Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Scripting the Past: Exploring Women's History Through Film

Created September 27, 2010


The Lesson


Scripting the Past: scripting.jpg

Credit: Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

In this lesson, students employ the screenwriter's craft to gain a fresh perspective on historical research, learning how filmmakers combine scholarship and imagination to bring historical figures to life and how the demands of cinematic storytelling can shape our view of the past.

Guiding Questions

  • How do filmmakers bring history to life, and how does filmed history represent (or misrepresent) historical realities?

Learning Objectives

  • To learn about the craft of filmmaking and role of the screenwriter within the filmmaking process.
  • To examine a first-person documentary narrative from a screenwriter's point of view, focusing on the kinds of information needed to create a story that will bring the past to life on film.
  • To gather contextual details required for a film treatment through historical research.
  • To consider the relationship between historical narrative and the storytelling conventions of film.
  • To produce a film scenario and script a scene based on the life of a historical figure.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Women's history through the lens of filmmaking

Begin by explaining that in this lesson students will examine a figure in women's history through the lens of filmmaking, producing a screenplay based on an autobiographical narrative and their own research into the time period in which that autobiography is set.

Activity 2. Introduction to the filmmaking process

Introduce students to the filmmaking process with a visit to the Cinema exhibit at the Learner.Org website, accessible through EDSITEment. Here students can learn how the screenwriter, director, producer, actors, and editing team collaborate to create a finished film. Guide students through the exhibit or have them read through it on their own, focusing on the role played by the screenwriter and director. If time permits, students can also try their hand at writing a scene with an online activity.

Activity 3. Choose an autobiographical narrative to create film script

Divide the class into small study teams of three or four students, and have each team choose one of the autobiographical narratives listed below as the basis for their film script. (Note that these autobiographies range from full-length books (Fremont and Tubman) to chapter-length extracts.)

  • Jessie Benton Fremont
    The wife of John C. Fremont, renowned explorer of the American West, describes her 1849 trip to California and life on the family's ranch east of San Francisco during the Gold Rush era in A Year of American Travel (1877), available through EDSITEment at the American Memory website.
  • Harriet Tubman
    This legendary figure in the struggle against slavery tells her life story in Harriet, The Moses of Her People (1886), a biography written by her friend Sarah H. Bradford, which is available through EDSITEment at the Documenting the American South website.
  • Marie Haggerty
    At age 72, Haggerty recounts her experiences growing up on a New England farm in the late 19th century and her life as a domestic servant for wealthy Boston families in a seven-part oral history available through EDSITEment at the American Memory website. (Use the American Memory search engine with the keyword "Haggerty" to locate these documents.)
  • Alice Hamilton
    A physician who worked with Jane Addams to improve working class conditions during the Progressive era, Hamilton recalls her efforts to expose the dangers of lead and other industrial poisons in a excerpt from her autobiography, Exploring the Dangerous Trades (1946), available through EDSITEment at the History Matters website.
  • Katharin D. Morse
    A "canteen girl" during World War I, Morse describes how she brought comfort to American servicemen far from home with hot chocolate and movies in an excerpt from her memoir, Uncensored Letters of a Canteen Girl (1920), available through EDSITEment at the History Matters website.
Activity 4. Gather preliminary details

As they read their selected narratives, have students gather preliminary details that they can use in their film scripts. For example: background information about the main character; identifying information about supporting characters; the period and setting for specific events; important or dramatic episodes in the story; lines of dialogue or quotations they might work into their script. In addition, encourage students who have selected a long narrative to choose a portion of the story that seems most suitable for film treatment.

Activity 5. Brainstorm a list of questions

After this preliminary reading, help students brainstorm a list of questions they can use to begin visualizing their narrative in film terms. The list should include questions that set a direction for historical research and questions that can be answered by close reading of the narrative itself. The framework below can provide a starting-point.

Visualizing the Scene

  • What did it look like where these events took place?
  • How did people live at that time? How did they dress? How did they furnish their homes? How did they travel?

Visualizing the Society

  • What social attitudes were characteristic of those times (e.g., prejudices, assumptions about gender roles, class distinctions, etc.)?
  • How were social relationships of the time similar to and different from relationships today (e.g., family relationships, sexual relationships, interracial relationships, economic or workplace relationships, etc.)?

Visualizing Character

  • What did the characters look like? How old were they? What were their habits and manners?
  • What are the characters' most distinctive personality traits? How do they interact with others? What do others say about them?

