Documentaries in the classrom with Ava DuVernay's 13TH

Documentaries are now a part of mainstream media and screening a documentary during a program event or classroom offers benefits such as learner engagement. Yet, as our students become more and more diverse, there can be some pedagogical challenges with creating a conversation between students, staff members, instructors, and community members who don’t share a common cultural background.

Over the next week, I’d like to facilitate a conversation about Ava DuVernay’s powerful documentary 13th.  If you aren’t familiar with the documentary, Netflix and the director of Selma created a powerful lens into the connection between the end of slavery with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and the over- incarceration of African American men today. The goal is to explore and discuss the powerful message behind 13th, expand the conversation to include the implications for our adult learners and then wrap the week up with a summary of the benefits of using documentaries in the classroom.

I invite you to watch 13th and share your thoughts and comments about how this could be used in the classroom with adult learners.

Kathy Tracey




What a fabulous idea for a teaching tool!  So many aspects of DuVernay's documentary were topics of conversation at the Advancing Equity Symposium that I know it will provide a rich discussion for this and the connection for use with adult learners in our classrooms. I look forward to seeing others' comments and posts. In the meantime, we are in the process of uploading some of the slide decks from the symposium, and the first to go up will be the session led by Dr. Johan Uvin. The session highlighted several federal initiatives which relate to this discussion, including the "Corrections Education, Reentry Education and Youth Diversion" and "My Brother’s Keeper" initiatives. As the documentary shows, though, we still have work to do!

In Illinios, adult students are required to complete the Constitution exam and I have taught the "Constitution" for years. I am using quotes becasue until this documentary, I believed I was doing a great job. My students engaged in discussions, applied knowledge gained in class discussions and reading to scenarios to the assessment. I really believed that my students were learning so much. It was great to see students connect what they were learning to both real world experiences and to the history instruction. I have to admit to being very humbled when watching 13th. Humbled for many reasons - but in this case, because I missed teaching the depth of the Constitution and the impact on our current society as it relates to the continued marginalization of many citizens. As DuVernay points out, The amendment mandates that there shall be no slavery “except as a punishment for crime.”  And how powerful that part of the ammendment has become. For those who have seen this documentary, how has it changed (if at all) your teaching strategies? What part stands out the most for you?



I haven't seen 13th yet, but your discussion will prompt me to move it up my Netflix list. I think the idea of using it to reflect on the messages we convey in our teaching (and may need to revise) is really key. We could turn to many documentaries to help us with that!


Hi Andy, 

I have to admit I'm a documentary / podcast junkie. More than anything, they can help build a student's background knowledge and introduce the student to new or different ideas. I have to admit that I have been challenged by some of the documentaries I have watched. Community and program screenings are poweful ways to build a shared knowledge base. As you move up 13th on your Netflix list, also consider adding the upcoming documentary about Kalief Browder. 


Hi Kathy,

I'm familiar with the Kalief Browder story and think it would just be too painful for me to watch. It reminds me that the task for educators, as we introduce students to difficult information, is to make sure that we highlight the ways people are using their agency to take action and steps toward positive change. Otherwise we risk leaving students feeling more cynical, alienated and disempowered. I did a project many years ago where adult ed classes were paired with a community action/advocacy group in order to use civic action as the context for developing their basic skills. One class worked with a day laborer's organization to conduct and analyze a community survey on that topic, another worked with a housing rights organization to develop a bilingual video for their community. It was very exciting work that couldn't find on-going funding, but which I'm trying to revive now. 


This discussion has been rich in ideas and resources to engage more advanced learners in improving their life and academic skills. (Maybe even lower-level folks since the delivery is oral!) Thanks, everyone.

Andy, I am a huge, huge advocate of Project-Based Learning. Your two examples provide wonderful ground for expansion into similar practices. I hope you are funded, and I look forward to hearing more. Leecy