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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

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

Patricia Kokinos's picture
Patricia Kokinos
Author, speaker, former teacher/admin., school change activist

Best movie to watch while teaching Russian novels (okay, yes, it was an AP English class!): Woody Allen's Love and Death. The kids loved it, laughed out loud, and were able to survive Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamasov by understanding beforehand what made these novels tick.

Best movie to exemplify the long-lasting effects of mythology on the human psyche, Robert Redford's old film The Natural, a great double feature with Excalibur to discuss and help kids see the deeply ingrained archetypes that have come to us through the Arthurian legends. One girl told me she was suddenly seeing this symbolism everywhere, once she was turned on to it; critical viewing at its finest. I used to do movie nights at school (yes, one of those 24-hour high schools with all activities, all the time), using my own classroom, popcorn allowed, kids clean up afterward--and they ALL came!

I also LOVE Stand and Deliver, but it's more to inspire me than for the kids. And, of course, Ferris Bueller, which I always wanted to show to gatherings of administrators when I was one!
Patricia Kokinos, www.ChangeTheSchools.com

Carla Arena's picture
Carla Arena
Ed Tech Supervisor at a Binational Center in Brasilia, Brazil

Freedom writers and Entre le murs

Andra's picture

The Great Debaters (2007) is a must-see for speech/forensics/debate/social studies/history/civil rights/etc. Directed by and starring Denzel Washington. Marshall, Texas, described as "the last city to surrender after the Civil War," is home to Wiley College, where, in 1935-36, inspired by the Harlem Renaissance and his clandestine work as a union organizer, Professor Melvin Tolson coaches the debate team to a nearly-undefeated season that sees the first debate between U.S. students from white and Negro colleges and ends with an invitation to face Harvard University's national champions. The team of four, which includes a female student and a very young James Farmer, is tested in a crucible heated by Jim Crow, sexism, a lynch mob, an arrest and near riot, a love affair, jealousy, and a national radio audience. Rated PG-13. Also a must-see are the interviews of the actual students -- now senior citizens -- included in the special features on the DVD.

Hellen Harvey's picture
Hellen Harvey
high school English

Children of Heaven
Half Nelson
Under the Same Moon
O Brother Where Art Thou
Son of Rambow
In America
Caterina in the City
Ciao Professore
so many more

JWilcox's picture
7th Grade Life Science Teacher

October Sky tells the true story of a teenage boy named Homer Hickam. Homer lived in Coalwood, West Virginia during the 1950's and after seeing Sputnik glide across the October sky decides to build a rocket. The movie shows the impact of a dream, a devoted teacher, and the scientific method.

I like to watch the film before the school year to remind myself that one small nudge by a teacher is all it takes to ignite a passion in a student.

Mary McBride's picture
Mary McBride
7th & 8th grade Comprehensive Gifted Language Arts & Social Studies

I would include The Sandlot and Cool Runnings.

I would include the fact that there is much to be learned from the Indiana Jones movies. These movies span the entire curriculum.

Mary McBride's picture
Mary McBride
7th & 8th grade Comprehensive Gifted Language Arts & Social Studies

. . . or just for teachers,
The Education of Little Tree
A Separate Peace.

Corinna Longoria's picture
Corinna Longoria
Student teacher from Corpus Christi, Texas

I think The Breakfast Club is the best school movie ever...I used it in a unit on interpersonal communications at an alternative school for the "disciplinary challenged." They loved it.

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