What We’re Watching–Documentaries and Other Educational Films

I have shared a lot of different reading lists over the years, so I thought it was about time I shared a different kind of list…this time of the documentaries and educational and fine arts films we’ve watched, either to coordinate with our school work, or to learn something entirely new! (I didn’t include Doctor Who, even though it was originally created as an educational program to teach history, but it is also something we regularly watch!)


The British Monarchy

Other British Documentaries

The Space Program



Miscellaneous (Including travel, fine arts, and American history.)

Animated Shows

Over the years, I have found it really helpful to have some trusted films covering various topics and suitable for different grade levels that we can watch to supplement what we’re learning in school, or to give me a break from teaching school on the rare occasion that I’m sick. A lot of the time, we even end up watching something from this list just for the fun of it in the evening or during the weekend! What educational films do you like to watch?

Fine Arts Week

I had originally planned this week to be ballet-themed. I wasn’t going to make Turkey and Bunny dance, but I thought it would be good for them to learn about the history of dance, hear the stories behind some of the most famous ballets, listen to some of the music, etc. I found it to be especially timely approaching Christmas–we could spend at least a full day on just the Nutcracker, maybe even stretch it into a day and a half.

As I was planning, however, it quickly morphed into more of a study of fine arts than just ballet. Yes, that was still the primary focus, but we also be studied art and artists (specifically Degas, who did many paintings of ballerinas), music and composers (especially Tchaikovsy, without whom the modern shape of ballet would be very different!), and even a little cooking (not really a “fine” art I suppose, but how can you learn about ballet without taking the opportunity to make a Pavlova?).

I found lots of great resources, so I thought I’d share, in case you’re looking for some good reading, watching, or listening related to fine arts!

Full of information on the history of ballet, basic steps, stories of the ballet, everything. The accompanying CD has excerpts of some of the more memorable parts of many ballets, along with explanations of the music, and hints for what to listen for (the sound of cats meowing in The Sleeping Beauty, for example).

This book had wonderful summaries of some of the most famous ballet stories–we read both The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, and, if we hadn’t already had a storybook of it, would have read the Nutcracker, too. Like A Child’s Introduction to Ballet, it also comes with a CD.

This is part of a great series called “Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists.” While these books are very factual, and full of pictures of paintings, they also have humorous illustrations, and are written in a very conversational style. There seems to be a book for every major artist, too!

I found this book, especially the ending, to be quite moving. In fact, the first time I read through it, I teared up a little.

Similar to the above Degas book, this is part of the companion “Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Composers” series. I unintentionally chose only ballets by Tchaikovsky to read and listen to, so I thought we should learn about the composer himself. Turkey and Bunny especially liked learning about Tchaikovsky’s fear that his head would fall off while conducting in front of an audience, thereby forcing him to hold onto his beard the entire time. We’re looking forward to reading the Bach installment next year!

My favorite version of the Nutcracker ballet, ever. Helgi Tomasson did an awesome job of choreographing the ballet in a fresh new way, while holding true to the original story. There are also educator materials available on the San Francisco Ballet Company’s website, which are great resources for teaching about this ballet.

Review: San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker

I know I mentioned this production already in another post, but I thought it deserved it’s own review.  With all the different versions of the Nutcracker I’ve seen (both taped and live), this is, hands down, the best.  There are many things that set this apart from the other performances out there (particularly the popular Mikhail Baryshnikov production, which has superb execution by the aforementioned dancer, but lacks in other elements, such as the complete absence of the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the somewhat creepy portrayal of Drosselmeier), which make it both unique, and unbelievably beautiful.

First, the setting.  The choice to set it during the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair is genius.  The time period isn’t too removed from the typical Victorian-era productions, but is different enough to give a totally new feel to the ballet.  And, with the ballet taking place in San Francisco, it was able to take advantage of both the beautiful “painted ladies” of that city in Clara’s victorian home, and the eye-catching pavilion from the Fair.

The costumes were also amazing.  Again, this is in part due to the early 20th century setting.  The dresses used in the first act were fresh and beautiful, and even the children’s clothing was different enough from typical productions to be noticeable.  And, the costumes in the second act were as beautiful as they always are, but also different and new (with the possible exception of the snowflakes and their queen, portrayed by the graceful Yuan Yuan Tan, who looked as traditional and wintry as one might hope). The colors used in the costumes from both acts were bold and attractive, and well-suited to being recorded.

The second act has always been my favorite part of the Nutcracker, and it was the same in this production.  The ladybugs, butterflies and dragonflies were adorable as they danced with the Sugar Plum Fairy.  And Vanessa Zahorian as the Sugar Plum Fairy was everything you would expect from that role–beautiful, kind, gracious and elegant.  The Chinese dance was especially delightful, especially with the addition of a very playful dragon.  The French Mirlitons were also enchanting, incorporating rhythmic gymnastics style ribbons into their dance.

The true genius of this particular performance, in my opinion, came near the end.  This production took Clara’s dream to the natural conclusion–not only did she dream her nutcracker a live prince (who was portrayed by Davit Karapetyan), she also saw herself transformed into an adult, able to dance with him.  So, instead of the pas de deux  being danced by the Sugar Plum Fairy and Prince, it was danced instead by Clara and her Prince. Now, the child Clara still may not have much of an actual role in the dancing, but the character of Clara at least gets more time, and more complex dances.  Maria Kochetkova was an excellent choice to play the adult Clara, capturing much of the innocence and sweetness that Elizabeth Powell brings to the child Clara character.

I would love to see this become the standard for Nutcracker performances.  I hope PBS (which is where I first become aware of this production in December) will continue to air this every year at Christmastime, as their choice of the best production of the Nutcracker out there.  Hopefully more people will begin to purchase this DVD from stores like Amazon, as well–I find this version to be much more child-friendly than the currently highest rated Baryshnikov production, which is not aging too well (mainly due to 70’s hairstyles and poor costuming choices).

I have to say, this production re-awakened a love for the Nutcracker that I had all but forgotten I had.