©2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Teaching What Matters: Great Videos for Teaching About the Common Good


Gloria T. Alter

Many of my favorite videos address the common good, exposing oppression and, at the same time, highlighting heroes who stand up for human rights. They add to our knowledge and understanding of major social and political issues, often encouraging the viewer to take action and support human rights in local and global communities. This strong instructional material encourages action against racism, sexism, classism, and other problems in support of the common good and respect for all. These videos can be used in school classrooms and in university courses on social studies methods, citizenship, and social justice.


On Racism

The Shadow of Hate, which is provided free to teachers by Teaching Tolerance, gives an overview of intolerance as it applies to many different groups. It reviews the history of intolerance in America in an unforgettable way. It should be considered essential content knowledge for pre-service and in-service teachers and high school students. Actual film footage taken during a lynching (scenes of the crowd enjoying the whole affair, a young spectator smiling, and pieces of clothing from the lynched individual being taken as souvenirs) remain etched in the viewer’s memory. Us and Them (available in book or magazine format) complements the video.

Two other videos demonstrate examples of citizen action in response to intolerance. In Taking a Stand, familiar actors from a “schoolbreak specia#148; tell the story of a young man who is challenged to report a hate crime committed by someone in his own neighborhood. He is mistreated for telling the truth and standing up for justice. Yet, he learns the importance of doing what is right. Not in Our Town, an inspirational story for every community that cares about human rights, tells how the people of Billings, Montana, pulled together to combat hate crimes. These events inspired other towns to do the same, and Not in Our Town II was born. A third in the series will soon be released, and a recently revised website is located at www.pbs.org/niot.

Additional videos have topics on historical racism—from Columbus to the treatment of African Americans to racism in world history—and specifically the Holocaust and earlier expressions of antisemitism. The Columbus Controversy presents an eye-opening view of Columbus—it is the first exposure that many of my pre-service and in-service teachers have had to a version of history different from the traditional happy one.

Ethnic Notions is an incredibly powerful video that tells the story of how African American stereotypes have served the economic and political needs of the larger society. Attention-getting cartoons, artifacts, movies, and other items of popular culture expose the complex and hidden operation of prejudice in social systems. Color Adjustment brings the story up to the present, providing examples of continuing racism.

Frontline: A Class Divided documents the famous “brown eyes/blue eyes” experiment performed in a third grade classroom shortly after Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. Students in the classroom, now adults, comment on the effect of the experience. The experiment is also implemented in a prison setting, where guards and others learn what it is like to be discriminated against.

A Friendship in Vienna, a powerful story about the Holocaust, is based on the book The Devil in Vienna by Doris Orgil (New York: Viking, 1988). When the ugly reality of the Holocaust threatens a Jewish family, two friends challenge the authority of the church and the state to follow their consciences. The Longest Hatred, The History of Anti-Semitism provides an extensive and worthwhile overview of an aspect of history that is useful for understanding the events of the Holocaust in their broader historical context.


On Sexism/Heterosexism

It is no longer enough to address only sexism. Sexual orientation is fast becoming an issue of substance in the curriculum. It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School is helpful for those who are beginning to address the issues of homosexuality in their classrooms. Some districts will not allow the showing of this award-winning video in the classroom, while others acknowledge its educational value.

The following videos on sexism cover discrimination now and in the past. The Fairer Sex, by ABC’s “PrimeTime Live,” reports an experiment showing that men and women are treated differently when “looking for jobs, shopping for cars, and even when asking about playing golf at a public golf course.” These concrete examples of discrimination challenge those who would deny that sexism is a legitimate issue. The video is part of a series addressing the issues of race, age, and appearance. Women in American History is documented with primary sources. Women Seen on Television is one of my all-time favorite videos. It is entertaining as well as startling. Those who would question the reality of sexual discrimination should try to counter the vivid evidence in this short video. Don’t miss it!


On Classism

Business Ethics: The Bottom Line challenges the assumption that unethical practices (such as relying on sweat shops for labor) are necessary for success in business. Zoned for Slavery is a remarkable video that takes the viewers inside a sweatshop to talk with the workers. It examines the lifestyles of, and lack of opportunities for, sweatshop workers in the Free Trade Zones.


On Disability Awareness

A Credo for Support presents the perspectives of individuals with disabilities, showing how they wish to be regarded and treated. The images alone in this 4-minute video tell the story so well that I prefer to show it to audiences with the sound off. In How Difficult Can This Be?, a popular speaker takes teachers and parents through the classroom experience of a learning-disabled student. Teachers come away with a much better understanding of the kinds of assistance these students need.


