Lesson Plan: StudentCam Documentary Competition Step-by-Step Guide

Storytelling and Oral History

Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lonnie Bunch and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns discussed the complex challenge of telling America’s story. They are joined by PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz. The University of Virginia’s Democracy Initiative hosted this discussion and provided the video.


Looking for a project-based learning experience? StudentCam challenges middle and high school students to think critically about issues that affect them, their communities, and our country. Throughout the process, they learn new skills, discover and develop new interests, and generate connections that impact their lives. You can incorporate this program into your curriculum, share it with colleagues in other disciplines, or introduce it to students so they can participate outside of the classroom. You and your students have the opportunity to win cash prizes. The C-SPAN Education Foundation awards 150 student and 53 teacher prizes, totaling $100,000. This lesson offers resources that can assist teachers, as well as students, throughout the process of creating a documentary, so whether you are new to creating films, or have experience and are looking for a challenge, there are tools that offer support.


  • SET UP:

    This lesson offers options for you to use with your students whether you are teaching in class, using a hybrid model, or engaging through distance learning. It can be completed in steps as a class or students can move at their own pace and complete the activities independently, or with partners.

    You can post links to the videos in the lesson along with the related Google resources on a discussion board or learning management system.

    You can save and share the following Google resources for students to offer support throughout the project.

    Note-Taking Handout (Google Doc)

    Guiding Flow Chart (Google Slide)

    Guiding Slide Deck (Google Slides)

    In Google, choose "File" then "Make a Copy" to get your own copy. You can make any needed adjustments in the instructions such as the due dates, and then make it available to them via Google.


    To launch this project, ask students to consider what they know about documentaries, and filmmaking in general. Some ideas to consider are:

    • What is a documentary?

    • What elements go into producing a documentary?

    • If you create films, what elements do you consider as you prepare for production?

    • Describe the process of filmmaking.

    • What are some challenges?
  • Then, have your students view the video clip of Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch and documentarian Ken Burns to learn more about filmmaking.

    Video Clip 1: Storytelling and Oral History (3:10)

    Have your students review the following questions and then review the responses as a class:

    • What is the difference between storytelling and oral history, according to Lonnie Bunch?
    • How are historians “made better” as they gather stories and oral histories?
    • According to Ken Burns, what is memory and what is the beginning of all history?
    • Based on the clip, how and why is history edited? What role do scholars play?

    Introduce this year’s theme to students:

    Looking Forward, While Considering the Past”

    Choose one of the following prompts to address:

    A) In the next 20 years, what is the most important change that you would like to see in America?

    Detail a specific issue that is important to you and the evolution of related policies, laws, and actions that you want to see In the future.

    - OR -

    B) Over the past 20 years, what has been the most important change in America?

    Examine a specific law, event, or invention, explain its impact and why it is important to you."

    Explain to students that they will be creating a documentary to enter in this year's StudentCam competition. To begin, select one or more previous winning videos to view on our website: Past Winners. This can be done through whole class instruction, as a homework assignment, or with a partner or group. Have students write their observations on the chart found in the Note-Taking Handout as they view the video(s) so they have a reference while producing their documentaries.

    Next, create a class chart in a Google Form or on butcher paper that reflects the handout. Have students share their observations and add their thoughts to the class chart which can remain posted in the classroom as a resource throughout the project.


    Picking up on the last step, ask students to think about what is occurring in their own lives, community, or our country. Some questions to consider are:

    • What topics are people talking about in the country?
    • Are you or your family being impacted by a particular issue?
    • Is your community being affected by a concern or problem?
    • Are there historical trends that you are curious about?
    • Has there been a new invention or law that has influenced your life?
    • What changes would you like to see in the future?

    Have students brainstorm a list of issues on their handout. Then, ask them to share their ideas as a class, and generate a list to display so students can reflect on issues they would like to explore for their project. Provide students with time to discuss potential topics with classmates to help them narrow down their choices, or pair up with a partner or two to work on the film together.


    Next, review the basic requirements for the project with students so they know the expectations as they consider the issue they would like to explore. After reviewing the requirements, inform students that they should have their issue selected before the next step.

    • My/our documentary was created by 1-3 people.

    • The documentary contains several C-SPAN video clips.

    • The documentary includes research and explores multiple perspectives of the issue through interviews, including those that may oppose my/our points of view.

