Essential Question 1: What is a documentary?

Students may be familiar with the word "documentary," so it's important to discover their levels of existing knowledge and their attitudes about this genre of programming. Many students will be able to identify which channels documentaries are most frequently found on, and many children will note that most documentary programs are "not for kids."

Unfortunately, some students have negative attitudes toward the docuentary, which they may lable as "boring." When students are asked who watches documentaries, they often identify "teachers" as a target audience, so when teachers explain to students why they like documentaries, this can be useful in helping students to understand the appeal of the genre among adults.

When Scottish filmmaker John Grierson defined the documentary near the turn of the century as "the creative interpretation of actuality," it was to recognize that documentaries are creative representations of actual people, groups and events. Under this broad definition, we may also consider "reality-based" shows to be "creative interpretations of actuality."

Defining the Documentary

Target Age:          Middle School and up
Video Segment:    This video contains four different definitions of the word %u201Cdocumentary%u201D graphically presented.
Focus Question:    What is a documentary?

Goals and Objectives
Students will learn about the process of creating a dictionary entry.
Students will write their own definitions of the documentary and reflect on the variety of definitions that the word "documentary" has acquired. Students will become familiar with the concept of genre in film and television.
Activity 1: Understanding Genre
Draw a horizontal line on the blackboard with "fiction" at one end and "non-fiction" at the opposite end.  Ask students to name programs that fall into the two categories and write the program names on the board.  Can students name programs that are mixtures? That include fictional and non-fictional elements? Specific program titles can be placed on the continuum. 

Discuss the concept of genre with students, and make connections among the genres of literature (short story, portrait, autobiography) and the genres of film and television.  Ask students to list the names of various television genres (advertising, situation comedies, action-adventure, game show, etc.)

Use a TV Guide and call out names of specific program titles.  What educated guesses can students make about the genres of various programs based on the program name, the channel and time slot?

Ask students what kinds of genres fall into the category of "non-fiction" (news, talk shows, reality shows, documentary).  Ask what these programs have in common.  Discuss why it is useful to be able to label specific programs into various genres.

Activity 2: Activating Students' Prior Experience with Documentary
Ask students to name programs that they believe fall into the genre of "documentary."  On what channels are documentaries frequently shown?  What kinds of people are usually the target audiences for documentaries?  Why do some kids think documentaries are boring? What kinds of documentaries are not boring for children and young people? Why?

Activity 3:  Defining the Documentary
Have students watch various kinds of non-fiction programming at home, perhaps by breaking students into teams.  After viewing, invite students to apply one of the following definitions to the work that they viewed:

  • The creative interpretation of actuality
  • The gray area between art and journalism
  • The presentation of socially useful information to the public
  • Making drama from life