14 Videos to Spark Engagement in Elementary, Middle Grade, and High School Classrooms

Well-chosen videos contribute a hard-to-ignore spark to educational lessons and add novelty and visual stimulation that young learners crave. No matter the topic, these videos are sure to engage classrooms and stimulate discussion with elementary, middle grade, and high school students.

Water is Water 
Weston Woods ©2023

When well-chosen videos are components of educational lessons, they add novelty and visual stimulation that young learners crave. For older students, they contribute a hard-to-ignore spark to a lesson or present a finely honed point of view. It’s hard to not be drawn in with enthusiasm as a group of college students outline the early days of Farmlink when the COVID-19 shutdown saw millions of pounds of produce rotting in fields for lack of distribution channels. At the elementary and early middle grade level, content producers continue to create high-quality media for classroom use. For older middle school and high school audiences, mainstream documentary projects offer real-world presentations that attract and hold attention, leading to productive classroom discussions. Was Pasang Lahmu Sherpa overly ambitious, or was her climbing record worth the price she paid? Business classes might analyze how to showcase the wind-driven schooner Apollonia’s delivery options to overcome the faster, cheaper mindset of many consumers. No matter the topic, these videos are sure to engage classrooms and stimulate students when asked to discuss!



Water Is Water. adapt. from the book by Miranda Paul. illus. by Jason Chin. narrated by Janina Edwards. music by Ernest Troost. Weston Woods. 2023. 8 min. ISBN 9781338862362. $64.95.
Gr 1-3–Wordless scenes of two tan-skinned siblings at play by a pond give way to gentle thunder followed by pelting rain. Chin’s luminous, green-toned outdoor scenes transition to a poetic narrative of the water cycle, with misty, twisty fog, a bright yellow school bus, and children who glide and slide on the ice. The delicious conclusion is cider from apple trees nourished by rain. VERDICT A delight, even for viewers who are too young to catch the water cycle connection.

When Things Aren’t Going Right, Go Left. adapt. from the book by Marc Colagiovanni. illus. by Peter H. Reynolds. narrated by Chester Gregory. music by Sarah Hart. Weston Woods. 2023. 9 min. ISBN 9781339054193. $64.95.
PreS-Gr 3–A boy with dark skin and curly hair drags a sack and satchel behind him in the opening frames. Blue tones surround him on a day when nothing is going right, but things lighten and brighten as he goes left and leaves his box of woes behind. Though scarlet worry gremlins taunt him, he knows he made the right choice. Tones continue to brighten as the boy leaves his weighty doubts, fears, and frustration loads one by one, feeling his burdens lighten and his confidence return. VERDICT Succinctly delivers the message to kids that it’s okay to carry some worry and doubt, but not to let it overwhelm them. The ending’s sunny yellow colors and upbeat music bring cheerful closure.

How Did Romans Count to 100? An Introduction to Roman Numerals. adapt. from the book by Lucy D. Hayes. illus. by Srimalie Bassani. narrated by June Angela. Dreamscape. 2023. 28 min. ISBN 9781666535242. $9.95.
Gr 3-5–Bouncy sheep and a panting corgi help illustrate ancient and modern uses of “the math of the gladiators.” Against a graph paper background, modern youngsters are gradually outnumbered by tunic-clad students, toga-draped scholars, and non-threatening gladiators. A quick history precedes a mnemonic to help remember the base numerals. Bassani’s engaging humans are filled with personality and the use of color and animation calls attention to specific symbols as they combine. The film allows time to practice and includes a coded message and a toothpick activity suggestion. VERDICT Dense with information quickly delivered for a compact and complete introduction. The illustrations and succinct explanations will likely benefit students of all ages who need to brush up on Roman numerals.


A Plate of Hope: The Inspiring Story of Chef José Andrés and World Central Kitchen
©2024 Dreamscape

A Plate of Hope: The Inspiring Story of Chef José Andrés and World Central Kitchen. adapt. from the book by Erin Frankel. illus. by Paola Escobar. narrated by Luis Carlos de La Lombana. Dreamscape. 2024. 16 min. ISBN 9781666639766. $14.95.
Gr 3-6–José Andrés was born in Spain, into a family that appreciated food. Against a backdrop of brisk guitar music and sizzling ingredients, narrator de La Lombana’s accent and the frequent Spanish phrases convey Andrés’s pride in his heritage. The story excels in portraying fresh and delicious ingredients as well as showcasing Andrés’s talent as a chef, and gives equal time to his humanitarian work, feeding those displaced for natural disasters, war, and the hardships of COVID-19. Escobar’s colorful illustrations convey the appeal of fresh ingredients on market shelves and dishes being cooked for a crowd by friends and volunteers. The final five minutes are an author’s note and several photographs of Andrés. A Spanish-language version is available. VERDICT A captivating story of an inspiring man who believes “all are welcome” and “together, everything is possible.”


