George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Inside the Classroom and Mind of an Extraordinary Teacher

Kathy Baron

Former Edutopia reporter and editor, mother of two.
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

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

Was this useful?

Kathy Baron

Former Edutopia reporter and editor, mother of two.

Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

brahim elouafi's picture
brahim elouafi
teacher of English at a high school Morocco

we've to keep it ind that not all that is NEW is BETTER.thereis no harm in getting insights and inspirations from our ancestors.

Rod McQuality's picture

As a school administrator I find it extremely important to give leadership roles to teachers. We are a MS that operates in teams with team leaders that guide decision making for their grade level teams. A building leadership team discusses issues affecting the entire building. An RTi leadership team plans and implements RTi for the building. As a retiring administrator this year, I have also developed a consulting company to assist educators in understanding key components of MS and differentiated instruction. These PD topics are offered online to keep teachers in the classroom, where they need to be and to allow districts to get the most PD for the $$. Up to 75 teachers receive 15 hrs of PD for only 4K. Schools also receive a free "Kindle" for staff members to use while participating in the book studies. All from the convenience of the home/school computer. More info at

George Shirey's picture

It has always been my assertion that we provide "gifted" education to the wrong group of students. We pick out the ones who seem to excel in school and label them as such - but really, we should be picking the ones who seem bored and disinterested b/c most of their brains are well beyond what they are being taught. Looks like Mr. Cullum understood this very well. An engaged mind is on that is learning. All students have engagement points, we just have to find them!

Smita Dharsi's picture
Smita Dharsi
High School Teacher Special Ed./Chemistry, South Orange/Maplewood, NJ

This is a great tool for PLC's

The Excited Neuron's picture
The Excited Neuron
high school science teacher in Texas

I ran into this problem just last week. I have a student who is clearly (at least, clearly to me and a few others) gifted--at least in math and science. Students may be "gifted" in one or two particular areas, but that doesn't mean they will excel as students overall. I told the student's history teacher that I believed he was gifted. He looked at me like I was out of my mind. This history teacher likes for all of his students to be perfectly well-behaved, to never talk out of turn, to cross their t's and dot their i's in just the right way, and so on. Since this one young man does not comply, this history teacher has basically written him off. Sad.

Jessica Saldivar's picture

Sometimes it is very hard to get my students that they are gift in some subject. They are shy to come forward and show their work, in fear that other students will label them as "nerds". It truly saddens me since a lot of my students have such potential.

Paul Bogdan's picture
Paul Bogdan
Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher

I bet Albert never had to force his students to sit and listen to him drone on and on. I think that is the secret. Any teaching that requires the students to listen to the teacher talk (for more than a few minutes) is a waste of time. It's tough. They say make it fun; make it interesting. Well, I'm teaching exponential growth and decay functions along with logarithmic functions, the number e, and logistic growth functions. I have 14 days and there are 45 different kinds of math problems my students are facing. My students have fun because they learn these things without listening to me drone on and on. They learn it without having to be taught.
P.S. K-3 kids need their teacher to talk a lot, 4-6 less, 7+ see above.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.