Visualizing Action

  • What issues or values motivate the main character? What episodes test the character's motivation and commitment?
  • What is the main character's goal at this point in her life? How is her life changed by the pursuit of this goal? What is her life like after this effort?
Activity 6. Gather information for screenplay

When they have prepared their lists of questions, have the student teams gather information for their screenplays. Divide this part of the lesson into three stages, providing ample class time and independent research time for each step in the research and preparation process.

  1. Period Portfolios
    Have students use library and Internet resources to create "Period Portfolios" that reflect the look and character of the time period in which their film will be set. These portfolios might include images of everyday life, important events, and famous individuals, as well as news reports, advertisements, and other primary documents. By creating their own portfolios, students should gain a feel for the period that will help them visualize the settings and social milieu for their films. The EDSITEment websites listed below can provide a starting-point for this research.Students can also use NAIL (the NARA Archival Information Locator) at the Digital Classroom website to search the online holdings of the National Archives and the search engine at the American Memory website to search the online collections of the Library of Congress, as well as the EDSITEment search engine to search all EDSITEment websites.
  2. Character Profiles
    Have students prepare short profiles of the characters they will feature in their filmscripts, based on close reading of their narratives. These profiles can include physical description, personality traits, characteristic phrases and gestures, etc. Encourage students to imagine they are writing for the actors who will portray their characters as they prepare these profiles.
  3. Story Elements
    Finally, have students create an inventory of story elements for their filmscript by selecting and organizing episodes from their narrative. Encourage them to focus at this point on singling out the kernels of action amid the passages of reflection and commentary in the narrative, and on identifying dramatic events they can imagine translating into film scenes. Students should also look for episodes that test the motivation of their main character, and those in which she makes progress toward her goal.
Activity 7. Outline a plot for movie

Following this preparation, have students outline a plot for their movie, a process that will usually involve reshaping history somewhat to fit storytelling conventions. Remind students of the basic stages of plot development: conflict, complication, crisis, and resolution. Students may also find inspiration in some of the standard formulas Hollywood filmmakers use:

  • Romance: A woman and man meet, feel a mutual attraction, encounter obstacles or lose one another, and finally get back together again.
  • Quest: An individual or group work to achieve a goal, encountering obstacles, adventures, discouragement, and ultimately success.
  • Conversion: An individual is changed, suddenly or over a period of time, by experiences, the influence of others, or the impact of events.
  • Confrontation: An individual or group struggles to overcome, elude, or outsmart an adversary in order to survive.
Activity 8. Script a key scene for film

Finally, have students script a key scene for their film, including scenic directions and dialogue. Remind students that images tell much of the story in a film, serving to evoke the emotions and thoughts of the viewer. To capture this visual element, students might talk through the scene with their teammates, describing what appears on screen, or they might close their eyes and try to see the action unfolding in their imaginations. Students should also strive to integrate their dialogue into the action of the scene. Rather than have characters deliver speeches, for example, let them talk while they are moving or doing something that will add visual interest to the scene.

Activity 9. Present scripted scene

Conclude this lesson by having each student team present its scripted scene to the class. Then lead a discussion reflecting on the process of translating history into film and the extent to which film conventions may influence our perceptions of the past. Based on their own screenwriting experience, for example, students may have a new insight into the way stereotypes implicitly shape film portrayals of women, ethnic groups, children, occupations, etc. They may also begin to recognize how the assumptions wrapped up in the term "Americana" help determine the kinds of stories we tell about America's past and the values we seek in our history. Use this discussion to explore the power of popularization in historical filmmaking and to foster more critical viewership.

Extending The Lesson

Continue your study of the relationship between storytelling conventions and our perception of historical and social realities by investigating traditions in children's literature. Visit the U.S. Women's History Workshop website for an Electronic Classroom exhibit on Children's Literature that focuses on the way these stories reveal the moral assumptions of a society. Additional resources on children's literature are available in the "Childhood" area of the History of Education website, including World of the Child: Two Hundred Years of Children's Books at the University of Delaware, History of Children's Literature by Kay E. Vandergrift at Rutgers University, and Casting Characters: An Introduction to the History of Juvenile Literature to 1900 by Suzanne Semmes Dennis at Dartmouth College.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

4-6 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Biography
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > World
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • Literature and Language Arts
  • Art and Culture
  • Analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Online research