I've rarely liked commercial American films about teaching. Most fall into either the formulaic, feel-good, inspirational teacher genre, where idealistic teachers heroically and unrealistically buck the system and change lives; or they represent teachers as dolts. Few delve into the complexity of teaching, and other than Stand and Deliver, almost none have effectively focused on teaching in multicultural classrooms.
Meet The Class
The Class is quite different. This French film is great, not just in its representation of teaching, but cinematically one of the better films of our time. Gifted director Laurent Cantet began with a best-selling autobiographical novel by a teacher, Francois Begaudeau. He cast Begaudeau as the teacher and then worked for a year with a group of 14- to 15-year-old students, improvising and filming scenes. The result feels like a documentary, but all of the students are playing roles, not themselves. The film world was shocked when The Class was the unanimous selection for the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2008.
Viewing this film, I was convinced that it would be an excellent vehicle for both teaching students and training teachers. It could easily have been set in in the U.S., and most teachers and students in multicultural classes will recognize the familiar struggle between a teacher who wants to do good and students who disagree about what "good" is. The film takes neither side, and both teachers and students seem trapped in futility.
It's important to note the class' multicultural makeup, a mix of African, Middle Eastern, Pacific Islander, Asian, and native French students. Given that mix and the present immigrant-related tensions in France and in the U.S., the film is even more relevant in 2016.
Teaching Students and Teachers
Based on my own experiences, I would suggest some ways for using The Class with both high school students and teacher training programs.
Step one is seeing the film. It's available on Netflix, through many public libraries, or from Amazon for less than $7.00. The chapters are well marked on the DVD so that you can easily select specific scenes to use with your class or training group. Importantly, too, the screenplay is available for free download (PDF), making it possible for students or teachers to reenact individual scenes.
Begin by assigning participants to view the film. In a one-day workshop with teachers, you can show the whole film. That may also be possible in some high school classes. But given its easy availability, most students can rent it and get together in small groups outside of school to watch the film. All of my students were able to view the film in advance.
3 Challenging Students
While all of the students in the film stand out in varied ways, the best scenes focus on three of them to explore teacher-student interactions.
The most challenging members of the class are Souleymane, Khoumba, and Esmeralda, and we see Francois' many failed attempts to reach them, along with their anger and frustration, frequently directed at Francois. Even when he succeeds, as he does with Soulemayne, his efforts are ultimately sabotaged, either by other students or the dominant social milieu of their lives. In his own frustration, Francois occasionally loses it, publicly telling Khoumba she is insolent and at one point calling her and Esmeralda pétasses (skanks). The latter insult ignites a violent interaction and further diminishes Francois' authority.
Many of this teacher's mistakes are based on his failure to understand the varied cultures of his students, and much of the film is about how he, other teachers, and the students themselves struggle with their very different cultures and value systems. The film is filled with provocative encounters.
After viewing the film, have the students or teachers share their initial thoughts and feelings in small groups. Follow this with a written assignment designed to provide a good basis for discussion. This can done on the spot in a teacher workshop and as a homework assignment for students.
Case Studies to Promote Discussion
Offer these challenges:
- You are hired as a mentor teacher to help Francois improve his teaching. The film comprises all the data that you have regarding his teaching. What advice would you give him to capitalize on his strengths and diminish his weak spots?
- If you were the teacher, what would you do to effectively reach Souleymane, Esmeralda, and Khoumba?
- How would you have handled (a) the initial hearing regarding Souleymane, including the behavior of the two students in that meeting; and (b) the classroom interactions that follow the meeting?
- Using specific scenes from the film, what parallels can you find between one of your own classes and Francois' class? How do you or your teachers approach the students differently from or similar to Francois?
Each of these challenges provides fertile material for discussion. After viewing the film, you may choose to select other scenes as case studies. Additionally, it would be useful to discuss the teacher attitudes and frustrations expressed in the teacher lounge -- some are highly insensitive to the realities of these kids, and many are just frustrated, not knowing how best to reach them. These lounge discussions are a microcosm of the challenges and tensions related to immigrants in many countries today.
Instead of actually showing some of the scenes, you can role-play them using screenplay excerpts. I chose key scenes with Khoumba and Soulemayne, including Soulemayne's expulsion. This added immediacy and brought drama into the classroom.
A Role-Play Scenario
I also went beyond this and created the following role-play scenario to give the participants an opportunity to really feel the challenge:
It's the beginning of the following year at a local high school. Soulemayne was reinstated. Francois has been moved to teach high-school French, and all three students will be in his freshman class. The principal has viewed the tape of what went on the year before. He has called in Francois and the three students to hear each of their takes on what happened.
The actors are: the new principal, Francois, Esmeralda, Khoumba, and Soulemayne
Esmeralda has asked to be placed in another class, but the request is denied because there is no other freshman French class. Khoumba is involved in a gang outside of school, and her first loyalty is to the gang, one that proclaims, "Teachers suck, don't cooperate." Soulemayne didn't want to go back to school at all but returned because of his mom and the fear of being deported.
The task is to discuss the prior year and prepare how you'll be with each other this year. The principal runs the meeting.
Listen first to the three students and then to Francois. Try to reach an agreement about what changes each of you plans to make for the year.
Each group shared their process and outcomes in the large group and a lively group discussion followed.
Good Films, Great Teaching Vehicles
The bottom line is that this superb film can help both teachers and students understand the complexities, challenges, and possible solutions related to teaching in multicultural classrooms. As is frequently the case, a good film can be one of the best vehicles for engaging students both emotionally and cognitively. The Class is one of the best.