On Prejudice and Hatred

Prejudice, The Monster Within is a strong instructional video that clearly and effectively shows the nature of prejudice. Faces of the Enemy goes even further. This video details important work by Sam Keen about how we create the idea of the “enemy” that enables us to kill others. Cross-cultural and global examples draw liberally on editorial cartoons to illustrate Keen’s points. The video includes violence that will be disturbing to some audiences.


On Democracy and Human Rights

In Crisis of Democracy, from the PBS “World of Ideas Anthology”, a number of well-known historians, ethicists, and philosophers are interviewed on the topic of democracy. This is excellent, high-level material. About the UN: Human Rights provides a brief introduction to the important issue of human rights around the world, with special attention to the needs of children. In the Rights and Wrongs in America video series, Building Tolerance, Combating Childhood Poverty, and Creating Peace, feature well-known and highly respected speakers and describe significant projects related to these issues. This excellent material is applicable to a variety of educational purposes.


On Social Control

The Truth About Lies discusses how people are manipulated by groups into conforming to norms, regardless of whether they support the good of the individual or group. The powerful example of the space shuttle Challenger incident reveals the need to consider the welfare of others when we make decisions. Manufacturing Consent features Noam Chomsky’s thesis of the media as a mechanism for cultural control. Examples illustrate the use of the media to distort information in ways that benefit those in power.


Mechanisms of social control often contribute to the denial of human rights. Therefore, students need to understand these processes and the importance of supporting the rights of every citizen. In the early grades, teachers are often hesitant to reveal the dangers of conformity. Conformity is simply viewed as behaving appropriately. Yet, in sexual abuse education, we instruct students that conforming and doing what an adult tells them is not always wise. I believe that ideas like those used in sex education can be applied more broadly to teach children, youth, and adults to stand up for their rights and the rights of others. The videos discussed in this article can be used to provide “powerful social studies teaching and learning” opportunities that encourage students to make decisions respecting both their individual well-being and the common good. G



1. See J. Cederblom and D. W. Paulsen, Critical Reasoning, 3rd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1982). This book provides an impressive review of many types of faulty argumentation with extensive examples and learning exercises (see the section “Why Are Bad Arguments So Convincing?”).

2. See I. L. Allen, Unkind Words, Ethnic Labeling from Redskin to WASP (New York: Bergin & Garve, 1990); W. B. Helmreich, The Things They Say Behind Your Back, Stereotypes and the Myths Behind Them (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1984); P. H. Herbst, The Color of Words, An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States (Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1997).

3. See D. Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (New York: Continuum, 1994); S. J. Douglas, Where the Girls Are: Growing up Female with the Mass Media (New York: Times/Random House, 1994); B. J. Dow, Prime Time Feminism, Television, Media Culture, and the Women’s Movement since 1970 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996); M. J. Heide, Television Culture and Women’s Lives: Thirty Something and the Contradictions of Gender (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995); S. Jhally and J. Lewis, Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1992); P. M. Lester, ed., Images that Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996); P. A. Turner, Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and their Influence on Culture (New York: Anchor, 1994).

4. See M. Adams, L. A. Bell, and P. Griffin, eds., Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: A Sourcebook (New York: Routledge, 1997).

5. P. Phillips and Project Censored, Censored 1999: The News that Didn’t Make the News (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999).

6. Grote, Diversity Awareness Profile [Assessment tool] (San Diego: Pfeiffer & Company, 1991).

7. Center for Democratic Renewal, When Hate Groups Come to Town: A Handbook of Effective Community Responses, 2nd ed. (Atlanta: Center for Democratic Renewal, 1992); Teaching Tolerance: Responding to Hate at School; A Guide for Teachers, Counselors and Administrators (Montgomery, AL: Teaching Tolerance, 1999).

8. Teaching Tolerance features curriculum
materials and activities at teachingtolerance.org or call 334-241-0726, ext. 374.


Gloria T. Alter is an associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where she teaches courses in elementary social studies methods. She was the editor of Social Studies & the Young Learner from 1993 to 1996 and President of the Illinois Council for the Social Studies in 1997. She will be doing post-doctoral research at Harvard University on how the common good can serve as an organizing principle for the elementary social studies curriculum.


Videos Mentioned

About the U.N.: Human Rights. R. Bloomstein, director. New York: United Nations & Nucleus Publications, 1991. $9.95. 800-253-9646. 16 minutes. Middle schoo#150;adult.

Business Ethics: The Bottom Line. M. Schmiedeler, producer. Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and the Sciences, 1997. $89.95. 800-257-5126. 29 minutes. Adult.

