I think watching movies as an introduction to an area of study is very, very powerful. I went with my family and my brother-in-law’s family to Normandy last summer. This was a peak experience for me. I have studied the invasion quite a bit and had never been there before. On the other hand, none of the other people I was with knew or much cared about Omaha Beach or Pegasus Bridge. They had no reference to put what they saw into human terms. About halfway through the week, I had them all watch The Longest Day (a wonderful, very factual movie about the invasion that was filmed on the actual sites). Suddenly, everyone was very engaged by our visits and even more excited to visit a site they knew from the movie. Our last stop was the American Cemetery. That would have been attention getting under any circumstances. However, in the context of the movie and the actual sites we’d seen, it was incredibly moving, and culminating, for everyone. Creating a human or personal context for learning changes everything. That will be one of my main instructional tools moving forward.
It doesn’t have to be movies and TV shows. History and art (visual or musical) go together very well, given some human context for both. Likewise, games can really put the students into the shoes of the historical or literary figures they study. There is a game, out of print but on eBay, called Origins of World War II. I can think of no better way to illustrate not only how the calamity of WWII happened but also how good people, acting in enlightened self-interest can create disastrous outcomes. Somebody said, “Everyone has a reason.” That’s such an important concept, and so central to the study of history. Helping the student find those reasons is where the study of the past lives.