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 video documentary masterpieces and one great audio series that you can share with your homeschool students this summer over a period of days or weeks or months as you choose. I have embedded the first episode of each video series here; subsequent episodes are usually linked from the first. (These links have been tested and are all working as of today’s posting date, but online video links are notoriously ephemeral and some of them may eventually fail.)
The best educational approach to follow is not simply to watch these documentaries of course, but to discuss them. Students develop intellectually when they have to make mental effort under questioning. What did you think was the most interesting part of this episode? (Why?) What surprised you the most? (Why?) What was the most confusing part of the presentation? (How could they have explained that better?) What are you skeptical about? (“I wonder if that’s really correct?”) What would you like to know more about? (Write that down and we can look it up in the library next week.) Don’t worry too much if your students’ attention is imperfect of if they are playing with legos while watching. In every case they will be absorbing names and dates and vocabulary and images that they will file away now and have ready for use at a later time. (Old-time educators used to call it “furnishing the mind.”)
The documentaries are listed here by date of production, and they are all suitable for high school students in my judgement. Some of them address difficult topics of course 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.)
➢ Thomas Jefferson by Ken Burns — 2-part film, 1997. A documentary portrait of America’s most enigmatic founder. (Film description. Part 1.)
➢ 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.)
In addition to the video documentaries above, this audio documentary series developed by American singer Thomas Hampson, one of the world’s leading classical baritones, makes for excellent homeschool listening throughout the summer (or at any time of year).
➢ Song of America by Thomas Hampson — 13 episodes, 2011. A wonderful series of radio programs on the history of American classical song. Each episode focuses on a composer or on a poet whose work has been set to music: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Robert Frost, Stephen Foster, and many more. (About the series. Listen online.)
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 by your side and open. 🌎
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