Summer Evening Movies for Educators
I love movies. I especially love movies and television series about teachers, so I want to share a few of my favorites. Since these are especially recommended for viewing on a summer evening, I've purposely omitted didactic documentaries, like Waiting for Superman. This is summer and lectures, even visual ones, are out.
I've also purposely excluded the usual suspects, like Dead Poets Society and Mr. Holland's Opus. I've tried to avoid films that portray teachers in one of their stereotypical Hollywood roles as incompetent fools, or as heroes who are able to leap tall administrators and unruly students in a single bound.
My first, Monsieur Lazhar, is still playing in a few theaters. It's a French film about a long-term substitute teacher, a refugee from Algeria, who helps a class of 11- and 12-year-olds cope with a shared tragedy. Sparked by wonderful performances by the lead, Mohamed Fellag, and a number of the child actors, it is filled with insightful and provocative classroom scenes. The staff interactions are no less thought-provoking. The film is a refreshing contrast to formulaic Hollywood takes on teacher-student interactions.
My next few recommendations are TV series. Each of them undermines any prejudices we might have about TV being an inferior art form.
"Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose." These inspirational words from Kyle Chandler's Coach Eric Taylor to his players during each game are a perfect embodiment of the show Friday Night Lights. Inspired by an award-winning non-fiction book about a high school football-mad town in Texas, it's as much about students, teachers, school and community politics, and social class as it is about football.
The focus in Friday Night Lights isn't on classroom teaching. Classroom scenes take a back seat to coaching, counseling and evocative explorations of school and community politics.
Since no single episode can capture this, you should watch a couple of seasons, and I'd go with seasons four and five. The transfer of the coach to a school on the other side of the tracks leads into an incisive exploration of issues around social class, distribution of educational funds, and multicultural conflicts and challenges.
One of the best shows to ever appear on TV, The Wire, exemplifies television as art form. For any of you working in inner city schools, rent and watch the whole fourth season of that show, which focuses on a handful of inner city middle school kids, their teachers and parents. It explores in depth the educational, emotional and social needs of these all-too-real kids and the way in which the socio-economic environment, local politics and state policies conspire against meeting those needs. Though set in the drug-infested ghetto areas of Baltimore, the issues cut across American cities.
The new long term substitute throws student submissions for the school literary magazine out the window in the opening moments of "The Substitute," an episode in the TV series My So-Called Life. Confronted by one of the students as to why he did it, he says, "I did it to clear the slate . . . to wake you up . . . to do something . . . to find you. And now guess what, here you are, wide awake, right in front of me. Wasn't it worth it?" And wake them up and engage them he does. Unlike most Hollywood films, this guy is not a hero. However successfully he engages them, his provocative personality and methodology also have a downside.
The episode, on the second disc of the single and only season collection, provokes thinking about appropriate and inappropriate teacher methodology, student-teacher relations, and the way in which teacher ego may affect kids.
My next two picks are foreign films. A 13-year-old girl as a substitute teacher?! Let's hope that cash-strapped U.S. districts don't get any ideas from the great Chinese director Zhang Yimou's film Not One Less! The somewhat bewildered girl has been assigned as a substitute teacher in a rural primary school. She's barely taller than her students, and her main qualifications are an unsmiling bossiness, good handwriting, and her ability to perform a song about Chairman Mao.
The film's first half debunks almost every uplifting heroic-teacher melodrama. She writes lessons on the blackboard, her students, all pretty unhappy, copy them into notebooks. There's no rapport. Either she succeeds in browbeating her pupils or they succeed in humiliating her. Then her most difficult student disappears.
I won't give away the rest, but good things happen in unexpected ways. The film is ultimately uplifting but unsentimental. It also helps put some of our challenges as teachers in a different perspective.
The other foreign film, To Be and to Have, was the all-time highest grossing documentary in France. It's an intimate look inside a one-room schoolhouse in a rural French village and one of the most heart-warming films about teaching I've ever seen. The teacher, Georges Lopez, is charged with caring for and teaching a dozen children ages 3-11 in all their subjects. He's a firm and gentle parent, counselor and mentor in life skills. The film eloquently captures the way in which a pedagogically competent teacher can, if dedicated and sensitive to both the educational and emotional needs of children, profoundly impact their lives.
Which brings me to my last film, a U.S. independent film which in many moments reminds me of To Be and to Have. Tom and Amy Valens' August to June documents a year in the life of the open classroom at the Lagunitas School in West Marin, California. The film is a wonderful reminder of what's possible when gifted and caring teachers, engaged parents, and kids who are happy to be there, "live" together in a classroom. The film moved me to tears and laughter, my favorite combination. And at the end, there is a long list of the many other similar schools in the United States. It is a perfect movie for any season.
I don't have the space to look at all the films I'd like to include, the French film The Class for one. But I'm sure there are others some of you know about that I may not. So please chime in with your recommendations below. And enjoy your summer viewing!
Except for August to June, which you can purchase from the filmmakers, each of these are available to rent from Netflix or to purchase from Amazon. Monsieur Lazhar will be available in late August.