Teaching Opinion

Memo to Hollywood: Students Can Accomplish Great Things

By Robert Rothman — March 27, 2015 2 min read
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One of the highlights of this week’s summit held by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning was a lunchtime address by Fredi Lajvardi, a science teacher at Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix. In 1998, Lajvardi started a robotics program at the school, and in 2004, he entered a team of four students in a national competition to build a workable underwater robot. To everyone’s surprise, including Lajvardi’s, the students came in first place, beating out students from MIT.

A reporter from Wired got wind of the story and wrote a long article about it, which he later turned into a book. The students’ story was also the subject of a documentary film, “Underwater Dreams,” and now it is the subject of a Hollywood movie, “Spare Parts,” starring the comedian George Lopez as Lajvardi.

From the trailer, the movie appears to follow in a tradition of Hollywood movies, all based on real-life episodes, in which a courageous teacher inspires a group of students from low-income backgrounds to “beat the odds” and accomplish something nobody expected them to do. Think “Stand and Deliver,” about how Jaime Escalante led students in East Los Angeles who ace the Advanced Placement calculus test, or “Freedom Writers,” in which Erin Gruwell inspires students in a gang-plagued neighborhood in Long Beach, California, to publish a book of diaries about their experiences.

To readers of this blog, the Hayden students’ story might seem impressive, but not totally surprising. Schools regularly engage students in projects that have students work on real-world problems and produce meaningful products. Thus sixth grade students at Genesee Community Charter School produced a white paper to argue for the revitalization of a section of the Erie Canal in Rochester, New York, which resulted in a redevelopment plan. Students at A. Maceo Smith New Tech High School produced a video to the tune of the song “Uptown Funk” that has been viewed nearly 12 million times. And a group of students at International High School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, all recent immigrants, produced a digital guide to the Brooklyn Museum’s African Art collection.

None of this takes anything away from the accomplishments of Lajvardi and his students from Hayden High Schools. They deserve the attention they have received. And Lajvardi said he has continued the robotics club and showed pictures of some alumni, who have gone on to college and impressive careers; some became politically active.

That, too, should not seem surprising to blog readers. Deeper learning is intended to prepare students for postsecondary success and to give them a sense of accomplishment. This is particularly important for students like those at Hayden who are low-income and the first in their families to graduate from college and go to higher education.

The hope is that these kinds of experiences can become so routine that Hollywood loses interest. That will mean that the odds have finally tilted into the students’ favor.

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