    • It is free of violent or offensive content (images and language).

    • The film is between 5:00 – 6:00 in length. (End credits may not begin earlier than 5:01 but may extend past the 6:00 mark.)

    • Contains either end credits or a submitted works cited list. Plagiarism will result in disqualification.

    Now that students have selected their issue, they are going to have to conduct research. Any good documentary requires research. Have students share how they engage in the research process:

    • Where do they go to gather credible information?
    • What sources do they access for quality information?

    Next, view this video clip of Ella Grace Rodriguez, a former winning StudentCam participant, talking about the research process: Conducting Your Research (2:44)

    As a class, discuss some of the suggestions she offered to ensure students understand their options. You may want to create a class list similar to the others to display throughout the creation of the project for students to reference.

    Then, return to your chart in the Task 1 step and have students share their thoughts on what research elements they think were present in each of the videos


    Explain to students that documentarians have to learn about issues from others with specialized experience in order to better craft their films. They may meet with other elected officials at the federal, state or local levels to get their perspectives, or connect with experts on the topic which may include people with jobs related to the industry. They should understand that gathering information from people with different views on an issue, even views that are different from their own, is essential in developing a well-rounded approach to learning about a topic and formulating an informed opinion or decision to back up their position.

    • Have students view the following video of Ella Grace as she talks about interviewing experts: Setting Up Interviews (1:20)

    • Students can take it to the next level and view this video of Ella Grace offering additional insight: Interviewing Tips (2:09)

    • Next, ask students to create a list of at least 5-10 potential people they can interview to better learn about their topic and include their contact information in the chart on their handout:

    • As a hint, they can search the C-SPAN Video Library for their topic to see who has appeared in one of our programs. Students have had success using this strategy because people are already familiar with C-SPAN and may be open to speaking with students as they explain they are working on C-SPAN’s StudentCam documentary competition.

    Students’ issues have probably been debated by people in the past. Ask them to consider what they can learn from other politicians, historians, authors, and other commenters who have been featured on C-SPAN.

    Have them peruse our ready-to-download collection of C-SPAN video clips under the topic they have chosen for this project: StudentCam Video Clips

    Students should select at least three video clips related to their topic, and complete the chart on the handout. They should consider if the speaker has a political position on the issue in each clip to ensure they have a variety of perspectives.


    As students plan to complete their research, conduct interviews, and download C-SPAN clips, ask them to complete the following outline that will guide them throughout the planning process. StudentCam Guidelines (Google Doc)

    • Students can work independently on their project or collaborate with their partner or teammates. Once they have a completed outline, they should develop a script using the information they have gathered in their notes. It is recommended that students have a teacher, relative or friend review their script for clarity.

    • Now, they are ready to start filming!

    Once students have their scripts finalized, they are ready to begin filming with a camera or phone. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind as you begin this phase of your project.

    • Consider the location of where you are filming. Does it relate to your topic?
    • Is there background noise that will interfere with your narration?
    • If using a phone to record on location, be sure to hold it horizontally (sideways), not vertically.
    • Think about how to frame your subject during an interview whether it is in-person or virtual.

    Check out this video of former StudentCam winners sharing their tips for Recording and Choosing Your B-Roll. (3:51)

    View this video for ideas on how to be more Creative In Your Presentation. (1:34)

    Students can take it to the next level by viewing this collection of videos featuring additional Filming/Editing Tips.


    As students make final revisions on their projects, they should have a friend, family member, or teacher review their video for edits.

    They should review our Final Checklist to ensure their video meets all of our requirements. When students are ready to submit their final product, they can go to StudentCam.org to upload their entry.

    Videos must be submitted by midnight PST by the end of the day on Friday, January 19, 2024. Winners will be announced in March.

    If you need any help throughout the process, email us at educate@c-span.org.

Additional Resource


  • B-roll
  • Capstone Project
  • Documentary
  • Filmmaking
  • Interview
  • Midterm Elections
  • Outline
  • Partisan
  • Project-based Learning
  • Research
  • Script
  • Theme


Bureaucracy & RegulationCivil Rights & Civil LibertiesEducationExecutive BranchJudicial BranchLegislative BranchMediaPolitical PartiesStudentCamSupreme Court CasesU.S. History


Middle SchoolHigh School