Although learning happens all year long, during the summer many homeschoolers follow a somewhat lighter schedule. One of the easiest and most constructive ways to spend your summer educational time (in the evening or when it’s too hot to go out) is to watch good quality documentaries together as a family.
Here are nine documentary masterpieces that you can watch with your students this summer — or at any time of year — over a period of days or weeks or months as you choose. I have embedded the first episode of each series here, but online video links are notoriously ephemeral and they may eventually fail. Subsequent episodes are usually linked from the first. (If you hunt around the net you can also find services that will let you download online videos for offline viewing.)
The best educational approach to follow is of course not to just watch these documentaries, but to discuss them. Students develop intellectually when they have to make mental effort under questioning. What did you find most interesting in this episode? (Why?) What surprised you the most? (Why?) What was the most confusing part of the presentation? What are you skeptical about? (“I wonder if that’s really correct?”) What would you like to know more about?
The documentaries are listed here by date of production, and they are all suitable for high school students in my judgement. Some of course address difficult topics and so may not be appropriate for younger children. If your students were to watch and discuss all of these documentaries in a homeschool setting over the course of their high school years, they would almost certainly end up with a better understanding of history than most college students have today.
➢ Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark — 13 episodes, 1969. A pioneering series on the history, art, and architecture of Europe. This series was the model for many others that followed. (Series and episode descriptions. Episode 1: The Skin of Our Teeth.)
➢ The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski — 13 episodes, 1973. A magnificent series on the history of science and civilization from ancient times to the present, conceived initially as a response to Clark’s history of art. (Series and episode descriptions. Episode 1: Lower than the Angels.)
➢ The World at War from the BBC — 26 episodes, 1973. One of the most significant documentary series ever made, covering the entire history of World War II. (Series and episode descriptions. Episode 1: A New Germany.)
➢ In Search of the Trojan War by Michael Wood — 6 episodes, 1985. Myth, history, and archeology come together in this excellent documentary on ancient Greece and the Trojan War. (Series and episode descriptions. Episode 1: The Age of Heroes. Internet Archive: Complete series.)
➢ The Civil War by Ken Burns — 9 episodes, 1990. A pioneering and visually captivating history of the American Civil War. Perhaps the best American history documentary ever made. (Series and episode descriptions. Episode 1: The Cause.)
➢ Liberty! The American Revolution from PBS — 6 episodes, 1997. An excellent documentary history of the American Revolution. (Series and episode descriptions. Episode 1: The Reluctant Revolutionaries.)
➢ John Adams by David McCullough — 7 episodes, 2008. An excellent dramatized biography of one of the most important figures in American history, based on the book by David McCullough (Series and episode descriptions. Episode 1: Join or Die.)
➢ They Shall Not Grow Old by Peter Jackson — Feature film, 2018. A remarkable history of World War I from the director of The Lord of the Rings. The film uses original footage that has been given new life through modern digital processing. (Film description.)
What historical epochs and momentous events are you studying in your homeschool this Hercules Term? ☀️
❡ Come, here’s the map: History and geography go hand in hand. As you watch the documentaries above, be sure to have your homeschool atlas at hand and open. 🌎
❡ Music and more: If you’re looking for audio-only materials, to listen to while traveling for example, don’t miss the outstanding collection of American musical documentaries from Thomas Hampson that we recommended last year. 🎵
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