Color Adjustment. V. Kleiman and M. Riggs, producers. San Francisco: California Newsreel, 1991. $49.95 for high schools. 415-621-6196. 88 minutes. Secondary–adult.

The Columbus Controversy. N. Kaufman, producer and director. New York: American School Publishers/Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, 1992. $101.88. 800-843-8855. 23 minutes. Middle schoo#150;adult.

A Credo for Support. N. Kunc and E. Van der Klift, producers. Nanaimo, Canada: Axis Consultation & Training, 1995. $25.00. 250-754-9939. 4 minutes. Upper elementary–adult.

Crisis of Democracy. J. Sameth, producer. New York: Mystic Fire Video/PBS, 1989. $89.95. 800-257-5126. 80 minutes. Secondary–adult.

Ethnic Notions. M. Riggs, producer. San Francisco: California Newsreel, 1987. $99.00 each for five titles or more. 415-621-6196. 57 minutes. Secondary–adult.

Faces of the Enemy. B. Jersey, director. Berkeley, CA: Quest Productions, 1987. $69.95. 510-548-0854. 58 minutes. Secondary–adult.

The Fairer Sex? R. Nelson, producer. Buffalo Grove, IL: Corvision Media/ABC News, 1993. $295.00. 800-537-3130. 16 minutes. Middle schoo#150;adult.

A Friendship in Vienna. C. Morgan, producer. A. Seidelman, director. Burbank, CA: Walt Disney/Buena Vista, 1990. $39.95. 800-421-4246. 94 minutes. Elementary–adult.

Frontline: A Class Divided. W. Peters, producer and director. Boston: Yale University Films/WGBH Educational Foundation, 1986. $200.00. 800-421-4246. 57 minutes. Elementary–adult.

How Difficult Can This Be? P. Rosen, director and producer. Alexandria, VA: Peter Rosen Productions/PBS Video, 1989. $49.95. 800-344-3337. 67 minutes. Adult.

It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School. H. Cohen and D. Chasnoff, producers. San Francisco: Women’s Educational Media, 1995. $99.00 ($75.00 for a 37-minute version). 201-652-6590. 78 minutes. Upper elementary–adult.

The Longest Hatred. R. Bloomstein, producer and director. Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and the Sciences, 1995. $29.95. 800-421-4246. 2 hours and 30 minutes. Secondary–adult.

Manufacturing Consent. M. Achbar and P. Wintonick, producers and directors. Montreal: Necessary Illusions and National Film Board of Canada, 1992. $199.00. 212-274-1989. Two videos of 94 and 72 minutes. Adult.

Not in Our Town. P. O’Neill and R. Miller. Oakland, CA: The Working Group, 1995. $99.00. 510-268-9675. 30 minutes. Elementary–adult.

Prejudice: The Monster Within. L. DiPrima and P. Synne, directors. Madison, WI: Knowledge Unlimited, 1996. $89.95. 800-356-2303. 30 minutes. Middle schoo#150;adult.

Rights and Wrongs in America video series: Building Tolerance, Combating Childhood Poverty, and Creating Peace. R. O’Connor and D. Schechter, producers. Oakland, CA: Globalvision/The Video Project, 1995. $159.00 for the series. 800-4-PLANET. Three videos of 26 minutes each. Middle schoo#150;adult.

The Shadow of Hate: A History of Intolerance in America. C. Guggenheim, producer. Montgomery, AL: Teaching Tolerance, 1995. Provided free to teachers. 334-264-0286. 40 minutes. Secondary–adult.

Taking a Stand. Group M Productions. Columbus, OH: Coronet/MTI, 1988. $89.95. 800-221-1274. 30 minutes. Middle schoo#150;adult.

The Truth about Lies. A. Perlmutter, producer. Alexandria, VA: Public Affairs Television, 1989. $89.95. 800-257-5126. 58 minutes. Secondary–adult.

Women in American History. National Women’s History Project, producer. Windsor, CA: National Women’s History Project, 1990. $325.00 for a set of five videos, $69.95 each. 707-838-6000. 15 minutes each. Middle schoo#150;adult.

Women Seen on Television. J. Sass and P. Yes, producers. Portland: Letting Go Foundation. $195.00. 503-635-7511. 11 minutes. Middle schoo#150;adult.

Zoned for Slavery: The Child Behind the Label. National Labor Committee. New York: Crowing Rooster Arts, 1995. $18.00. 212-242-3002. 23 minutes. Middle schoo#150;adult.