Middle Grade

Abundance: The Farmlink Story.Optimist. 2023. 22 min. ISBN 194874591723. $99. Rental and streaming options avail.
Gr 6 Up–When COVID-19 shutdowns took effect, it left farmers with no ability to sell their provisions, and people in need of food with no money or locations to shop. However, thanks to a few idealistic college students, the concept of Farmlink was born. Interviews with the young and tireless founders and shots of enthusiastic college students at work matching donor food to sites in need bring home the point that where there’s a will, there’s a way. At the time of filming, Farmlink stats showed over 100 million pounds of surplus food delivered in two years. VERDICT A high energy, feel-good movie with ties to business, sustainability, and entrepreneurship topics.


Call Me Miss Hamilton: One Woman’s Case of Equality and Respect
©2023 Dreamscape

Call Me Miss Hamilton: One Woman’s Case of Equality and Respect. adapt. from the book by Carole Boston Weatherford. illus. by Jeffery Boston Weatherford. narrated by Adenrele Ojo. Dreamscape. 2023. 20 min. ISBN 194874591723. $9.95.
Gr 5-8–Mary Hamilton was a Freedom Rider and civil rights organizer who bristled when white people received respectful greetings of Mr., Mrs., or Miss, while Black people were called by their first names, “boy,” or worse. The “Miss Mary Case” went all the way to the Supreme Court, when Hamilton refused to answer questions from a prosecutor addressing her as “Mary.” Weatherford’s scratchboard illustrations add energy and help convey Hamilton’s strength of character. Frequent historic photos show the truth of the time (such as “No Negroes” signage). The final nine minutes are a narrated time line of civil rights events during Hamilton’s life. VERDICT An accessible and powerful civil rights story with a dignified central figure. Rich in topics for social studies and history classes.

Meddle. Bullfrog Films. 2023. 7 min. ISBN 1961192055. $99. Rental and streaming options avail.
Gr 7 Up–Indigenous artist and Haida tribal member artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas speaks to the interconnectedness of the world as reflected in his copper sculpture series installed at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, Canada. Against a background of gentle piano music, Yahgulanaas talks about his creative process, sometimes with found objects, and the “dance” that he sees between artist and line. The title addresses both the metal he works with, and his hope that his creations will meddle with traditional thinking about art. VERDICT Creative photography angles provide a visually interesting baseline for Yahgulanaas’s thoughtful narration, making this short film useful for discussions in art, environmental, and history classes.

Windshipped. Bullfrog Films. 2023. 40 min. ISBN 1961192020. $99. Rental and streaming options avail.
Gr 7 Up–Sail freight is the age-old concept of moving goods by boat, powered by the wind and sun. Captain and team leader Sam Merrett pursued his dream over five years—even during COVID-19 lockdowns—from early restoration of the schooner Apollonia to recruiting a first mate and bosun and all together moving pillows, milled corn, coffee beans, and more down the Hudson River. Merrett, a likable and visionary spokesperson, embraces the importance of exploring environmentally sound ideas, and sees sail freight as fostering community and connection. VERDICT Like sail freight itself, this film has a leisurely pace, taking in beautiful vistas along the Hudson. Merrett’s statement that he’s moved over 95,000 pounds of cargo over two years, using less than 30 gallons of diesel fuel, provides a jumping-off point for discussions in science, environmental science, business, and innovation classes.

Works for All: Cincy’s Co-Op Economy. Bullfrog Films. 2023. 31 min. ISBN 196119208X. $99. Rental and streaming options avail.
Gr 7 Up–Bright Cincinnati murals set the vibe for this energetic story of several successful worker-owned co-ops—a day care center, cleaning company, food co-op, apparel company, and farm—that seek to build through teamwork, pay living wages, share resources equitably, pass profit on to workers, and make sure all voices are heard. Interviews with two of the founders, both women knowledgeable about labor organization, outline the idealistic roots and practical benefits of the Cincy Co-op structure, based in part on the Mondragon co-operatives in Spain. Interviews with participants and key Co-op Cincy leaders showcase enthusiasm and success stories. VERDICT The upbeat “we is bigger than me” message, and examples of businesses paying their owner-workers a living wage, provide discussion topics related to business, economics, history, social justice, and community activism.


