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Kids, the Ken Burns Effect, and American Slavery — Students Become Documentarians

By Christy Crawford on January 20, 2011
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

The history of slavery in America is glossed over in many classrooms. Some educators and textbooks give it little more than a cursory mention as a "reason for the Civil War." Is it possible to learn something from the "peculiar institution," an institution mired in feelings of guilt and shame? Is it possible to effectively teach a subject that makes some adults cringe? YES!

The history of slavery in America is glossed over in many classrooms. Some educators and textbooks give it little more than a cursory mention as a "reason for the Civil War." Is it possible to learn something from the "peculiar institution," an institution mired in feelings of guilt and shame? Is it possible to effectively teach a subject that makes some adults cringe? YES!

In fact, kids as young as 4th graders can independently use the techniques of filmmaker Ken Burns to highlight the most difficult or sensitive topics and make their audience hungry for more. My students have been using a program called Microsoft Photo Story for years, but it wasn't until I met Columbia professor Steven Mintz that we realized the power of Ken Burns-esque documentaries using primary sources. Read on for great resources for making digital storytelling the cornerstone of any history lesson. 

Courtesy of Library of Congress


The "Ken Burns effect" refers to zooming in or out of a photo or panning across a picture. A few years ago, such effects were perfected with expensive cameras, but today anyone with a great slide show program or moviemaking software can achieve the same results.

Watch the first few seconds of an example of Burns' footage in this tribute:

Now watch an excerpt of a Ken Burns' mockumentary by 4th graders: 




Ready to Get Your Ken Burns On? Stick to a Few Guidelines:

 1. To conquer a colossal or intimidating topic, start with a great character. Enable your viewers to empathize.

I used to work for a television newsmagazine. When discussing the best way to cover a topic, my boss loved to say, "Every great story starts with a [great] character."  He was right.  Intriguing real-life characters and their triumphs and tribulations sold our show to advertisers and the American public. You can use great characters to make one of the most despicable issues in American history easier to investigate while creating insatiable appetites for social studies. 

2. No footage of past events? Use a photo. Use primary sources.  

Scroll down for my favorite resources. 

3. Use effects wisely and sparingly.

In an interview with Poynter's Regina McCombs, Ken Burns stated, “We live in an MTV generation, and a YouTube generation in which everything has to move, everything has to be frenetic as a video game. We struggle to think that we’re adding meaning by doing these movements, but of course all we’re doing is moving for the sake of movement, which is no meaning whatsoever. . . . At times you want to move in a slow and deliberate way that reveals something new — that’s telling a story, right? You tilt up [on] somebody and there’s a surprising aspect to their face, or you tilt down from a face and find out that there’s a gun stuck in a waistband — [this is] storytelling."

4. Once your students have completed their research, make sure they create storyboards or draft corresponding text for each photo or document. Storyboarding ensures your students have a clear beginning, middle and end. The selection and order of images will also dictate audience emotion.   

5. Don't forget to cite the sources of your copyright-free online images or audio. See the National Archives' General Information Leaflet, Number 17, for assistance. 


Get the "Ken Burns Effect" using Microsoft Photo Story. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History has a free pdf for using Photo Story in the classroomMicrosoft Photo Story is free and is already loaded on most PCs. Each motion in the program is customizable and the text is unlimited. 

Animoto is great for exciting 30-second videos and can be used on a PC or a Mac. Sign up for an educator's pass and you'll get to create full-length Animoto videos free for six months!  Your educator's pass is good for 50 students or co-workers.

The images above are courtesy of the Library of Congress and the National Archives.


