The What and Why of Documentary


Students are introduced to the influence of documentaries, the characteristics of a documentary film and focus questions that will guide them through the analysis of effective documentary films and the production of their own expository documentary.


This is the first of four lessons in this project-based unit where students will learn about documentary filmmaking while completing their own documentary production presenting an argument, research, and a call to action.

In this lesson, students are introduced to the elements of the documentary film and its impact on the viewer and society. Students are also introduced to the culminating task so that they can begin to ask questions about what they are being asked to produce in this 4 lesson unit.

This lesson concludes with students analyzing a PBS Frontline Documentary using a set of guiding focus questions that they will revisit throughout the lesson.

Materials suggested for this Lesson

  • Student Handouts printed before each lesson (optional)
  • Other traditional class materials such as Chart Paper, Markers, Pens, and Highlighters

Lesson Times

Why Documentary
10 Minutes
What is the Goal of this Project?
25 Minutes
Documentary vs. Narrative... Defining Documentary
60 Minutes
Documentary Analysis and Introduction to Focus Questions
90 Minutes

Industries / Subjects / Grades

Industries / Pathways
  • Arts, Media, and Entertainment Arts, Media, and Entertainment
K-12 Subjects
  • English-Language Arts
  • Visual Arts & Performing Arts
    • Visual Arts
Grade Levels
  • 10
  • 11
  • 12

Standards and Objectives


California's 2013 CTE Standards (2)

Related Instructional Objectives (SWBAT...)

  • Students will be able to articulate how a documentary can cause change.
  • Students will be able to describe the culminating task and create questions about the task.
  • Students will be able to define characteristics of documentary.
  • Students will be able to apply a few of the documentary focus questions to analyze the PBS Frontline Documentary Generation Like Me.

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