George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

For many of us, Oscar week can serve as the annual reminder of how many great grown-up films we have yet to see, and how many kids' movies we've already seen -- over and over and over. Next time you're faced with indoor recess or a snow day, movie night or a free period before a holiday, resist the temptation to pop in Finding Nemo or Shrek (though I love these, too), and use the opportunity to take a journey around the world. Of all the great global learning tools out there, films from diverse countries are among of my very favorites.

The Benefits of Active Viewing

First and foremost, a good movie draws us in, and we simply enjoy the experience. Beyond that, watching a film can go from a passive experience to an active, engaged, curious exploration of big life themes and various academic disciplines.

A ten-minute clip (or shorter) from a film like The Story of the Weeping Camel from Mongolia might suffice to create a powerful discussion prompt on geography and language, on different perspectives about material luxuries, survival, family, how loved ones are cared for, being kind and considerate, what different living environments look like and how they are built, and how kids play or entertain themselves in different settings. It also can help foster empathy and bring alive an otherwise unknown culture. The diverse forms of expression embedded in films from faraway lands likewise can broaden creativity and possibilities for communication -- just to name a few of the many 21st century learning skills you might tap into.

Pre-screen movie trailers or short clips, easily accessible through YouTube or Vimeo, and archive your favorites to fill a gap on a rainy day or to weave into literature, social studies, music, art or science lessons.

Don't shy away from subtitles, either. Depending on your students' reading level, this can serve as a powerful literacy tool, and with practice won't feel like such a stretch. For pre-readers, having an adult read the subtitles aloud can also work. Education-conscious nations like Finland almost exclusively air subtitled films and TV shows, in order to cultivate a more literate national population -- and the strategy seems to be working.

6 Foreign Films for Every Classroom

While writing Growing Up Global, I took a particular interest in the benefits of foreign films for instilling global citizenship, and also realized how difficult it was to choose quality movies, since many of these are not rated, don't include age-appropriate guidelines, and rarely get the media attention of big Hollywood pics. Here are six of my favorite go-to films that any classroom can enjoy:

Ponyo (all ages)

A Japanese take on Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid that's filled with wonder and without the romantic obsession of Disney's Ariel displays, this is an all-ages, girl- and boy-friendly crowd-pleaser.

My Neighbor Totoro (all ages)

American audiences unfamiliar with the fantasy creatures in Japanese animation may take some acclimating to Totoro, but we find that our children are instantly transported into this film by Hayao Miyazaki, which has become an all-ages classic. Kiki's Delivery Service is another age-five-and-up favorite from the same Japanese animation team. We've met so many kids who were inspired to study Japanese language as a result of their love for these movies and later by the whole anime genre.

Like Stars on Earth ("Taare Zameen Par") (all ages)

An eight-year old boy in India, who faces discipline and learning challenges, is sent off to boarding school by his exasperated parents. An art teacher unlocks the boy's potential.

The Red Balloon (all ages)

This film is almost completely silent, following a simple balloon through a day in Paris. Yet the simplicity masks the diversity of experiences which every viewer of any age can take away from the story. It was acclaimed enough to win the 1956 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, as well as the 1968 Educational Film Award for Best Film of the Decade.

The Cave of the Yellow Dog
The Story of the Weeping Camel (both for age seven and up)

These films show life in Mongolia that is innocent, real and contemporary, yet worlds away from what we know. Central characters are real families, not professional actors. Some aspects of nomadic life may be hard for children to watch (e.g., vultures feed on an animal carcass, children are separated from their parents), but these are not in the context of any gratuitous violence or sinister character. Think of them more like a nature documentary. These would be good movies to watch actively -- after a scene, pause and process together, then re-start the movie and repeat.

Among this year's Academy Award nominees for best Animated Feature is Ernest & Celestine, a heartwarming French cartoon that's available with English narration by actors Forest Whitaker and Lauren Bacall, among others. Ernest & Celestine will be featured at The New York International Children's Film Festival, which also curates and distributes some of the best kids' films from around the world, including collections of fabulous, age-appropriate animated shorts.

What are some of your favorite foreign films to bring into the classroom?

Was this useful?

