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Teachers Reveal The Go-To Movies They Love To Show In School & Why

Is there anything more exciting than the squeaky wheels of the TV cart coming down the hall?

Originally Published: 
The Back To School Issue

With all the after-school screen time children are consuming along with their snacks, parents might not exactly be psyched to learn that their kid is spending their 5th period watching movies, too. But before you call the principal’s office or start composing a highly combustible Twitter rant, remember that many students are visual learners and teachers’ go-to movies actually accompany their classroom lessons, rather than replace them.

Many English teachers especially are big fans of screening Shakespeare films along with assigned readings (remember, the swoony romance of Romeo & Juliet is actually meant to be experienced as a drama between actors, not necessarily read on the page). And movies can make dusty texts feel fresh and new. Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet, for example, retains the Bard’s Elizabethan English, but upgrades the action to a modern setting (the famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy is delivered while a beanie-clad Hawke is roaming a now-defunct Blockbuster store).

We talked to teachers from coast to coast, who work in grade schools and high schools, to see what educational and entertaining movies light up their classrooms. From courtroom dramas to animated rainforests, musicals to time travel, there’s a movie on this list for every kid to learn from and later recap to the rest of the family at the dinner table. While desks are clearly not as comfortable as theater seats, and there probably won’t be any candy either (a win for parents!), at least students won’t be overcharged for greasy popcorn.

And don’t worry, there won’t be a test at the end!

Just Mercy

Warner Bros UK & Ireland/YouTube

Staci Lamb, a 9th grade teacher at Elkton High School is not just an award-winning educator, she boasts an impressive Instagram community with over 60,000 followers. When it comes to movies to show in the classroom, Lamb is a big fan of Just Mercy, starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx. The powerful true story about inequality and injustice follows Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard grad, attorney, and social justice activist who defends people that are wrongly convicted, and went on to found the Equal Justice Initiative.

The movie centers around one of his first clients, Walter McMillian, a man sentenced to die for the murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite evidence of his innocence.“Just Mercy captures Bryan Stevenson’s work so beautifully and invites students to analyze and reflect on Stevenson’s claims,” says Lamb, who is the 2018 CCPS Teacher of the Year in Maryland and best-selling author of Keeping the Wonder. It’s a powerful adaptation of an incredible true story that captivates students.”

Watch Just Mercy, rated PG-13, on Amazon Prime.

Inside Out


Inside Out is an animated movie that takes you inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley as she faces a big life change: a move from Minnesota to San Francisco for her dad’s new job. This clever, high-concept film creates characters out of the emotions Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger.

Darin Nakakihara, a teacher in Southern California who spent most of his career teaching 4th grade, appreciates how Inside Out honors kids’ inner lives, which can often be overlooked in a school setting. “Growing up can be tricky. I love how the story is built around things that the kids are dealing with during our time together and beyond — dealing with emotions,” says Nakakihara, who connects the way characters handle different feelings with his students’ experiences throughout the year. “None of this is in our curriculum, but it's something they all must learn how to navigate if they want to grow into productive members of our society.”

Watch Inside Out, rated G, on Disney+.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure


A movie about two spacey teens who can’t stop saying “party on, dudes!” might not seem like the most academic film to screen in class, but it turns out this 1980s classic is chock-full of mini history lessons, as well as memorable quotes (as when Ted waxes philosophical to Socrates: “All we are is dust in the wind, dude.”).

Andrew Christopher, who teaches 10th grade Global Studies in Roosevelt Island in NYC, screens this Keanu Reeves classic at the end of the year because it’s a movie that highlights world history and — let’s face it — is boatloads of fun. “Bill and Ted travel back in time to learn about history and pass their global history final exam. In doing so, the characters collect important historic figures from the past, including Abraham Lincoln, Genghis Kong, and Napoleon Bonaparte, to participate in a final presentation that brings the historic periods from which they came to life in front of the class.” And hey, even if the history lessons weren’t in the movie, there’s a case to be made for students learning that Reeves is the perfect specimen of humanity, even before his Matrix days.

Watch Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, rated PG, on Amazon Prime.

Ferngully: The Last Rainforest


FernGully is an animated fantasy movie that takes place in the Australian rainforest. When a fairy named Crysta discovers a human lumberjack named Zak, she shrinks him down to her miniature size and invites him into her world of wonder and beauty. Starring the late and great comedian Robin Williams as a manic bat, FernGully has a strong environmental message that really resonates with educators.

Todd Nesloney, who has taught elementary school and was the principal of a PreK-5th grade campus, is a fan of the film that catalyzes conversation and takes on logging and pollution. “FernGully shows how we all play a part in what happens to others,” says the author, speaker, and director of Texas Elementary Principals & Supervisors Association (TESPA). With a soundtrack by Elton John, Raffi, and “Wild Thing” rapper Tone Loc, this magical ecological movie that teaches kids to protect the rainforest will have you spellbound.

Watch FernGully: The Last Rainforest, rated G, on Apple TV.

Dear Evan Hansen

Universal Pictures/YouTube

Once one of the hottest tickets on Broadway, this musical’s film adaptation will pierce the tender heart of anyone who has ever felt isolated in high school (in other words, everyone). Ben Platt delivers a powerhouse performance as Evan Hansen, an outcast aching to belong in the social media age, who becomes entangled with a family grieving a son who died by suicide.

