So our school is out due to a water main break, and that means a whole day to catch up on work, from coordinating yearbook photo sessions, writing a departmental turnkey, grading assignments, and even lesson plans! I’ll admit that I loathe lesson planning. Actually, let me clarify that: I love planning lessons; I hate writing out the actual lesson plan templates.

I’ve previously taught in schools that saw lesson plans more as a script that an admin could follow along, and wanted them two weeks in advance. Can you believe that?! Two! Those were, to plug an SAT word here, anathema to me. I personally see lesson plans as outlines, to be fleshed out in our performance in the classroom. And I’m lucky enough to be in a district whose expectations are far more reasonable.

But, as we got the text-blast, the email, and the robo-call making it clear it was safe to remain in my pyjamas, I’m a bit more tolerant of writing my lesson plans for this week. I could even say that, for one course in particular, I’m excited to write it! (Let’s see if that enthusiasm remains when I open our lesson plan module…)

My Year 12 sections are at the tail-end of their university application unit, where we’d devoted the first three weeks of school to having a working draft of their application essays, their recommendation letter requests, and their résumés. The process is daunting and stressful. For many of my students, applying to university is especially challenging as they would be the first in their family to pursue a post-secondary education. They don’t have many models to guide them through the mountains of forms and prompts. However, seeing their focus as we delved into the purpose and the particulars of each essay and supplemental prompt showed their drive to succeed beyond the walls of our high school.

It was one thing to talk about my own experiences applying to universities, but my students needed something more tangible. They needed to see students like themselves working through the Sisyphean task of writing and applying to schools. I scoured the web for articles, clips, and documentaries. Unfortunately, our school networks do not play well with Netflix, and they’ve got a love/hate relationship with YouTube. Luckily enough, our servers don’t block Amazon Prime, and I’d found a really great documentary highlighting the challenges students face when applying to schools.

The documentary features four individuals, each unique from the other, yet all equally relatable in their worries, their excitement, and their dreams. Only one of the four students is from a poor socio-economic background, which reflect most of my students, but I think seeing the others—all from middle to upper middle class—opened their eyes to the students they are competing with for acceptance slots. I was also worried that a film showcasing four students who all applied to highly competitive schools would be too much of a disconnect, when community college is the main goal for many of my seniors. However, there is also the upside of opening up their options, and encouraging more of them to explore many types of schools that they may have initially avoided.

As any teacher knows, showing an entire film in class is a huge time investment, and one not always worth making. I’ve debated either just showing snippets or having them watch at home, but I think I can devote three class period for them to watch the documentary in full, and not feel guilty or robbed of precious instructional time. One, my Year 12 students are very good at actively taking notes. And two, the film generates plenty of opportunities for meaningful discussions and self-reflection. I’m having my students track two of the four students, and setting up a simple Google Doc organiser for them to write down their observations and analysis as they watch the documented seniors develop over the course of a year. For those curious, this task fits the NJSLA anchor standard R3 and Progress Indicator RI3, and their main writing prompt fulfills Writing Standards 3, 4, 5, 6, and 10.

The prompt I’ve in mind is as follows:

High school is a period where social, familial, and educational pressures exert tremendous force on students, and many often struggle forging their identities or dreams for the future.

As we watch the documentary, track the lives of two students and write a minimum 500-word reflection that compares your own experience in high school with theirs. Do you have similar pressures from friends, family, yourself? Is your outlook about school the same or the complete opposite of the students featured? How have high school, your family, preparing for college, or other factors affected your plans for the future?

If you enjoyed the trailer and think it would be a valuable teaching tool, definitely check out the documentary! It’s free for anyone with an Amazon Prime account (a necessary staple for any teacher, I think!). There is also a YouTube video, but again, YouTube is generally zapped by my school’s firewall, and the closed captions that help my students focus are not accurate compared to the Amazon stream. The YouTube video has a bunch of signal issues in the beginning, and the film does not start until the two-minute mark, FYI.

If you attempt to show the film to your students, do share how they reacted and how their reflection essays are!