Documentary Project Assignment Samples

Every year, I have my students make documentaries (or digital stories) in class. If you would like to see my previous exploration into the realm of digital storytelling, you can check out those posts here.  I regularly revise the assignment and, coming to my new school Ransom Everglades, was excited to try it with a new crop of students in a fresh environment. As always, I was blown away by the work that my students produced!

Whenever I present this lesson for students, I do it in several phases. First, I always do a video that shows them my expectations in terms of presentation and research. This year, I decided it was time to upgrade my video and did a new one about the treacherous general, Benedict Arnold. You can see my sample video below:

While well produced videos are always nice to look at, I emphasize to my students that the primary objective of this project is research, synthesis, and developing a formal argument. The big change that I made this year (after receiving some meaningful input from a colleague) was that instead of allowing students to choose more “Biographic” or “Information Based” topics, I provided them prompts that required more analysis and research. For example, “How did George Washington receive his reputation for honesty?” or “What role did old world conflicts play in the Revolutionary War?” I was hoping that this would encourage students to do more in-depth, critical research.

Framing the Project

Like all projects I give to students, I break this assignment up into chunks. First, I establish the parameters of my project.

  • You must fully address the prompt.
  • Videos are a minimum of 2 minutes and a maximum of 4 minutes (excluding a “works cited” credits page).
  • All citation must be in Chicago Manual of Style (this is the Social Studies Department’s official citation format for research papers, I like consistency).
  • Due dates for each step are firm.

Picking a Topic:

I give my students a list of acceptable topics but I also encourage them to choose a subject on their own that interests them. We do our first day in the library so that students can do some preliminary research on the content before deciding what they want to do. I do not allow them to change topics once they have committed – so I advise them to choose carefully!

Research, Research, Research!

The most important aspect of this project is the research. I do require my students to use a minimum of two books (or sections of books) as well as

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

one academic journal. I also allow and even encourage them to use online resources, however I require that if they do they must apply the CRAAP Test. Not only is it a catchy name (my students never forget it), but it is also a sophisticated tool developed by California State University at Chico to help researchers (students, teachers, professors, lay-individuals) to assess content (with an eye to online material).

Another component in this is finding appropriate images, videos, or music for you overall product. As such, Digital Literacy (how to appropriately incorporate, cite, and use online content – this includes addressing issues of copyright), is a primary component in this assignment. I address this in my article, “How to Find License Free Content for School Projects.”

Outlining the Project

Example of a Storyboard

Just as you don’t sit right down and write a research paper without first drafting an outline, you should not craft a video without outlining it. As this has an image component, I require students to do a Storyboard. This is simply an image based outline. You can use any tool that you would like to do this. I personally just use PowerPoint.

This step helps them to organize how they will relate their information as well as arrange their images in the overall project. Just as the final research paper should not be identical to the first outline, it’s acceptable (even expected) that students move around, add, or remove images as the product evolves. I require that students turn this in early on, before they start actually building their project.

Writing it Out!

There is an important writing component to this project. Students must write out a “script” of what the narrator or actors will say in their project. This is the second required assignment in the process (after their storyboard has been approved).

I simply have students do this in essay form, but I do know that other educators want them to write it out as a formal script. This is where I emphasize that spelling, grammar, and punctuation do in fact count towards their final grade!

Assembling the Video

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This is a time intensive component of the project and I strongly encourage students to not wait until the night before to do this. Some of them listen, but a few have learned some hard lessons about waiting until the last minute. Remind them that unexpected issues can and do arise, they need time to address them! I’m very available after school the day before the project is due (if they have a problem). I am less available at 3:00 am the morning of…

In terms of video making software, I am very flexible. They can use any platform that they would like, the most popular are: iMovie (for Mac and iOS), MovieMaker, Adobe Premiere, and the YouTube Video Editor. My colleagues often ask if I teach the students how to use the software. The answer is – no. They learn as they use. Video editor software today is highly intuitive and easy to learn. I do offer help if they run into an issue, but I give them a check list to try before they come to see me:

  • Google your problem
  • Search “How To’s” on YouTube
  • Read the instructions of the software that you’re using – they all have a “Help” section or a “How To”
  • Ask a classmate or a parent for help

Creative problem solving is an important skill for students to learn and this project provides numerous opportunities for them to do just that!

Publication and Presentation

The last component of this project is that the students publish their work in order for us to view it as a class. Your publication methods will vary based on age group, school policies, and student access to material. At my school, students cannot access YouTube. However, we do have Google Apps for Education. I have my students upload their final videos to Google Drive and then embed the link on our class blog. However, you may have students play it from their own device or share on a class youtube channel. This is an important step as peer review is key in academic inquiry.

My students’ final projects were amazing. Here is a very small selection:

As you can see, they did some excellent work here! If you would like, you can download my Documentary Instructions and my Documentary Rubric. Just please provide proper citation if you use it!

Potential Pitfalls

While this is an excellent projects, there are a few potential pitfalls to keep in mind.

