Friday, March 20, 2009

Movie classrooms

We've just watched two very different movies about classrooms.

The 1988 movie Stand and Deliver stars Edward James Olmos playing a (real) high school teacher who'd quit his computer job to teach at the largely Latino Garfield High School in Los Angeles. He manages to turn around math teaching at the high school so that many of his students pass AP Calculus. In the movie this happened in a year, in real life, it took several and was a struggle. In a 2002 article in Reason Stand and Deliver Revisited we can read about what happened when the teacher finally got tired of the odds against him, not because of the students, but because of school bureaucracy, envious colleagues and whatever else can cause a teacher to burn out.

The other is the excellent French movie Entre les murs (The Class in English,) which takes place in a middle school in a very similar location in a present day Paris suburb. Pretty much all the students are either first or second generation immigrants, from a wide variety of countries, mostly north African. Their teacher (the actual author of an autobiographic novel of the same name) does a remarkable job treating his students as people, allowing them to talk and ask questions in his attempts to bring them into mainstream French life, which they know (and he probably does too) is not very realistic. But toward the end we discover that he hasn't really been listening as much as we thought, and he makes a fatal error of judgement to save his skin. He has favorites in the class as well as at least one student, the target of his tragic error, whom he (and maybe the school staff as a whole) has failed. Manola Dargis wrote an excellent review of the movie Learning to Be the Future of France in the New York Times, from which the picture above was borrowed.

Both teachers are working against enormous odds and both ultimately fail because those odds are too high. The French teacher has much more support from his colleagues than the American one, but in the film (at least) the backup support of counselors, tutors and the like is sorely lacking and you are left wondering why they couldn't prevent the ensuing tragedy (of a lost future, not a life.)

I watched both films with a new-found interest in how teachers manage difficult classrooms, and was impressed with both teachers for treating the students much more as fellow human beings than in the stories I've been reading about American classrooms.

For example, I recently received some helpful guidelines about becoming a substitute teacher which were all about this thing called "Classroom Management." It told me to ensure silence and raising hands, to not turn my back on the class, move around to keep my eye on everything the little perps are doing, and pounce before they get me (my exaggeration.)

I didn't need to teach like that when I taught in Denmark. I hope I won't have to here either. I have collected some books to read about this topic, which I will review as I finish them.

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