Retro Report director of education David Olson calls civic education an “essential” part of a “high quality, rigorous education that students across the country should receive.” Civics, he says, “involves both analyzing and understanding founding principles and what makes the United States unique.”
A journalism nonprofit that was founded nine years ago, Retro Report helps students learn about various aspects of civics – especially as it relates to U.S. foreign policy. Teachers trying to put the conflict in Ukraine into perspective can show films that give a brief overview of an important part of the Cold War or explore the ongoing threat of nuclear weapons. Altogether, Retro Report offers a free library containing more than 250 short-form (7–12 minutes) documentaries on subjects ranging from biology to civics. Feature-length documentaries are also available.
Retro Report's mission, Olson says, is to “provide high-quality content that takes a critical, longer look at historical events in the world of the 24-hour news cycle.” An experienced teacher, he began working at Retro Report this past summer after teaching social studies in Wisconsin for more than a decade.
“We either look at the past and the meaning it holds for us today,” Olson states, “or we look at things happening now and look at the historical back story that helps us understand our current moment.”
He notes that Retro Report films are intended to make students realize that the American story is “not uniform across time, race, and gender.” As he explains, “There were fits and starts, ups and downs in which greater numbers of people felt that they were included as part of the citizenry.”
Each film centers on a “compelling story that’s driven by multiple perspectives” and is “coupled with engaging archival footage,” Olson says. The films are not intended to be a stand-in for teaching. Instead, they were created to “prime students to ask questions,” getting them in the habit of “discussing different ideas.”
In an age of bruising ideological battles, Retro Report’s films do not teach from a specific position, Olson maintains. But controversial topics should be brought up in the classroom, he contends. “Students need to critically examine sources,” which is an “important part of living in a democratic republic.”
For example, he notes that a 2018 film in Retro Report’s catalogue on gerrymandering, which looks at a 1990s redistricting case study in North Carolina, was recently updated in light of redistricting currently being undertaken in many states. The “crux of this film isn’t how bad gerrymandering is,” he argues, “but that it is potentially a political problem and is practiced by both political parties.”
In the gerrymandering film, students will “hear from black representatives on the positives and negatives of creating a new district, political operatives who drew the lines, and other viewpoints.” “Creating a balance between race, ethnicity, and partisanship – all of those things are on the table,” Olson continues. “The goal is to get students to grapple with the idea of political representation.”
Olson says that making these films can take anywhere from two months to more than a year. “This allows us to take a longer look and figure out what we can learn and the different perspectives we can feature.” He says that each film undergoes “a rigorous fact checking process,” an especially important task at a time of eroding public trust in the media. Retro Report, Olson states, works to ensure that “what we’re putting out achieves the highest level of journalistic integrity.”
One upcoming film will examine the plight of Afghan refugees, comparing them with Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon; another will take an introspective look at midterm elections.
Olson notes that Retro Report is making an increasing effort at teacher outreach, ensuring that its education efforts are “teacher-led and teacher-focused.” This includes sending out newsletters, attending conferences, and hosting webinars to show teachers how to use Retro Report’s films and lesson plans, which are becoming popular with educators. Over the past six months, he’s held webinars for teachers that address the 20th anniversary of 9/11, redistricting, and the Cold War in Latin America.
Last week, Retro Report announced the creation of two advisory groups totaling 145 teachers from around the country. The Council of Educators directly advises Retro Report on its education efforts, creates classroom materials, and helps in teacher outreach. Teacher Ambassadors serve as sounding boards for new ideas and help amplify Retro Report’s mission among teachers.
In our digital age, teachers are well served in using Retro Report’s expansive library of films to educate students, molding them into citizens capable of participating in self-government.
Mike Sabo is the editor of RealClear’s American Civics portal.