Education Trends

The Best of 2012: My Favorite Films for Parents and Educators

December 10, 2012
Photo credit: First Generation Films
Still from First Generation, a documentary about the challenges of college access for low-income and first-generation Americans.

As a film and book lover, I always look forward to the end-of-the-year critics' picks. I also prepare my own, just to share with friends and family. But this blog gives me an audience (you!) to share my personal favorite films and books for educators and parents for 2012. This time I'm focusing on films. My book picks will follow shortly.

I've selected three films that are artistically excellent and also touched both my heart and mind. Each of these has already affected my thinking and my work as an educator.

Gaining Access

First Generation, a film lovingly produced and directed by the husband and wife filmmaking team Adam and Jaye Fenderson, is narrated by Blair Underwood and focuses on the quest of four California high school students to become the first in their families to go to college. Each of the four subjects is captivating, and each of their individual challenges is both moving and illuminating.

Cecilia, the daughter of migrant field workers, is a first generation U.S. citizen who excels in both academics and cross-country running. Dontay, from Watts, is a former gang member and drug dealer who has turned his life around. He takes three busses and two trains to get to school, where he stars in football and struggles with academics. Jess, from the Kern Valley, works as a waitress in her grandmother's restaurant, while excelling academically and being a student leader. But her family responsibilities and financial limitations pose an obstacle to attending college. Keresoma, aka "Soma," lives with his family of nine in an apartment in south LA. A charismatic class leader and increasingly good student, he still faces significant financial and admissions obstacles as he reaches for his goal of a college education.

If these four principal characters haven't already sold you, know that this film will grab and hold you as it unfolds the complex challenges faced by each of these kids. It is also a highly effective examination of the importance of both high schools and colleges needing to go much farther in providing support services for these children.

Dates and locations for film showings are available on the film's website. You can also join the mailing list so that you'll be updated on future showings and the eventual DVD availability. Additionally, there is a link to the Lumina Foundation for Education and Goal 2025, whose mission is to increase the number of degree-holding U.S. citizens to 60% by the year 2025.

Check It

Another husband and wife filmmaking team has created the marvelous Brooklyn Castle, a film that's playing in select theaters throughout the country. Katie and Nelson Dellamaggiore's film focuses on five members of the chess team at a poorly funded inner city junior high school, I.S. 318 in Brooklyn, where 65% of the students live below the federal poverty level. The school leads the nation in scholastic chess and, as the warmly engaging principal says, "At this school, the geeks, they are the athletes!"

Beautifully photographed by Katie's brother, Brian Schulz, an Emmy Award winning cinematographer, one of the things that makes this film great is the way it centers just as much on the children as it does on the chess, showing how they successfully struggle to deal with the challenges of their lives, including parental expectations and a devastating school budget crisis.

Brooklyn Castle also makes it clear that a key reason the I.S. 318 team flourishes is the commitment and skills of the teachers and administrators, especially the assistant principal and coach John Galvin, and Elizabeth Vicary, a superb chess teacher. It also makes clear that mastering chess can increase academic motivation and performance. In a world where kids are increasingly finding mental concentration a challenge, chess demands it.

Good films need good characters, and this film has them. Two especially stood out for me. Pobo is charismatic and smart and also counsels his fellow team members, runs for student body president, and is already planning his 2032 Presidential campaign. Watching him, we think it could be possible! Rochelle, who struggles to balance her mother's academic expectations and demands with her passion and gift for chess, could become the first female African American chess master.

Then, in a microcosm of the challenges faced by many inner city public schools, a recession-driven budgetary crisis threatens the program's critical ability to travel to tournaments. They manage to meet this challenge as well.

Check out the website to find out where this film is playing, and also to learn ways of supporting the program and others like it.

Social and Emotional

I'm cheating slightly on my third selection, since it was first released in 2011, but it's worth the extra flexibility!

August to June: Bringing Life to School, directed by documentary filmmaker Tom Valens, focuses on a year in the life of the open classroom in a Northern California elementary school. Valens captures the lives of the teachers, children and parents during the last year of his wife Amy's successful teaching career.

From the opening moments of the film, we are caught up in a surge of energy that continues for the full 88 minutes. The final result is a wonderful "feel-good" movie.

Music, the music of the children singing and dancing, music as a natural ongoing part of this classroom, captures you immediately and infuses the whole film. We watch conflicts between kids, and we watch Amy skillfully helping them learn how to resolve the conflicts on their own in this safe environment. The children are taught how to communicate with each other and learn to become responsible for their own actions.

Listen to Amy in one of the group meetings: "What can we do to make it better next time? What do you want from the people you had a hard time with, and what do they want from you?" And then as she speaks to us: "Conflicts happen. These emotion-filled moments color everything a child experiences . . . Developing an appreciation of other points of view, and a belief that problems can be resolved, are as basic to me as any academic skills."

Although there is a focus on the children's emotional and social development, academics are still the center of this classroom. Children are continually reading and writing, producing a newspaper, sharing poetry. Project-based math and science are seen throughout the film.

The film is a reminder of what is possible when the development of children, not test scores, is the primary goal. It's a film that will renew your hope about public education, as it did mine. For more information, check out the website and take a look at the trailer. Although the film is still being shown in select locations, a DVD is available.

Honorable Mention

I want to include one other film that is in my honorable mention category. Monsieur Lazhar, an Academy Award nominee, is beautiful French language film about an Algerian immigrant who is hired by a Montreal public school to replace a popular teacher who committed suicide in her classroom. His relationship to the students and how he helps them deal with their grief, as he also deals with his own precarious place as an immigrant, is both touching and instructive. The film was recently released on video, and its page on is a good place for both a full review and purchasing information.

You may have other favorites, and it would be great if you could share them with all of us. So please chime in with your picks for 2012!

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