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Lesson plan: For Earth Day, examine real 'Don't Look Up' moments through history and today

April 22, 2022

Publicity image for ‘Don’t Look Up,’ written by Adam McKay and David Sirota. Released by Netflix in 2021

For a Google doc version of this lesson, click here. You will be prompted to make your own copy of the lesson. See Google doc for list of applicable standards.

“It feels like an asteroid headed toward earth and no one cares”

— David Sirota, co-writer, “Don’t Look Up” on the lack of media coverage on the climate crisis

Introduction

On this Earth Day, discuss the film “Don’t Look Up” and how it created an allegory* about how our society is responding to the climate crisis. Can you think of other examples from history in which people — especially those those with power and money — didn’t look up and ignored what was coming at them?

*allegory = a story that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning

Overview

Students will watch clips about the film “Don’t Look Up” and how it hones in on the climate crisis, an issue research has shown young people care deeply about. They will explore other historic examples of enormous problems that went largely ignored by those in power including the news media, which often results in the public not being made aware of the issues, or at times, also intentionally ignoring the problem. Lastly, students will discuss how response to Will Smith’s slap of Chris Rock at the Oscars represents a don’t look up moment.

Subjects

Science, social studies, civics, health

Grades

6-12

Materials

  • Pen and paper
  • Internet connection

Warm-up activity

Watch the PBS NewsHour video with Adam McKay, director and co-writer of “Don’t Look Up.”

See transcript here.

See, Think, Wonder: As you watch the interview, ask students: What did you notice? What did the interview make you think? What did it make you wonder?

Main activity

1. Discuss as a class: What do you think the title ‘Don’t Look Up’ means? Why was it chosen for this movie?

2. Ask students: Can you think of examples in history when the public ignored a looming crisis? Answers can be anything from the public ignoring stock market speculation that led to the stock market crash and Great Depression or French aristocrats ignoring the suffering that led to the French Revolution. Have students brainstorm a few ideas and share with the class.

3. Watch Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti’s Breaking Points interview with David Sirota, co-writer and co-producer of “Don’t Look Up.” Sirota received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for the film. If you need background on the film, watch the PBS NewsHour interview with director Adam McKay or this clip with Breaking Points’ Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti and David Sirota.

  • Start with See, Think, Wonder: As you watch the interview, ask students: What did you notice? What did the interview make you think? What did it make you wonder?
  • What does Sirota mean when he said “It felt like I was inside the movie”?
  • Do you think the celebrities at the Oscars should have used the venue to discuss the climate crisis? Do you think journalists need to cover the issue of climate change more? How do you think journalists can make the issue of the climate crisis more relevant and interesting to the public?
  • Take action: If you wanted to find out more about the climate crisis, what steps would you take?

4. Comparison to other points in history

  • Ask students to choose one of the following topics from history or find their own in which the public, particularly those in power and with wealth, ignored an important or existential threat to life.
  • Brainstorm the issue and conduct some research in groups of three or four.
  • Then ask one student to share with the class how the problem demonstrates a don’t look up moment. Students may also offer a suggestion for one solution that may have helped avoid the problem.

Ancient Rome: Emperors built sports arenas throughout the empire to distract the masses from mass unemployment and poverty, referred to as “bread and circuses” where poor people would go to watch even poorer people, often captives of war, fight to the death.

French Revolution: Aristocrats ignored mass poverty and inequality and were aware of the issue enough to provide the advice of “Let them eat cake.”

Great Depression: Wall Street bankers and so-called “Captains of Industry” didn’t care or were in massive denial that the entire economy would collapse despite clear warnings.

Cigarettes causing cancer: Role of cigarette industry and advertising companies who said smoking was not a health threat despite scientific evidence saying the opposite.

You may want to use the Library of Congress’ databases to support your conclusion. Here are a couple of examples:

Bread and Circuses in Ancient Rome via Library of Congress
Marie Antoinette via Library of Congresshttps://www.loc.gov/resource/pga.14087/

Extension activities

  1. Read the article “The Oscar Speech That Stayed in My Pocket” by David Sirota in the Lever, a brand new news organization that Sirota started. The Lever and Breaking Points are progressive news outlets. You can read more about why these journalists decided to start their own news organizations which provide the public with an alternative from traditional main stream media (MSM) outlets. Ask students: Was there ever a time when you had a speech in mind that you would have liked to give?

2. Media literacy:

Take a look at the tweet below by John Gibbons which addresses the negative reviews of the film. Why do you think mainstream media critics gave negative reviews of the film? Why do you think that media critics are often are not on the same page with how moviegoers feel about films?

Then take a look a Gibbons’ second tweet about how the film has done at the box office.

Last, see what Sirota’s response is to some of the critical reviews of his film in this interview here. Would you like to see journalists cover the issue of climate change more? Why do they not do so already given how much the public is concerned about it? How could you find out if you are not sure?

Standards

C3 (College, Career, and Civic Life) Standards

D3.1.6-8, D3.1.9-12, D2.His.1.6-8, D2.His.1.9-12.

Next Generation Science Standards

MS-ESS3-3, ESS3-1.


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