Upper School History and Government Teacher Karen Cullen used distance learning as an opportunity to launch a project she always wanted to do— give tenth grade Modern World History students a “dive into everything World War II” via classic war movies.
A self-described classic film buff, Cullen collaborated with her daughter Rose Bridges, a Ph.D candidate in musicology at the University of Texas at Austin specializing in film music. Together, they brainstormed the project and came up with a list of 24 war films, being careful not to include any propaganda. “This is an example of what people who are quarantined together can do,” Cullen said. They enlisted the help of Bryn Mawr librarian Patti Rickert-Wilbur to provide access to the movies, many of which are not available on common streaming platforms.
Groups of students were then given two films to screen and analyze — one from a country that fought for the Allies and one that fought for the Axis during WWII. Then, students compared the films’ depiction of a particular topic and created a presentation to share. For example, students exploring the Western front screened both Dunkirk (2017) and the German film Das Boot (1981), while groups examining the Pacific front watched From Here to Eternity (1953) and a Japanese anime biopic The Wind Rises (2013). Other groups looked at films representing the Holocaust, covert operations, the resistance, the home front and more.
“We had to stream several of the films from my computer, which was actually fun because we could interact with the groups as they were watching the films,” Cullen said. “They posted questions in the chat, and commented on the characters and plot.”
In many ways, Cullen says this project was even better suited for distance learning rather than a campus classroom and schedule. Students could collaborate across the multiple sections of Modern World History, plus, it encouraged them to engage with other students’ projects on Canvas. Cullen also liked how the project allowed students to watch an entire film at once, whereas in a traditional classroom setting, they might have been limited to only clips. One student even joined a screening from South Korea.
Overall, Cullen says the students really enjoyed the project and many discovered an appreciation for older black-and-white and/or foreign language films, and learned how to more critically watch films. “Most importantly, a lot of students said that they learned new things about World War II that they had never considered.”