One of our readers, an educator, asked the JAR editors a question that we chose to put before our contributors:
What is the best audiovisual material for use in the classroom to teach K-12 students about the American Revolution or the Founding Era (approximately 1765–1805)?
The only real choice for this is the HBO John Adams mini-series based on David McCullough’s biography. Not only does it cover the years in question and then some, but the research, writing, and casting combine to make it as realistic a portrayal of the seminal events in that era as any previous—or likely any hence. For all intents and purposes, the series is a time machine—the closest we will come to being able to go back in time and watch the years of our republic’s birth and infancy. It also has the benefit of showing kids that the personal problems and challenges faced three centuries ago are not all that different than the ones we face today.
One of my favorite series on the American Revolution has always been one from the History Channel called The Revolution. It is actually a thirteen-part series that is interesting and should be very appealing for high school-age history fans anxious to learn about the war. The video is well done and the revolution is presented at pretty close to a beginners level. However, for those who want to dig a bit deeper, I recently watched a lecture series called America’s Founding Fathers by The Great Courses. The presentation by Professor Allen Guelzo really brought the founders alive. He describes the personality conflicts and political battles at each step in the process. Well beyond the normal stories of Hamilton and Jefferson, there are all sorts of characters talked about with depth and their impact on the era told with passion and enthusiasm. Edutainment at its best.
I don’t think any one series is applicable, although I think the Liberty! series is close. In teaching U.S. History for thirty-five years, I found that clips from the various series proved to be the best. In addition to using snippets from the various series, I used The Crossing, Johnny Tremain, 1776, To Keep Our Liberty (From Minuteman National Historical Park), and various scenes from other films (even a small scene from Gibson’s The Patriot). Like any media, a teacher has to choose what fits into their lesson plans, objectives, and teaching style.
For a broader view of parts of the Revolution that aren’t as often heard about, I am partial to The American Revolution, from the Discovery Network (and not only because I was involved in its production). It’s a terrific supplement to the more traditional accounts of the process toward independence, each episode focusing on a handful of unsung heroes in the Revolution. Some of the stories are pretty true to the historical facts, while others are based on popular tales that have no factual basis, and it is not as nuanced or as broadly contextual as some material out there. They provide some unique insights and viewpoints on the experience of taking part in that struggle. Alternating between talking heads and re-enactments, it packs enough action to keep students’ attention, while leaving enough open questions to encourage deeper engagement.
Certainly, the answer will differ depending on the audience given the wide breadth of ages. For younger learners, the PBS animated series Liberty’s Kids is one of my favorite tools when discussing the Revolution. Viewing the events of Bunker Hill through the signing of the Constitution through the eyes of three fictional children (one American, one British, and one French) it covers a startling number of events with historical accuracy through forty episodes. The series features a large number of celebrities voicing major historical characters such as Walter Cronkite (Franklin), and Billy Crystal and Annette Benning (the Adamses). Dustin Hoffman (Arnold) and Sylvester Stallone (Revere) also make appearances.
John L. Smith
My personal pick is the 1997 PBS and Peabody Award-winning series Liberty! The American Revolution based upon the book by the late Thomas Fleming. Hosted by Forrest Sawyer and narrated by the great voice of late Edward Herrmann, the six hour-long episodes give an excellent and balanced presentation from the American and British sides—along with those of slaves, women, and Indians. The character quotes presented to the audience by excellent actors and actresses are all essentially authentic. An additional plus for me in Liberty! is the song—“Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier,” which ends each segment. This historically accurate song is beautiful in its lyrics and melody, while woefully describing a young maiden’s sorrow. Sung by James Taylor, who also accompanies fiddle-player Mark O’Connor, it adds an extra dimension to a viewer’s feeling for the conflict. Coming in at a very close second place would be the 2006 History Channel production of the American Revolution simply called The Revolution. It’s also narrated by Edward Herrmann. Though it has thirteen (by coincidence?) episodes, they’re fast moving and adequately cover all of the main action points of the Revolution.
Titus K. Belgard
Two thoughts come immediately to mind. First, an excellent argument for not throwing out old VHS tapes is the 1995 multi-episode documentary The Revolutionary War. Narrated by the late broadcaster Charles Kuralt, this series, unfortunately, appears to be unavailable on DVD. If it ever is released on DVD, it might make ideal viewing for a junior high audience as reenactors are used to highlight the historical discussions. Second, The Great Courses has several DVD lecture series with a focus surrounding the Revolutionary War era. Each segment in each series is thirty minutes, just long enough to possibly hook a high school audience without becoming tedious.
Liberty’s Kids was originally a TV series but has since been released to DVD. It covers events starting from the Boston Tea Party to the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The four main characters are fictional but they witness real events and meet real people. Each character provides a different point of view and the show does a good job of showing the story from many different sides including Patriots, Loyalists, Native Americans, slaves and free African Americans. The show manages to deal with serious and mature topics in a way children can understand and avoids on-screen violence without losing the gravity of loss and tragedy in the war.
Adam E. Zielinski
I would argue that there are no worthy audiovisual collections that can be “best” used for teaching students in the classroom. After spending years lecturing students about the founding generation and the principles fought for and won by the Revolution, I always came away feeling that this was an area that is in drastic need of something more. Sure, showing the Battle of Cowpens depicted at the end of The Patriot or cherry-picking scenes from the John Adams miniseries (particularly Part 1 about the Boston Massacre and the trial the followed) can be great for building lesson plans around. But the truth is educators are starving for coherent, well-executed materials that engage students about the complexities and the people involved during the era. History isn’t boring, if done right. Every time I ever told the class about Washington’s December 31, 1776 speech or how Peggy Shippen played a huge part in deceiving the Continental officer corps or how African Americans were not invisible in the Continental army, I witnessed kids come alive and respond. Imagine what can be done with better programming to help. We need to do more to turn students on to this critically under-taught and misunderstood time period. It should be a call to arms for all of us in the field.
Michael F. Sheehan
For me, the History Channel’s series The Revolution, narrated by Edward Herrmann from 2006 was both visually and factually fascinating. Having watched it as a fifteen year old, I’d say it’s absolutely perfect for high schoolers—it was one of the things that steered my interest towards the American founding period.
I LOVE the PBS Kids animated series Liberty’s Kids. Forty half-hour episodes cover events from the Boston Tea Party to the early Constitutional Republic. Fictional teenagers—James, an American, and Sarah, an English girl—cover for founding events for Benjamin Franklin’s paper while meeting key players from both sides. A celebrity cast voices the characters, led by Walter Cronkite as Franklin. This series is relatable and entertaining for kids. Educators will appreciate the impeccable research and fair portrayal of events. The latest DVD incarnation features in-depth study guides for each episode and additional activity pages.