I'm beginning to agree with traditionalists who argue that education should go back to the old days -- if we could be assured of landing at Midland, an elementary school in Rye, New York, between 1956 and 1966. More specifically, alighting in the classroom of teacher Albert Cullum. He had an intuitive sense of what worked in education, regularly incorporating teaching methods from project learning to social emotional learning, long before they had academic labels.
"We must remember how children learn rather than how we teach," explains Cullum in A Touch of Greatness, a 2004 documentary produced by Catherine Gund for the PBS series Independent Lens. "Through movement, through emotions, through activities, through projects, all the basics fit in and they're learning without realizing they're learning. Learning's not painful, learning should be joyful."
An unrequited actor, Cullum infused his passion for literature, storytelling and movement into his teaching. He believed in Hamlet and Ophelia over Dick and Jane, and taught geography by having his students "swim" (in their bathing suits) up an imaginary Mississippi River, made by unfurling a giant roll of paper on top of a huge map of the United States painted on the school playground.
No slight intended, but if everyone who has seen Davis Guggenheim's massively popular documentary Waiting For 'Superman' spent an hour with Cullum and his students in Greatness, the debate over education reform would be about firing up teachers, instead of firing them.
Fortunately for us, Cullum's extraordinary lessons were preserved for all time by his friend Robert Downey Sr., then a nascent filmmaker. Downey's mesmerizing black and white footage captures 10 and 11-year-olds putting such raw emotion into their parts in Antigone, Saint Joan and Julius Caesar, that I challenge any acting school in the country to top them. Cullum wasn't surprised by the honesty of the performances, especially for such young kids. "Every public school girl should have a chance to play the part of Saint Joan before the age of 12," he explains, "because the older you get, the more difficult it is to hear the voices of Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine calling you."
Greatness director Leslie Sullivan weaves Downey's archival footage with a 1999 reunion of Cullum and some of his students, now in their 40s and 50s. Cullum, who was nearing 80 at the time, died in 2003 shortly after the filming was completed. For this moment, though, he and his former students gather back at Midland School so naturally you'd think they'd been holding regular Sunday barbecues for the past five decades. When one woman shows Cullum the spelling lists she's kept all these years, a former classmate quips that she's still striving for A's. And when David Pugh, from Cullum's class of 1959, recalls what a troublemaker he was back then, Cullum surprises him by revealing a secret. "Let it be known that I traded you," says Cullum to a roar of laughter, telling the boy he was scheduled for another teacher, "And I said, 'No, give me that kid and I'll give you two dull ones.'" Pugh grew up to become a New York City public school teacher.
It's hard to imagine a teacher who organized literature conventions at school and had his students vote on their favorite authors (Shakespeare and Shaw tied), surviving in today's classrooms. A man who preached, in his numerous books and interviews, that learning should be "joyful" and "playful" would likely find no joy in a system that judges teachers and students solely on the basis of standardized tests scores.
--Kathy Baron, Edutopia Features Producer and Research Editor