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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Medora: A High School Sports Documentary That Transcends Its Genre

It's a small town in southern Indiana's beautiful farm country. Once a thriving metropolis, it's now one of many across America that economic forces have reduced to struggling for survival. The local high school population, reduced to a handful of kids, refuses to surrender its identity by being absorbed into a large consolidated school district. Formerly the town's greatest pride and still a center of hope that holds it together is the high school basketball team. Their record last year was 0-22.

Welcome to the world of Medora, a movie that will be shown March 31 on PBS' Independent Lens. There's no Hoosiers-like hyper-dramatic excitement here. This is a movie by Andy Cohen and Davy Rothbart made with integrity and unusual intimacy about adolescents facing enormous challenges, about a town with enormous pride, and about people with great generosity. Dedicated to small towns and communities across the U.S., it's a little film with a big story that's perfect for viewing and discussion by both teachers and students.

The "Other" America

There has been an abundance of good films recently focusing on the struggles of inner city schools and poor kids of color. These have provided excellent and important resources for educators. But there is another America, an America of poor white kids struggling with different obstacles. Medora takes us into that world. It also challenges us to think about and respond to a crisis facing many small towns across this country.

The two major factories that supported Medora have closed, crippling the town's economy, creating a depression that extends beyond the economy into the lives of its remaining 500 people. As one resident put it, "This town's on the ropes." What they have is their pride, their sense of community, and a woebegotten basketball team that helps bring the town together.

Loss and Hope

Although the basketball team's quest for a victory is the narrative thread holding the film together, these boys' lives raise it to another level. The film directors and their director of photography, Rachel Counce, establish a relationship with the kids, their parents and varied townsfolk that takes us inside their lives, minds and hearts. We live with these people, and they open themselves to us.

The Medora Hornets are a small team, drawn from a male student population of 33, still haunted by its 2010 record. Their struggle to win a single game is a microcosm of the town's fight for survival. And one of the reasons for this struggle is that the school refuses to consolidate. It wants to maintain its identity. So they play every game against schools six to ten times their size. Their caring and spirited coach, Justin Gilbert, somehow keeps them believing in themselves, even as they continue to lose.

Inside Look at Struggle

The focus of the film is the kids. There’s Rusty Rogers, left virtually homeless due to his mom's alcohol problems and taken in by his teammate and best friend, Zack Fish. Zack's mom can't think of letting Rusty live on the streets. We ride with Rusty as he shows us the little house where he once lived when his parents were together.

The team's shooting guard, Dylan McSoley, has never met his father and also lives on the edge of poverty. In one moment he tells us about a teammate who can't afford to replace his torn shoes. We're intimate participants as Dylan tells us, "I feel incomplete. I sometimes wonder how my life would be if I knew my Dad." We're there when he calls his dad and leaves a message that begins, "You don't know me, but . . ." And we're there when his dad shows up at his graduation unannounced, although that's the first and last time he sees him. It's Dylan whose expressive face and transparency still remains with me.

There’s also Robby Armstrong, a farmer's son, who wants to be the first in his family to graduate high school and go on to college, and Chaz Cowles, arrested on a gun charge and still struggling to avoid trouble with the law. He tells us that he plays basketball to try staying out of trouble.

Town folks tell us, "We're like a family," "This town is home," and "All we have is our basketball team." We feel that we're part of their decision to not consolidate the school, perhaps their last bastion of community, pride and individual identity, into a large school system. As one member of the community says, "These small towns are what this country is based on, and they are fading away."

We love these kids. We root for them to win a game, but even more to win the battle some of them are fighting to overcome personal adversity, maintain hope and move on to fulfilling lives. As one kid says, "I think we're part of a dying breed . . . It's hard."

We care about these people who support each other, and about the kids in their struggle with shared adversity. "We are like a family" is a line that echoes throughout the film. It's the generosity and sense of people supporting each other in their adversity that grabs you.

The Film in the Classroom

This sense of community and generosity raise the film to a level of importance that transcends films about education and sports. It's about the hundreds, if not thousands, of small American towns struggling to stay alive. These themes are what make Medora an important film for teachers to consider viewing and discussing in the classroom, especially in social studies and humanities classes. And there is an excellent discussion guide for classroom and community meeting use available online for free.

