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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Edutopia List: Best School Movies

Whether you're a school teacher, student, or neither, here are some must-see flicks.
By Owen Edwards

Is it still an escape if the rental you're watching reminds you of what you do all day? We think so, since you can happily while away a long winter's night watching these staff favorites.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) There are several filmed versions of this story, but the first is the best. Robert Donat is top drawer as Charles Chipping, looking back on a long career at an English boarding school. Get out your hankies.

Blackboard Jungle (1955) Glenn Ford, as "Teach," takes on Vic Morrow, Sidney Poitier, and other young toughs in the '50s template for dozens of no-wild-child-left-behind films.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) The definitive statement on '80s West Coast education. Sean Penn as a stoner in long blond locks steals the movie.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) A triumph of truancy. Not much in-school action -- after all, it's about ditching -- but the classroom scene where Ben Stein drones on to his stultified students is a fine how-not-to primer.

Stand and Deliver (1988) Edward James Olmos, sporting a really bad comb-over, earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as Jaime Escalante in this true tale of kids transformed by good teaching.

Dead Poets Society (1989) A restrained Robin Williams proffers rhyme and resistance to privileged but prosaic private school boys. Carpe DVD.

Hoop Dreams (1994) The gritty, realistic, and inspiring documentary about William Gates and Arthur Agee, inner-city Chicago kids who yearn for basketball scholarships and get a chance to attend a suburban school with a famous coach. Not to be missed, even if you've never had a hoop dream yourself.

Mr. Holland's Opus (1995) Music education goes tone deaf from budget cuts, so Richard Dreyfuss teaches students to play his own composition. Yet another spin on teacher as saint, but at least it's the concert version.

Election (1999) This might be called Ferris Bueller Grows Up. Not. Now in the role of high school career counselor, Matthew Broderick sabotages a campaign for student council president by Reese Witherspoon (hatefully perfect as Tracy Flick).

School of Rock (2003) Jack Black, as out-of-work musician-substitute teacher Dewey Finn, pulls a Mr. Holland with back beat and amplifiers. Pay attention, kids: this guitar riff will be on the final.

Owen Edwards is a contributing editor for Edutopia and Smithsonian magazines.

What's your favorite school movie?

Comments (48)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Nancy Scofield's picture
Nancy Scofield
high school and college English, Colorado

How did Freedom Writers NOT make this list? It's one of the most inspiring education stories ever. The best part is, the story is true. The Freedom Writers and Erin Gruwell are real people, with a real foundation, working to help real teachers. Last September my junior and senior students had the awesome privilege of a one-hour video chat with one of the original Freedom Writers -- definitely the coolest moment in my teaching career.

Michelle Pahl Brown's picture
Michelle Pahl Brown
Library Media Specialist for BCPS

What about the Breakfast Club?! That movie defined High School in the early 198s.

Linda Woodard's picture
Linda Woodard
High school English teacher-FL

I think we have two lists going here! One to inspire us teachers (or to make us laugh) and the other to inspire our students! I was confused by the title of this myself, and first thought the list would be the latter, but by the list it was the former.

As for me, whenever I am down I have to pull up Teachers and that reminds me why I (and the educational system) is here....for the students!

Linda Woodard's picture
Linda Woodard
High school English teacher-FL

Well, I think there are two lists going on here! One to inspire us teachers and the other maybe to inspire our students. When I first read the title, I had thought that maybe these were movies to show our students, but the list really is for us, I do believe.... a list that shows a myriad of scenarios in our profession and how "education/students" have changed: from the inspiring to the comedic to the plain bizarre!

As for me, Teachers has been my all time favorite (but I need to see Freedom Riders!) as it really gets me going when I see the idiocy of school boards and re-affirms that not only one person CAN make a difference, but also that we have to remember that we are here for the students and really no one else!

Perla's picture

Any 80's movie dealing with high school. Like "The Brekfast Club" which is about 5 different students with various backgrounds (nerd, prom queen, bully, jock, misfit)who get weekend detention and end up bonding partly because of a common enemy (Principal) and "3'Clock High" which is about a genuinely good student who gets into all kinds of trouble and faces expulsion and criminal charges and a dangerous bully because of bad circumstances and bad management from school administrators. Especially now that the 80's are making a huge comeback with young people everywhere plus they are timeless...it's stuff that will probably always happen no matter how good a school is.

Oh and let's not forget "Grease." Everybody loves that movie!!

A more serious film/documentary that had a big impact on me was "The Eye of the Storm." It was a about a school teacher (Jane Elliot) who divides her classroom into two groups to teach a hard lesson on prejudice & discrimination. She divides them by color of eyes. Blue eyes get all the privelages and Brown eyes are limited to what they can do. Then she turns the table on them the next day and gives the brown eyed students all the privelages and limits them for the blue eyed kids. There is even a part at the end when the same students are filmed when they are adults and are asked how the experiment affected their lives.

Perla's picture

[quote]The film takes the course of an entire school year and describes three teachers and one assistant principal. Mr. Stroope is campaigning for Teacher of the Year, but many of his students are a little bit smarter than him. Mr. Lowrey is an introverted history teacher struggling to find passion for his profession. Coach Webb is a female gym teacher who is struggling to get her students to take her class seriously and becomes interested in Mr. Lowrey. Mrs. Reddell is the first year assistant principal who is regretting leaving teaching.[/quote]

I recently saw this little gem on netflix. I loved it. It shows how unprepared some teachers are regardless of their educational background (the divorced History teacher in the movie). Teaching is a very difficult job because you have to really understand the developmental needs of children of all ages and how to manage conflict inside your own classroom. Like the part when the History teacher goes into the school library and checks out a book on classroom management.

Many of the skills a teacher must possess to be successful in the classroom cannot be taught in college. They can only be achieved by experience and trial and error. It's too bad that so many new teachers quit before they give themselves a chance to grow.

Cathy McDonald's picture
Cathy McDonald
High School English from Shiloh, Illinois, USA

I have used Freedom Writers in collaboration with a class in Brasil. Using online publishing, lulu.com. Our classes actually published a book of poetry (Facing the Future: Our Hopes and Our Fears) of our own as a result.

We are currently using Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit to discuss self esteem, responsibility to school and community, and pursuing dreams. We will use SKYPE and TappedIn for discussion forums.

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