  • Students do not have equal access to resources and equipment. To compensate for this, I like to provide ample in class time to build the project.
  • Do not grade the bells and whistles, focus on content. It’s easy to be blown away by a flashy project even if the content is mediocre. This is where I find a rubric handy.
  • You may want to reach out to parents to avoid concern about a “tech” project (especially in a Social Studies or English Class). I wrote an article, “How to Gain Parent Buy-In for Classroom Technology Integration.”

Overall, have fun and learn as you go!

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This entry was posted in Education, Educational Resources, Educational Technology, History, Lesson Plan, Pedagogy, Professional Development, Technology, United States History and tagged digital storytelling, Ed Tech, Education, Educational Technology, History, iMovie, lesson plan, pedagogy. movie, United States History, US History on by Jennifer Carey.

For this assignment, you must identify one person to interview. That person can either occupy a similar class position as you or a very different class position—it is up to you. You will conduct a 30-60 minute interview with that person that is audio-recorded. This assignment has five purposes: (1) to give you a chance to develop and practice your interviewing skills, (2) to experience one of the major forms of research that many social scientists, journalists and other media producers use, (3) to give you a real life sense of what it’s like to live in the class position of the person you are interviewing, {four is optional, depending on whether you plan to assign the documentary project as well} (4) to give you the raw materials with which to develop a radio/audio documentary with your classmates and (5) to contribute stories to the ongoing digital archive of the 1500 Stories project. This assignment will be graded on a {you choose} point scale, with each step worth a certain number of points toward that total. Overall, this assignment is worth {you specify}% of your total grade in {your class}.


Step 1: Developing a list of questions.

While in-depth interviewers seldom memorize or restate interview questions verbatim, they do find it helpful to have a sense of what they will want to ask their respondents. So you should begin this assignment by jotting down a list of topics or questions to refer to in the interview. {Attached; at some point this will be up on the 1500 Stories website} you will also find a question bank with suggestions for questions to ask. You do not need to follow this list strictly and you should feel free to add your own; these questions are merely guidelines to ensure you get rich and detailed information about the respondent’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Your questions must be OPEN-ENDED and designed to get STORIES from the respondent. Your goal is not to get information; it is to get stories.


Step 2: Choosing a respondent. NAME OF RESPONDENT, DATE/TIME OF INTERVIEW DUE ON {you choose the date} by {you choose the time} (? or 10 points)

A respondent is the person who agrees to talk with you and answer your questions. For this interview, the person must agree to be audio-recorded for publication on the 1500 Stories website. Show them the release form before you schedule the interview and get their consent before proceeding, so that you will know if you need to ask someone else instead. If you are e-mailing someone to make your request, I recommend using the line, “I am a college student in ______ at ______ College/University. I am doing a radio documentary about what it’s is like to live at different class positions for a public art, storytelling and civic engagement project called 1500 Stories. I would like to hear your story and I think your story is one that would be important to share with others.” You MAY use your personal networks—families, churches, mentors, high school faculty, community groups you belong to—if you want. You must begin trying to find someone IMMEDIATELY because you may get rejected by the first person or two you ask or have a hard time getting the person to respond to your calls and e-mails. Persistence is key. Keep in mind that even after you have set up the interview you will sometimes find that they stand you up and you have to reschedule. In worst-case scenarios, you may end up having to pursue another respondent. So it is very important to start this process as soon as possible.


It can be a challenge to find someone willing to spend time talking with you. Please keep in mind that when someone says yes, they are offering you a huge gift—the gift of their time and their vulnerability in letting you see a piece of their inner life. Be sure to convey your deep appreciation for this gift through your words and your actions.


When you have a respondent who has agreed to sign the release form, ask if s/he would be willing to talk with you for 30-45 minutes. Explain what the interview will be about and why you are doing it. Give them the release form (see attached) and have them sign it BEFORE THE INTERVIEW BEGINS. You might also give them some of the questions ahead of time so that they can be prepared and comfortable with what you are going to ask. Also make clear that the person can refuse to answer any question or stop the interview at any time.


Step 3: Conducting the interview. ELECTRONIC COPY OF AUDIO OR VIDEO RECORDING DUE and HARD COPY OF SIGNED RELEASE FORM DUE ON {you choose date} by {you choose time} (? Or 30 points)

{Once the website is up, the assignment can include these instructions: See the 1500 Stories website for the easiest audio recording apps to use for both Iphone and Android and be sure to load one.} Before the interview do a test run of your recording app that records for at least 30 minutes and try e-mailing it to someone to make sure it works. It is helpful if you talk with your respondent in a quiet place where you will not be interrupted. Remind the respondent that they can end the interview at any time or refuse to answer any question they do not feel comfortable with. Make clear that you would like to hear their stories. Record the interview—be sure that all of your equipment is recording properly BEFORE you begin the interview. In addition to the interview, were there any interesting sounds that might be useful to record? Remember that an interview is NOT the same as a conversation—your job is to ask questions, not to respond or comment on what the respondent shares. NEVER EVER INTERRUPT your interviewee and keep your opinions/comments to yourself. Wait at least 3-7 seconds after the respondent has finished talking before going on to the next question.


