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Teaching with Ken Burns in the Classroom

Ken Burns in the Classroom
Ken Burns in the Classroom

For more than 40 years, we’ve been privileged to tour history through the rich and creative lens of Ken Burns and his collaborators. The renowned documentarian now presents new ways to incorporate his body of work into learning experiences in our classrooms and libraries.

Ken Burns describes the importance of the UNUM project:

UNUM is this huge library of moments from all of our flims. I can take a molecule of this particular story and add it to a molecule of this story and they can can together and we can understand something a bit better about leadership or about race or about innovation or about art. We can connect the dots. And that’s what UNUM does. It permits us to have intelligent, thoughtful, civil conversations with each other. And that’s what UNUM is about.

Within Ken Burns on UNUM you’ll find the new Ken Burns in the Classroom. This instructional hub connects the wide array of primary sources in the form of documents, images, and archival video footage with state and national standards-aligned lesson plans that include: overviews, learning objectives, time allotments, step-by-step procedures, and support materials including handouts and links to media content. With a free account, educators may easily share these instructional resources on Google Classroom, assign them to a class or share them by email or on social media.

The Ken Burns in the Classroom collection can be searched by film title, by era, and by keyword. The growing list of films currently includes the following:

Browse Classroom Resources by Film
Browse Classroom Resources by Era

Here’s a sample of the instructional content relating to The Vietnam War:

The Vietnam War instructional content
A selection of lessons from The Vietnam War
The Things They Carried (sample lesson)

In his explanation of the naming of the UNUM project, Ken Burns also explains the value of having the components of documentaries available in clips designed for instruction making it newly possible for learners to analyze them individually and consider the connections across them:

E pluribus unum was chosen as the motto of the United States in 1782. It means “out of many, one” which captures the very soul of this project. It’s all one story. It always has been.

Though the subjects of my documentaries have differed, their themes have remained interwoven, and eternally related to one another. The lines of connection have always been there. It’s up to you to find them

The project is made possible by a gift from David Rubenstein in partnership with the Better Angels Society.

For much more standards-aligned videos, lesson plans and interactives check out PBS Learning Media.

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. Again nice post, Joyce. UNUM is a really amazing project which permits us to have civil conversations with each other. Ken Burns also explains it very well. You know I came here to get the new things & update so that I can convey the same at GGUSD and guess what I always found desired things. Thank you once again, Joyce, for the amazing post.

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