Favorite Sites on American Slavery and for Primary Sources
Meet National Archives Education Specialist Christopher Zarr.
He can help you and your students uncover prized documents! Plan a research visit to your local National Archives office.
Meet Christopher Zarr!On the National Archives' Docs Teach page, find primary sources specifically for the classroom. The National Archives also provides slavery and emancipation documents online. American Memory from the Library of Congress has recordings, maps, sheet music, and still and moving images waiting for your digital natives! (Special thanks to Mitch Bleier for this fabulous resource.) For this unit, slave narratives from 1932–1975 and from the Federal Writer's Project (1936–1938), as well as slavery and law documents were particularly relevant. Digital HistoryFootnote.com, and Documenting the American South also have excellent resources for this topic.
Use these sites to choose documents and real-life characters that will rouse substantive discourse around your teaching points. For our digital unit on slavery, I chose people and items that highlighted the following ideas:  
  • American ingenuity, determination, and courage in the face of injustice
  • The birth of racial ideologies and the systematic use of ideology to ensure free labor for a nation
  • African Homelands and the Middle Passage
  • Slavery, genocide, and its use throughout history
Celebrate American Stories
When designating subjects to study in any digital storytelling assignment, create excitement.  List the names and a few facts about each real-life superhero on the back of an index card.  List numbers on the front of each card. Create a game-show atmosphere by calling each student down to pick a numbered card. Flash the corresponding photos or historical documents on your interactive whiteboard as students reveal their documentary subjects. This silly showcase builds anticipation and allows the whole class to get a mini-preview of upcoming documentaries. (I did this during our month of Hispanic heritage study and my 5th graders went nuts; you would've thought I was giving away iPhones!)
Upon completion of your movies, invite students and their parents to school for a documentary night. Prepare a program or run-down of the night's features and dress formally. Hand index cards and pens to each audience member to make constructive comments. Then project the student movies on your gymnasium wall or your interactive whiteboard. Give the comment cards to each young documentarian at the end of the night so they can bask in their achievement. 
Screen shot 2011-01-18 at 8.35.13 PM Wondering how to get your digital natives fully vested in the subject? Visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center or blast Scholastic's Underground Railroad offerings on your interactive whiteboard. Turn out the lights and have your students listen to real accounts from young and old African Americans on the plantation and during their escapes. Have students complete a coded letter for the Underground Railroad.
In the next post, I'll highlight how to use historical footage and photos to achieve the Ken Burns effect in iMovie. I'll also show you how to quickly and effectively set up inexpensive lighting, cameras, and microphones for community interviews that can be inserted in your history movie.  

Comments (4)


GREAT IDEA!!! You know "Ashokan Farewell" will now end of being the score to a thousand photo story projects at P.S. 51! LOL! Can we get the 4th grade band to create their own mp3 of this??

"Ashokan Farewell" by Jay Ungar is the song that was used about 5000 times during Ken Burns' Civil War series. Here's a link to the sheet music:


You also can find an mp3 pretty easily, or purchase one from Amazon.com. These really enhance the Ken Burnsiness of the kids' work.


Thank you! My kids are currently mystified by great characters like --young OLAUDAH EQUIANO and the story of his kidnapping and autobiography... http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1p276.html

--young inventor, abolitionist and "millionaire" JAMES FORTEN http://gardenofpraise.com/ibdfort.htm

--and ANTHONY JOHNSON, a FREE African-American who owned property in Virginia in the early 1600s http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1narr3.html

The real-life stories of these characters make amazing kid documentaries! This year students kept the same amount of narration, but they put less text on each frame so the Ken Burns-esque zooms and pans are readily apparent. They are really proud of their work!


Once again, I love it! Not only are you are raising the tech literacy, but lots of other literacies as well for the entire community--students, families, educators.

Two points I would like to echo and amplify:

1) Your point 3, "use effects wisely and sparingly." YES!!!!!!! For a long time, viewers of my own videos were treated to a roller coaster ride of zooms, pans, and camera movement. The content of my work was lost in dizziness and nausea. Learning when *not* to use effects and when to use them focuses videographers on what they are trying to say and how the camera helps them to say it. This extends the traditional use of language in telling a story.

2) In your point 2, 4, and 5: Researching primary sources, evaluating them, and editing them into the narrative of the story is so important in the development of educated consumers and producers of non-fiction. The earlier we start learning and practicing this (including skepticism, demand for evidence, thoughtful interpretation) the more it becomes part of our fundamental approach to information (newspapers, blogs, sales pitches, school yard disputes, etc.).

Look out Ken Burns...you've got competition!

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