You will submit an electronic copy of your audio file to {you the teacher, or Jen Myhre at} as an e-mail attachment or to the 1500 Stories Dropbox account no later than {you choose the date}. I would advise you to send it to me as soon as you have it done—your assignment doesn’t count as submitted until I have sent you a confirmation that says I was able to open the file and listen to it successfully. If you can name the file in your app, please name your file: yourfirstnamelastname_interviewwith_intervieweefirstnamelastname. ALL INDIVIDUAL INTERVIEWS LESS THAN 20 MINUTES LONG AND ALL INTERVIEWS WITHOUT A RELEASE FORM WILL RECEIVE ZERO CREDIT. You will get points based on how long the interview is. All individual interviews at least 30 minutes long will receive 100% of the points; you will get scored based on the percentage of minutes out of 30.


Some tips for conducting the interview:

Good follow-up probes are key to a good interview. Questions that ask for concrete descriptions or stories will provide better data than questions that ask for generalizations. I often probe with questions like

  • “Tell me the story of how you ….”
  • “Can you paint a picture for me of how…”
  • “Walk me through what happened when…”
  • “Could you tell me a little more about….”
  • “When you said …., what did you mean by that?”
  • “Can you describe a specific instance where you ….?”
  • “What did you think/feel about …?

LISTEN to what your respondent tells you. This is the most important interviewing skill. This means, to a certain extent, following what your respondent wants to talk about and asking follow-up questions to comments s/he has made. Listening will help you think of good follow-up questions to get further detail and a better understanding of what s/he has told you. You will get a better interview if you listen and follow-up on what your respondent has said than if you stick to the script of your questions.

It is often helpful at the end of an interview to ask the respondent if there is anything they would like to add. Sometimes we get the most interesting stories of the interview when we ask this. Make sure you do not turn off the recorder until you are walking away from the interview. J

Thank your respondent for taking the time to speak with you. This is important both because the respondent has offered you a real gift of her/his time and honesty and also because you don’t want to give researchers a bad name.



{Additional optional steps if you are planning to assign a documentary project as well}

Step 4: Listening for soundbites and identifying them by time code. (? or 30 points)

A soundbite is a full quote from your respondent that is understandable and complete on its own—it must be at least one complete sentence and must include all of the context necessary for someone to be able to understand it without listening to the rest of the interview. Do NOT include your own questions in the transcript. Instead of doing a full typed transcription, you will identify and number thirty of the juiciest, most compelling soundbites from your interview and give the time codes for when those soundbites start and end in the audio file (00:00-00:00, with minutes before the colon and seconds after the colon). You are looking for the juiciest stories or quotes from the respondent for your documentary, without misrepresenting what the respondent was trying to say. You will turn in a typed list of 30 quotes and their time codes and you will also submit this list electronically to the {I use a forum on the class website, so that students can see each other’s transcripts}.


Step 5: Reflecting on and writing about the interview process. (? or 30 points)

Write a one-page, single-spaced and typed reflection paper in which you evaluate both yourself as an interviewer and interviewing as a process. Write one full paragraph per question, using the Point/Illustration/Explanation (PIE) format, with specific illustrations directly from the interview. Be sure to address the following questions in your paper:

  • Evaluate yourself as an interviewer. How do you think the interview went? If you could go back and do it again, what would you do differently?       Support your evaluation with specific examples.
  • What did you learn about the process of in-depth interviewing as a social research method from this experience? What can in-depth interviewing tell us that other kinds of methods, such as surveys or web research or looking at historical documents, cannot?       Support your conclusions with specific examples.

Even if you conducted your interview with a partner, you will do this section individually.


Step 6: Turning in the soundbite transcript and written reflection. {DUE DATE}

You must turn in ONE HARD COPY of the soundbite transcript and ONE HARD COPY of the written reflection on {due date} at the start of class; you must submit ONE ELECTRONIC COPY of the soundbite transcript to {Catalyst/other electronic venue for your classmates to see, if you want them to share transcripts}. Hard copies must be typed and stapled. One soundbite transcript will be graded and given back to you; the electronic version will be shared with your classmates. Your soundbite transcript must list the following information at the top:

  • Your name and section
  • Information about the respondent, including their name and demographic information (age, gender, race, occupation, education, and sexual orientation).

A Note about Next Steps: Once you have submitted your interview to your teacher, the interview is no longer just “yours” but rather belongs to you, the class as a whole, and the 1500 Stories project. For the documentary project, students in any of the sections may use any of the interviews in order to create their documentary. For your documentary, you will need to cut together and interweave at least two different interviews, using any interviews from our class.

I sometimes add the following note:

A Note to Filmmakers: If you are already a filmmaker and can send me a link to prior work, please talk to me about the possibility of doing a video documentary instead of a radio documentary.


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