Lisa Septimus, a veteran teacher and director of student life at North Shore Hebrew Academy, gives an A+ to a movie that breaks the silence surrounding mental health challenges. “One theme of the show is showing how common it is to struggle with mental health and how often people feel alone and suffer because of it,” says Septimus. “Being able to be honest about difficult feelings makes them suddenly more manageable. That’s what Evan finally learns to do at the end.” While Septimus concedes that musicals in movie form can sometimes be corny, she gives a big thumbs-up to the plot changes the filmmakers made, including when the protagonist “embraces his authentic self including flaws and fears.”

Watch Dear Evan Hansen, rated PG-13, on HBO Max.


Disney Movies

This movie is such a ginormous hit with kids, it probably doesn’t need any introduction. But in case you’ve been living under a Bruno-free rock, Encanto is the enchanting story of a girl named Mirabel Madrigal, who is the only member of her family without magical powers. Not even celeb kids can resist belting out the music from this Disney blockbuster (“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” actually hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart!). If North West and Gene Schumer can’t stop singing these bops, your little ones probably haven’t stopped either.

Special education teacher Andrew Militscher, who works with 4th and 5th grade students at Andrus Orchard School, can speak to his own students’ obsessions with these catchy, cinematic tunes. Militscher says that Encanto is his movie of choice for a very simple but compelling reason: “The kids love to sing ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno!’” And while the lyricism of Lin-Manuel Miranda is a masterclass unto itself, Encanto’s message that representation matters is even more compelling than its music.

Watch Encanto, rated PG, on Disney+.

Twelve Angry Men


A gripping story of bias and judicial injustice that is still as relevant today as it was in the 1950s, Twelve Angry Men is a courtroom drama that takes place over one tense afternoon, when jurors decide the fate of a teenager who is alleged to have murdered his father.

Leora Klein, founder of Uncommon Advantage and a learning specialist at Abraham Joshua Heschel High School in Manhattan who also teaches English language and literature, is quite fond of the classic film. According to Klein, “English teachers always tell their students show don’t tell. This film shows (rather than tells) the power of the individual to stand up, speak up, and affect change.” Klein is also a co-founder of 3GNY and director of WE Educate (WEDU), an educational non-profit that empowers the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors to bring the accounts of survivors into the classroom, so this educator walks the walks when it comes to teaching kids to avoid being bystanders and face bigotry head-on.

Watch Twelve Angry Men, unrated, on Apple TV.

The Great Debaters

YouTube Movies & Shows

In a time when so much student conversation takes place on screens or with abbreviated or grossly misspelled texts, it’s great for young people to discover the lost art of elocution and get reacquainted with the power of the spoken word. The Great Debaters is based on a true story that follows the incredible journey of a debate team at a historically Black college during the 1930s. Denzel Washington plays charismatic debate coach Melvin B. Tolson, who leads his students to incredible heights in a time when lynchings and Jim Crow laws were still common. Jurnee Smollett plays one of the only female debaters on the team and delivers a stirring rebuttal that will rouse any crowd.

As a teacher of both public speaking and rhetoric, Adam Bowman champions a movie that demonstrates his syllabus in action, sparks vital dialogue, and is a great example of Black Excellence. “The historical context and issues about race the film presents also engender the type of classroom discussion our students — and our country — needs,” says Bowman.

Watch The Great Debaters, rated PG-13, on Amazon Prime.



Coco is a delightful family movie that tells the story of one 12-year-old boy named Miguel and his larger-than-life adventure to the “Land of the Dead” to discover his ancestry. The computer-animated film follows a young boy’s dream of becoming a musician and ultimately overturning his family’s ban on music. Inspired by the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos), which celebrates family members who have passed, the movie has garnered heaps of praise for celebrating Mexican folklore and culture with a Latino cast.

Imani Hamami, a lead teacher at Manhattan Children’s Center, a school known for its world-class treatment of autism and related disabilities, appreciates the positive impact Coco’s songs have on her students’ spirits and how they provide a vehicle for teaching Mexican culture. Her students “love to sing along and pretend they are playing the guitar,” she says. Coco is a sing-a-long that inspires students to follow their dreams, especially when it takes them to unexpected places.

Watch Coco, rated PG, on Disney+.

The Graduate


OK, so maybe the image of a young Dustin Hoffman glimpsed from between the legs of the older woman trying to seduce him might not be the first thing you think of when it comes to educational movies, but The Graduate is one of America’s most critically acclaimed films.

Veteran teacher and administrator Alice Bowman, who is the current middle school principal in Plainview-Old Bethpage, definitely agrees. Bowman is a big proponent of this ‘60s movie about adulting as a recent college grad (with a bonus playbook for breaking up a wedding). “When I taught Mass Media to seniors in English, my favorite movie to show was definitely The Graduate. I loved it because it had so much to offer the kids in terms of cinematography. It is such a classic, has a killer soundtrack, and speaks to the coming of age that they’re all experiencing.” Compared to things that that “kids these days” are consuming (ahem: the ultra-scandalous Euphoria), The Graduate is squeaky clean by comparison and is actually rated PG. But if you’re not sold on the academic value of dissecting themes of alienation, counterculture, and female sexuality, at least your kids will come away with a necessary lesson on Paul Simon’s discography.

Watch The Graduate, rated PG, on Amazon Prime.

Teachers are some pretty smart people (they’re heroes, really). So kids are in good hands when they watch ones of these gold-star movies picked by someone who knows a thing or two about how to grow a big brain.

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