Comments (13) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Hal's picture
Hal teaches teachers how to be more effective and person centered

Stimulating affect and ideas with films, is fun and productive, if you don't rush in to interpret and direct, but let the children incubate about each and then gradually discuss without directive leadership. I had a small grant many moons ago from the American Film Institute to test short contemporary films in classrooms, mostly from the rich collections of the National Film Board of Canada. These were mostly short mood creating films rich in affect. Those I recall which had very big impact on middle and high school children were "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," a powerful short film about a soldier being hanged in the Civil War. "Wild Horses," a visual poem with no sound showing wild horses running through the wild and water, "The Red Balloon," already mentioned above, and many more such as some of this diverse collection here:

These films tell stories, some without words, which can create productive reflection and sharing in diverse cultures and grade levels. It's the kind of comfortable teaching aide teachers can use to discuss and teach empathy -- the trait Carl Rogers and I put at the top of the list of the essential traits of the most effective teachers.
Have fun with your students doing this!
Hal Lyon
Author with Carl Rogers and R. Tausch of On Becoming an Effective Teacher:

Eileen Mattingly's picture
Eileen Mattingly
Director of Education for Journeys in Film

Free, multi-disciplinary lesson plans for Children of Heaven and Like Stars on Earth (great films both!) are available for download at There are also free lesson plans for other terrific films like Whale Rider (New Zealand), The Way Home (South Korea), Please Vote for Me (China), and The Cup (Tibet/India). Most lessons were originally written for grades 6-8 but teachers of younger grades could adapt them easily. The films themselves certainly are appropriate for younger children.

I especially recommend Like Stars on Earth, which centers on an appealing child who has difficulty in his regular classroom but has a remarkable artistic gift. It's a beautiful film which combines animation, Bollywood-style music, and a story relevant to every classroom.

Homa Tavangar's picture
Homa Tavangar
Author,,, GlobalEd advisor

So glad you weighed in, Eileen. I'm a big fan of Journeys in Film. In our new book, The Global Education Toolkit for Elementary Learners, we feature section on 25+ films, how to build conversation around those films, and terrific resources with lesson plans, particularly Journeys in Film! And you mention some of my favorites, too: The Way Home, Please Vote for Me and Children of Heaven. I love Whale Rider and include it in the Growing Up Global film list for grades 6-12, but due to some of its content I didn't include in the Elementary list. Thanks for your great work!

Homa Tavangar's picture
Homa Tavangar
Author,,, GlobalEd advisor

Absolutely. The reflection piece in active viewing is key. Thanks for your links and resources.

Eileen Mattingly's picture
Eileen Mattingly
Director of Education for Journeys in Film

Thank you for your kind words, Homa. And in particular, thank you for reminding all of us about how important it is for the teacher to know his or her class well and tailor lessons to suit--one size definitely doesn't fit all. We have done some work that is really only for more mature students in high school. Beat the Drum, which is about the AIDS epidemic in South Africa and its impact on families, is one example. So is the set of lessons coming out this spring on Dying to Tell the Story, a film which tells the story of Dan Eldon, a young photojournalist stoned to death in Somalis in 1993 as he was trying to work. The lessons treat important issues of world hunger and civil war in a way the textbooks rarely get to, but the films would be too emotionally difficult for younger students.

Joel Rodriguez's picture
Joel Rodriguez
Im a student at St. Edwards University and im a Special Education major.

I LOVE STUDIO GHIBLI FILMS! i believe they show you more life lessons than any pixar movie. They use traditional 2D animation that will still make kids fall in love with them.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Joel, have you seen The Wind Rises? It does a great job showing Japanese life pre-World War II. The pacing is slower than some of the other works by Hayao Miyazaki that people may be more familiar with (e.g. Spirited Away), but it's a lovely film.

Jessica Foard's picture

What a wonderful article about possible films to show students. I had The Red Balloon in my house growing up and I can say I have some of the best memories watching that movie and while I was a very talkative child, that film was one that captured my attention and kept me silent through its entirety. I took a class on social responsibility and how to use technology and social networking to help students participate in social responsibility. I like the idea of using films as a basis for getting discussion going. I think students could use films that discuss issues they are confronted with everyday. A possible assignment could be having something similar to a book group, but for films based online. Students could be asked to create a group with a list of films they would watch individually and come back together to discuss in the form of a chat room or a wall in which they post responses. Students can be assessed on this by their instructors.

Elaine's picture

I have shown my grade 4/5 students "The Cave of the Yellow Dog," and "Children of Heaven." However, another movie not to be overlooked is, "Not One Less." It is a Chinese film, in Mandarin, available with English subtitles. It follows the evolving story of a 13-year-old girl who is suddenly thrust into the role of a substitute teacher, when the regular instructor must leave for a month to tend to his sick mother. In order to earn a bonus to her promised salary, she must make sure that there is "not one less" student in the classroom when Teacher Gao returns. Her determination to make this happen, and her altering motivations and struggles make this a "must see" movie.
Most of the cast are not actors. The children in your class will be desperate to see how it ends. The pace of the dialogue is more rapid than that of the aforementioned movies, so I usually show this one once the students are well-accustomed to reading subtitles.

Homa Tavangar's picture
Homa Tavangar
Author,,, GlobalEd advisor

Hi Elaine! I also was deeply moved by Not One Less. It's a great example of the capability of young people, and the power of a universal story. Middle schoolers might resist watching this at first (mine did) but with encouragement to stay with the film, something entirely new might open up in them. It's also a great empathy builder. Thanks for this excellent suggestion!

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.