring story of that American icon’s life-long struggle for first class citizenship for all African Americans. The accompanying website also contains a rich compilation of supporting materials for teachers: from notable clips from the documentary, to a “Timeline” that aligns events in Robinson’s life with milestones of the civil rights movement, to a “Social Hub,” where visitors can share Robinson’s stats (and other information) on Face Book and Twitter. The four classroom lessons examine Robinson’s journey across the color barrier of Jim Crow America into the world of implicit and explicit racism both in and out of baseball. Here are some lesson highlights:

  • In Living in Jim Crow America students analyze how experiences of discrimination and prejudice in Jackie Robinson's early life shaped his character and values and consider how such experiences affect people's lives. They then develop strategies through which the effects of racism can be addressed;
  • Taking the Measure of the Man explores the racial harassment Robinson experienced in his first year in major league baseball and the standard he set to address it. Students will analyze aggression, prejudice, and bullying and develop strategies on how they might confront these issues;
  • In A Journey back to Separate but Equal students examine the reasons Robinson pushed for further integration after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision and explore the Robinson family's experience with explicit and implicit racism;
  • Integration or Separation? examines African Americans' frustration during the 1960s over the lack of progress in obtaining social justice and achieving true equality and how their feeling of disenfranchisement energized more militant factions in the civil rights movement. Students will compare and contrast the state of race relations in the 1960s with those today and think critically about what can be done to improve existing conditions. 

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Ken Burns America

Since the broadcast of The Civil War, teachers have been incorporating Ken Burns’s films in their classroom instruction on a regular basis. Recently, all of Mr. Burns’s films and classroom materials have been catalogued at Ken Burns America. The educational materials include: discussion questions; student handouts; culminating activities with authentic assessment; evaluation rubrics; extension activities; and more.

Ken Burns begins all his projects with one essential question: “Who are we as Americans?” and this collection illuminates the many-faceted issues of what being an American means while also addressing the key curriculum areas of U.S. and world history, economics, civics and government, and geography.

Ken Burns America has several key components that teachers will find helpful:

  • Links to collections of essays, biographies and films presented in a “Screening Room,” which offer a wealth of information about some of America’s most important people, ideas and events;
  • An “Explore” section that offers users the opportunity to travel around the collection via map and timeline—or to just browse through hundreds of videos and images. In addition to film clips and video interviews with preeminent historians and cultural observers, there are also hundreds of collected photographs and primary source materials;
  • An “In the Classroom” section featuring materials that accompany the films, which align with content and Common Core standards. These materials also support critical thinking and reasoning; problem solving; creativity and innovation; media literacy; communication and collaboration; and other life skills. The lessons are developed for grades 7-12, with activities that are flexible enough for teachers to adapt to their students’ needs.

Teachers can access copies of these lessons directly from the website through either the “Browse Lesson Plans” section or the “Search for Lesson Plans” section. The “My Ken Burns Experience” tool allows teachers and students to save images, videos, timelines, maps, bios, essays, and lesson plans to supplement lessons and class activities and develop projects in a virtual scrapbook .

Using the National Council for the Social Studies College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework, Dimension 2, “Applying Disciplinary Concepts and Tools” as a guide, this chart identifies several Ken Burns’s films and specific classroom lessons that align to the four main social studies subjects.

Elections and Politics in American History on Ken Burns America

The 2016 general election is only a few months away. Selected lessons on Ken Burns America from the films The Roosevelts and Prohibition focus in on the election process, real-world politics, and clashing ideologies.

  • In President Theodore Roosevelt: Foreign Policy Statesman or Bully? from The Roosevelts, students take a posthumous look at the foreign policy of Teddy Roosevelt. The setting is January 6, 1919; the former president has just died. The class takes on the role of newspaper editors to develop a feature that addresses the extent to which TR’s foreign policy marred or enhanced his record as president. Students research Roosevelt’s record and debate the issues. Then they write feature articles and editorials assessing the former president’s record;
  • The lesson The Politics of Prohibition: The Hyper-Partisan Politics of Prohibition from Prohibition presents the contentious 1924 Democratic convention and 1928 presidential election, providing students the opportunity to compare the political rancor of the Roaring 20s with that of today and develop a presentation evaluating the effectiveness of hyper-partisan messaging in politics.

With all the focus on the presidential race during the general election, however, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the fact that one-third of the Senate and all of the Representatives in the House are also up for reelection.

  • The lesson The Evolution of Congress from The Congress starts with the fundamentals: students examine the structure and operation of Congress and theorize on why the framers spent so much time discussing and debating its role and power in government;
  • Two of Ken Burns’s films, The Civil War and The War (WWII), explore important constitutional issues regarding civil liberties in wartime. One of the more enduring tensions in America’s history that tests the strength of these rights is between safeguarding personal rights and preserving national security;
  • In the lesson Lincoln and Reconstruction, students consider the use of presidential power and delve deep into Lincoln’s plans for Reconstruction. Students examine the constitutional arguments Lincoln cited to justify his actions and the precedents he set for government regulation of the nation’s economy and social justice in the states. The lesson provides ample opportunities for discussions of federalism, states’ rights, and governmental overreach;
  • From the series The War, the lesson Japanese-American Internment explores the issues raised by the internment camps established by the federal government on the West Coast soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Students research potential legal conflicts with Executive Order 9066, including the federal government’s role in national security; the writ of habeas corpus; citizens’ civil rights and liberties; and the role of presidential powers. The lesson’s main theme of isolating American citizens of Japanese descent in internment centers for fear of sabotage can be applied to examining present day issues of excluding people considered to be a danger to the United States in the name of national security.

As one can see from even this brief sampling, Ken Burns America is an invaluable resource for teachers, students, and lifelong learners. It brings together important themes from American history that still resonate in the contemporary world. The collection of essays, images, and videos presented by Mr. Burns and his many collaborators, some of the most talented historians, thinkers, and documentary filmmakers of our time, provides the user with a vast array of tools for study, instructional design, and professional development. We encourage you to explore this robust, free set of learning materials and find the resources that can best meet your needs.

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