Shown to kids in similar towns, it will evoke personal and emotional responses. I can imagine some kids responding to Medora as some did when I screened The New Public at an inner city school: "That is my life!"

But even in schools and communities that are very different from Medora, there is much to play with. Here are my ideas:

  1. What role can sports play in motivating some kids to become winners in their lives? Do our teams help create a feeling of pride that spills over into other aspects of our lives?
  2. When I use this film, I plan to have students role-play some of the kids in the film. Dylan would be a good one. I'd have another student play the role of a teacher or counselor helping him deal with his missing dad and how to connect with him.
  3. I like the idea of students debating the topic, "Resolved: We should consolidate with a larger district."
  4. I'd like them to discuss how these kids can get on with the rest of their lives when the town they've grown up in is dying.
  5. I see them discussing generosity and community. The people in this film truly support each other. Does this happen in our community? If not, how can we help make it happen? In this regard, I might assign the recent column by Nicholas Kristoff in the New York Times, "The Compassion Gap."
  6. And of course there is the question: "Is there anything we can do to help towns like Medora?" It introduces two topics -- our responsibility to the invisible others whose lives we indirectly effect, and what political actions contribute to helping and hurting these towns.

But please start by checking out the film, either March 31 on PBS or via the film's website. Check out that discussion guide. The DVD is also available. I love this important little film, and I hope you’ll consider using it in your school.

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James Payne's picture
James Payne
Aspiring Teacher ( Career Switcher)

Mark I cannot help but relate to this post as I have seen first hand what has happened to middle America due to the severe economic downturn. My wife is from a town of about 8,000 in Northern Michigan, which began as a town of lumber barons in the late 1800's and by the 1970's a hub for 6 factories, as the town lies on a large river. Since the early 90's the town has gone from 6 factories to 2. The town is ultimately on the poor side and resists change ( they voted down a Wal-Mart being built in town 2 years ago). However, what brings them together even more than voting down a Wal-Mart are the local high school sports teams. Regardless of how the teams are doing the games are usually packed with fans and covered in the local paper. Sports are the perfect vehicle to increase solidarity and togetherness. Here's why I think sports can teach life lessons early and create solidarity in a small town:

1. Sports are fun- Whether playing or watching sports are fun, they bring out our most basic emotions and instincts. I think this is most important to the kids as they should be able to have a way to have fun and have a moment where there is no worry about life's many problems.

2. Exercise- Without our physical well-being, it will be harder to be a significant contributor to society.

3.Self-Confidence- Sports can increase confidence in one's self, which make it easier to learn from others. Sports teach the following hard work, self-improvement, sense of accomplishment, camaraderie of team, self-worth, and respect. Learning these things early can make a difficult life more navigable.

4. Sports can show us what it takes to be successful- Goal setting, hard work, determination, focus, love of challenges, love of competition, confidence, being teachable, mental toughness, discipline, creativity, team work and accountability. Now if being successful means that kids are to help rebuild their town, or create opportunity for others, or if it means being able to get out and make something of themselves and being a contributing member of society, the definition is up to the individual.

Our society places an enormous emphasis on sports, maybe too much. But if it is the glimmer of hope that people need to get by when they are in tough situations, then maybe it is time for leaders to recognize this and find ways to use sports to make things in this world better.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist
Blogger 2014

Thanks James:

I totally agree and greatly appreciate your comment. I've heard from people in other small towns that have the same script. And sports, especially on a high school level and when not professionalized, can truly be the opportunity to help strengthen the spirit and possible energy of the participants, players and fans alike.

The trick of course is translating that into positive actions that do transform the community in ways that extend beyond the high school arena. And of energizing people to help get engaged in the political process needed to help these communities recover economically.

As a former college sports editor and lover of basketball and baseball especially, I love what sports can provide emotionally and, in the non-religious sense, spiritually.
The overemphasis takes place on the commercial, professional levels and also when
there is destructive pressure placed on kids to become stars or, as sometimes happens in Little League, too many parent dreams and needs are projected onto kids and their performances.

But all the positives you list are right on target and in Medora basketball and the way the kids are treated is the bright ray of hope in an otherwise pretty depressed little town.

Thanks again for writing.

Mark

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist
Blogger 2014

For those still reading this blog entry, remember that the movie is on PBS tomorrow night (March 31st)!

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