Teaching About the Common Good: Classroom Applications


What do students need to understand and be able to do to support the common good? Critical reasoning ability is essential to an understanding of the complex concepts involved in acting on civic ideals. As students increase in their understanding of discrimination and its various forms in culture and society, they should also give attention to the self-awareness that leads to action for the common good.

1. Critical Reasoning

Unsubstantiated arguments against the common good are often convincing to students and adults. Because of this, critical reasoning skills must be developed to expose such flawed arguments.1 The use of critical reasoning enables students to deal with the real problems and not phony distractions.

The following statement, drawn from a class discussion, illustrates one type of flawed argument:


U.S. business owners need to make a profit, and poor people around the world need jobs. The poor already have a low standard of living, therefore, it is not wrong to use sweatshop labor to manufacture clothing for our nation’s garment industry.


In this argument, the true consequences of the use of sweatshops and the true motives of the businesses involved are masked. The excessive profits of businesses are not acknowledged, and it does not follow that because people need jobs, it is acceptable to deny their human rights.

After viewing the videos on classism (see “On Classism” in the accompanying article), human rights concerns related to business ethics and sweatshop practices can be addressed. By applying the skills of critical reasoning, students should be able to develop legitimate arguments for their positions, confronting the real issues and exposing faulty arguments.

2. Defining and Understanding  Terms and Concepts

Students and teachers may not be aware of the derogatory meaning of certain terms in the vocabulary of hate language, much less their history or current use. Before or after viewing the videos on racism (see “On Racism”), a review of particular terms and the students’ understanding of them can be helpful. Books on racist language and stereotypes provide students with information about topics not commonly addressed or avoided outright in the curriculum.2

Discriminatory language is also used against groups that are diverse in ways other than ethnicity (for example, women, disabled persons, persons with non-traditional sexual orientations, and others). The study of this language, in both the past and present, can be integrated throughout the curriculum. If words of intolerance are spoken in the classroom, students and teachers can challenge each other to be more careful in their use of language.


3. Increasing Awareness of Visual  Stereotypes and Their Consequences

Stereotypes in language and visual media can be analyzed in terms of the damage they cause and have caused in the past. Students need to understand how people feel when they hear certain words, see certain images, and know the discriminatory origin of that communication. They need to understand the limits placed on those who are viewed stereotypically and to recognize how dominant groups benefit from these stereotypical images.

For example, the videos on sexism and racism (see Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment) reveal the limits placed on the roles and privileges of blacks and women in society (see “On Sexism”). Some people think that there is no more sexism or racism, and thus, no more need to study discrimination, but this perception and the facts are all too often out of alignment.

Sometimes, students can discover stereotypical patterns in media images of women and blacks by analyzing their favorite television shows or magazines.3 After patterns are identified, students can assess whether or not the images fit reality.


4. Assessment of Equity and Inclusiveness  in Society Past and Present

While gender and ethnic diversity may be emphasized in multicultural social education, the lives of disabled persons, those with nontraditional sexual orientation, and those with other differences may be ignored (see “On Disability Awareness” and “On Sexism/Heterosexism”). The materials in Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice apply to a wide range of groups.4 Strong background information, such as timelines of the acquisition of rights, and engaging analysis activities make this a one-of-a-kind resource.

As their understanding of the systems of social control develops (see “On Social Contro#148;), students can analyze censored news stories to uncover why these events are not reported to the public and who benefits when journalists are silenced.5


5. Self-Awareness and Social Action for  the Common Good

The use of self-assessment tools promotes reflection on our roles and responsibilities in the area of human rights (see “On Democracy and Human Rights”). Excellent activities in the publications Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice and the Diversity Awareness Profile6 are adaptable for classroom use. Participation in community service or social action provides an appropriate conclusion to the learning experiences.

Citizen action is suggested in many of the videos listed. In response to Not in Our Town or Taking a Stand, for example, students can take action against hate crime, using suggestions found in handbooks and guides focused on this topic.7

Websites, such as www.coopamerica.org/sweatshops and www.csi-int.ch/special01.html help students to actively challenge the practices of sweatshop labor and present-day slavery (see “On Classism”) by providing opportunities for civic participation on a global level. One group of students raised money to free slaves in Sudan through Christian Solidarity International. Through creative problem solving, based on in-depth understandings of global human rights and current events, young people can make a difference.



Keeping up with human rights issues is challenging, but organizations and resources are available to support teachers in this work. Some of my favorite resources are Teaching Tolerance (a magazine that is free to teachers)8 and the publications Rethinking Schools, Encounter, Journal of Just and Caring Education, and Multicultural Review.