Bringing Movie Magic into Our SEL Classrooms

By Amber Chandler

I’m willing to venture that most of you have had some of those “close the door and put a movie on” days. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of soul-saving triage after a tough week of math or social studies or a grueling few days teaching commas with coordinating conjunctions.

That said, I’d like to suggest that when we only use movies for stress relief (or on that day before the break) it’s a waste of a valuable resource.

Movies belong in the curriculum, and they are a particularly powerful way to teach CASEL’s SEL Competencies: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Responsible Decision-Making, Relationship Skills, and Social Awareness.

In a post-pandemic world where we are all being rushed to close gaps, movies are an efficient way to bring SEL into our classrooms in relatively short bursts while also honing speaking, listening, critical thinking, and creative/academic writing skills.

I’ve always loved movies, and I’ve always taught with them, but the turning point for how I used them came with the movie Zootopia. As the movie begins, this scene caused me to lean over to my own kids and say – excitedly – “I’m going to teach this!”

As soon as Zootopia was available to stream, I rewatched it, pen in hand, and started taking notes, recording moments where I’d want to “stop and chat” with students, and began tracing the film’s very layered and nuanced look at racism, sexism, stereotyping, and bias. You can see the full unit plan here.

Once I uploaded the Zootopia unit and an accompanying blog to AFT’s free ShareMyLesson website, I was thrilled to see that not only did I think it was a good idea, so did many other teachers. It became the #1 Lesson of 2017 on the ShareMyLesson website. It was also the #2 Blog of 2017 and the #2 Blog of the Decade. It currently has 5147 downloads!

This Could Be a Book

This success sparked my desire to create more lessons around movies. The validation that I was on the right track led to another upload on teaching identity with Cruella, which you can find here. This one has over 2200 downloads in only a year. For me, this was the tipping point. If this many teachers saw the value in teaching social justice, identity, and SEL concepts with movies, then I was going to write a book about it.

Flash forward, and a little over a year later, my new book Movie Magic In the Classroom: Ready to Use Guide for Teaching SEL is now out with 10 fully developed units, each with a pre-reading guide, teacher “stop and chat” timestamps, student notesheets, and discussion questions. The workbook format (8.5×11) makes it ready for teachers to copy the units – and the publisher has built in permissions right on the activity pages, so no TPT required. Use everything – that’s the whole point!

Choosing the Right Movies

The difficult part of writing the book was narrowing down the movies I included. I ended up with:

  • Inside Out
  • Encanto
  • Soul
  • The Mitchell vs. The Machines
  • Wreck-it-Ralph
  • Lemonade Mouth
  • Hidden Figures
  • The Giver
  • Dear Evan Hansen and
  • The Social Dilemma

The chapters begin with the movies most appropriate for elementary school, moving all the way through the middle school choices, and ending with the final two movies which I felt are more appropriate for high school. That being said, the case is made throughout the book that ALL choices are valuable for middle and high school students – including the animated movies which are popular and have increasingly nuanced social and emotional content.

For example, if I were to ever teach a high school psychology class, I’d begin with Inside Out. It could also be used in a Health class. Encanto could be used to teach about the influence of culture and the universal tropes in literature, and definitely to discuss stigma with mental health. I can see it being used as a feminist piece as well. (On a side note, it has THE most catchy soundtrack I’ve ever heard, and if you can resist “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” then you have a stronger will than I do. It is a complete earworm in the best possible way.)

I’d love to hear what movies you would like to see developed into unit plans, as I do think this book will have a sequel! Already I’ve been talking about this on Twitter (follow me @MsAmberChandler) and I’ve heard Rudy, 2081, Keepers of the Game, The First Grader, Whale Rider, The Power of One, and Queen of Katwe.

What would you suggest? Are you looking for a movie to spark great conversation around a specific SEL competency? I’d love to help you find one!

Share your ideas in the comments, and we’ll see what we can build together. In the meantime, pop some popcorn, grab a blanket, and curl up with a good movie because the best reason to use movies in the classroom is because they spark joy – which we can all use right about now!

Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified middle school ELA teacher in Hamburg, New York with a Master’s Degree in Literature, as well as a School Building Leader certification.

Amber was AMLE’s 2018 Educator of the Year. She is the author of Movie Magic In the Classroom: Ready to Use Guide for Teaching SEL and two other books from Routledge/Eye on Education: The Flexible ELA Classroom and the Flexible SEL Classroom (2nd Ed.)

Amber’s blogs and articles have appeared in Middleweb, ShareMyLesson, Getting Smart, ASCD’s “Ideas From the Field,” MomsRising, The EdVocate, and AMLE magazine, as well as New York Teacher. Follow her on Twitter @MsAmberChandler.


MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

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