High School

Above and Below. Good Docs. 2022. 35 min. OCLC 1382431260. $79. Streaming options avail.
Gr 9 Up–Buddhist artist Tsherin Sherpa’s richly colored, intricate, and detailed thangka paintings initially focused on reimagined stories from his childhood and traditional motifs, such as Buddha, then gradually began to incorporate symbolism (stock market, materialism) that referenced American culture and the political climate. While the film includes brief scenes of Kathmandu, the focus is Sherpa and his artistic journey, including a seven-layer metal sculpture inspired by the 2015 Gorkha earthquake in Nepal. VERDICT Art classes can examine Sherpa’s comments on his artistic process, his inspirations, and the meanings in his works. On a motivational level, there is broader appeal as Sherpa notes that through art he seeks to connect with the world, and as a human being, he seeks to contribute positively.

The Angel of Alabama. Video Project. 2023. 25 min. ISBN unavail. $79. Streaming options avail.
Gr 9 Up–Most people are confident that when they turn on the tap, the water is safe to drink. Activist Brenda Hamptom, dubbed an angel by those in her small-town Alabama community, says polluted tap water is costing people their health and lives. She and the scientists and community members interviewed blame chemicals used in packaging and dumped by businesses (primarily 3M) in the Tennessee River for heightened levels of cancer, autism, kidney disease, and stillbirths in the community. Hampton personally purchased and delivered thousands of dollars worth of drinking water, and helped start a community garden and food pantry. While the film lacks hard scientific investigation, it notes the area is getting a reverse osmosis water system, and that McDonald’s restaurants are phasing out PFAS chemicals in their packaging nationwide. VERDICT Hampton is an energetic campaigner whose personality is a strength of the film. She shows grit and perseverance in her actions and encourages young activists to advocate for change.


Finding Her Beat
Good Docs ©2022

Finding Her Beat. Good Docs. 2022. 88 min. OCLC 1375585162. $79. Streaming options avail.
Gr 9 Up–Taiko drumming as performance art evolved after World War II and is no longer a “men only” activity. Jennifer Weir, director and producer of the 2019 HERbeat concert in Minneapolis, along with her wife and other stellar drummers from Japan and North America, share their thoughts on what this muscular and distinctive drumming means to them. The film counts down the months and days until the 2020 HERbeat concert, all under the shadow of the emerging coronavirus emergency, which would be declared a pandemic less than two weeks later. VERDICT The human connections are as much a part of the film as the energetic and explosive drumming. Those interviewed speak thoughtfully and humbly—yet not without ambition—on the challenges of following a nontraditional path and the value of mutual support and fostering belonging.

Pasang: In the Shadow of Everest. Good Docs. 2022. 71 min. OCLC 1399539281. $79. Streaming options avail.
Gr 9 Up–Pasang Lhamu Sherpa was headstrong and determined as a child and remained so as a young woman. She did not embrace the traditional Nepalese woman’s role and was a partner in her husband’s trekking company, helping clients summit Mt. Everest and training to become the first Nepalese woman to reach the highest peak. Breathtaking mountain views and historical climbing footage, accompanied by interviews with anthropologists and mountaineers, document the allure of the mountain. Background on the political history of Nepal and the culture of Sherpa guides are also covered. VERDICT Interviews with Pasang’s parents, children, husband, and siblings, as well as footage and interviews with Pasang, convey the overall message to pursue big dreams, although as the film documents, Pasang’s biggest dream ended in tragedy.

Repairing the World: Stories from The Tree of Life. Not In Our Town. 2022. 40 & 80 min. ISBN unavail. $50. Streaming options avail.
Gr 8 Up–A bird’s-eye view of a quiet street in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh gives way to a man remembering the sound of gunshots, law enforcement’s arrival, and Rabbi Jeffrey Myers’s recollections of the 2018 synagogue shooting in which 11 people were killed. The film follows as congregations and people across Pittsburgh offer help in the aftermath, many expressing the message that the city will come together and that love is stronger than hate. The 40-minute version touches on the historic roots of anti-Semitism, current tactics of white supremacists, the 2019 El Paso shooting, and violence against Asian people during the COVID-19 crisis. VERDICT Interviews with high school students showcase ways they are making a difference. Seeing diverse communities rally across political and cultural lines emphasizes the film’s message of building bridges and standing together against hate. Classroom viewing guide available.

Maggie Knapp, Trinity Valley School, Fort Worth, TX.


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