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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.
Owen Edwards
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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 (50) Sign in or register to comment Subscribe to comments via RSS

Katholyn Howell's picture

Some of you missed the point--Not movies to show in class but movies we might watch~ My favorite i "October Sky"

June Rain's picture

Helen Hunt, Kevin Spacey, and Haley Joel Osmont -- consummate acting, and the story wraps up my small unit on ethics. My juniors in ENG III love to talk about it & write about it--what more could i ask of a movie?

Stacy Edland's picture

October Sky. It's a really inspirational movie (based on a true story) about high schoolers from a mining town that are expected to go work in the mines but instead follow their passion to build rockets. It's based on the book Rocket Boys I believe. A great movie!

wlibrarian's picture
school librarian

Knights of the South Bronx and a short subject called Cipher in the Snow are two more to add to the list. Cipher in the snow really inspired me to look at each child and try to notice them when I see them. I loved Knights of the South Bronx because there are other things besides the basics that can inspire kids to learn and achieve. I like many others on the list, especially To Sir With Love, Mr. Holland's Opus, Stand and Deliver, The Marva Collins Story, and Radio.

John's picture
Founder of PrincipalFastTrack.com

Have you ever noticed the common themes of many films about public education?

- Out of control students (usually in the auditorium or cafeteria)
- Incompetent administrators and teachers
- An "outsider" that saves the day

christine's picture

There are 2 classic movies that I think could provide a year of content, curriculum & discussion - they're threads of 'Americana' in many ways...
I would use West Side Story & The Wizard of Oz. Both bring up life lessons as well as areas for creative & content instruction.
A 3rd, perhaps less often suggested? 'Oh God' ('77; George Burns & John Denver)- what this genre of story always brings is a sense of tolerance, connectedness for 'faith' regardless of a specific religion.

emf's picture

Simon Birch is great for SEL (social-emotion learning). I had 8th grade boys tearing up. Another one is On Golden Pond. Kids relate to both these within their own lives.

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