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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Movies That Can Teach the Teachers

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 20, 2020 11 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What videos or movies have taught you something that you have applied in your teaching practice?

In Part One, Beth Jarzabek, Cindy Garcia, Dennis Griffin Jr., and Dr. Beth Gotcher offered their suggestions.

Today, Ericka Knudson, Ph.D., Rachelle Dene Poth, Keisha Rembert, and Tamara Fyke finish up this series.

Life lessons from classrooms in the movies

Ericka Knudson, Ph.D., is a preceptor at Harvard University where she teaches courses on French film, culture, and media. She has co-written a book with Dr. David Campos on using film to inspire creativity in students, Cultivating Creativity through World Film: Cinematic Narratives Featuring Child Protagonists (Rowman & Littlefield):

My father, who was also a teacher, told me when I started out, that the first year he taught, he concentrated on teaching the material... but from then on, he focused on teaching the student. I didn’t exactly understand what he meant at the time, worried about mastering the subject matter and making lesson plans, but after a few years in the classroom, I understood completely. As a teacher of film, I feel that in the end, this outlook is also what makes a great movie: a director’s focus on the character’s humanity. Showing how the protagonist lives the story is what creates a bond with the audience, not just the story’s content, itself.

The classroom has proven to be a favorite space for movies, worldwide, to tell stories, showing examples to follow... or not. In Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows(France, 1959), for example, a hard-nosed schoolmaster runs his classroom with authoritarian control and accuses the young Antoine Doinel of plagiarizing his literary hero, Balzac, in an iconic scene. The teacher’s attempt to instill fear in his students, who remain unruly and unmotivated, represents a clear caricature of the French educational system of the day. Truffaut celebrates Antoine’s entrepreneurial spirit and knowledge he gains outside the classroom, reading Balzac on his own and roaming the streets of Paris. What this film has taught me would be what not to do as a teacher and to contemplate how to nurture the passions germinating in kids like Antoine, fostering their development inside the classroom.

An example to follow is illustrated in another one of my favorite films, “Kes(England, 1969) by Ken Loach. In it, another poignant young protagonist, Billy, struggles in school, in a system that sets him up for a lifetime of grueling work in the coal mines, without any hope. The principal displays the same kind of authoritarian attitude as in Truffaut’s film. Misunderstood and bullied by almost everyone, Billy finds his only connection in a baby hawk that he encounters by chance one day on a walk. Inspired, Billy goes to the local library to check out a book on falconry and manages to establish trust with the bird. One day at school, Billy’s English teacher discovers his passion and allows Billy to tell the class about it. For the first time, Billy is validated as having talent, skills acquired through personal motivation, inspired by something meaningful to him, not through coercion or something imposed. The teacher asks to meet Billy outside of class to see his skills for himself and ends up asking him many questions, learning from his student while also encouraging him.

As I think back about my own teachers who made a difference in my life, those who showed interest in hearing my voice and helped me develop my ideas were the ones who motivated me in and outside the classroom. No matter what the content we are entrusted to teach, I have learned from films like “Kes(and inversely through “The 400 Blows) that a key element in what we do as teachers is to create an environment in the classroom that leaves room for each student’s voice, guiding the class with questions that encourage students to think for themselves.

Inspiring them to pursue knowledge and be open to other points of view is important in building understanding and empathy in a world all too focused on achievement and grades. Finding what engages a student like Billy or Antoine and nurturing that passion should be at the core of our philosophy in educating young people. Validating them as people instead of judging them uniquely on their performance encourages their creativity instead of creating anxiety and fear that stifles it. Instead of focusing on material to teach to the test, let us learn from these films and see our students as Billy’s teacher saw him. With every new school year that approaches, I try to consider the students who will be in my class and how I can engage them in exploring other perspectives through the films we discuss, hoping that what we’ve shared in the classroom will follow them in some way, enriching their lives outside of it.

“Stand and Deliver”

Rachelle Dene Poth is a Spanish and STEAM teacher at Riverview High School in Pittsburgh. She is also an attorney and has a master’s in instructional technology. She is the president for the ISTE Teacher Education Network and communications chair for the Mobile Learning Network:

There are several movies that I recall seeing over the years that kind of left a lasting impact in my mind. The first one was the movie “Stand and Deliver,” based on a true story, shown by my calculus teacher back in high school in 1989. Still amazed at the fact we walked into class and there was a big movie projector in the room, but after watching it, I could completely understand his purpose in showing that movie. I appreciated so much about it, the way the teacher pushed to make the math easier for students understand, and above all, how he invested himself in learning about each student and fostering those relationships, once he knew the different adverse experiences that they were coming from. It served as a reminder then as much as it does today of the value in student-teacher relationships and in really getting to know each student. Knowing each student helps us to prepare not just to teach the class but to teach to each student and meet their specific needs and interests.

Another movie that had an impact on me was during my student-teaching years, “Dangerous Minds.” Another true story, but it served as a reminder to me that sometimes we have to do things which are not the traditional ways to teach but by drawing on the interest and backgrounds and even the culture of the students that we are teaching. Sometimes it can be uncomfortable in putting ourselves out there, as much as it is for students to try to fit into their learning environment and struggle with the content and fitting in at times. It’s something that I think teachers tend to do as well. When we get to know the learner, we can provide what’s best for each of them in our classroom space. This movie sent me the message that it’s OK to show who we are and to use our background, to let students know us, but also to take the time again to learn about students. When we do this, we can form a connection between us that shows students they are valued and we can provide a very meaningful and authentic learning experience for them. Students will know that we truly care for them not just as a student but as a person and that we are there to support and mentor them as needed.

“American to Me”

Keisha Rembert is an 8th grade English and U.S. history teacher at Clifford Crone Middle School in Naperville, Ill. Keisha feeds her love of learning by continually refining her craft and has been the recipient of several grants affording her the opportunity to take courses at some of the world’s most renowned universities. She was named Illinois’ History Teacher of the Year for 2019:

I recently watched “America to Me,” which is a doc-series chronicling Oak Park River Forest High School students (outside Chicago). The goal of the series was to show the experience of students in a diverse community.

The series reinforced to me that the goal of integration leaves students of color behind as it fails to address equity. Watching what I believed showcased the trauma and baggage that students carry around school every day made me consider the whole child. I started to think about the baggage my students carry, and it made me more empathic and more intentional. I have always been a relational teacher, but now I am an advocate to do more than just meet the students’ academic needs.

“13 Reasons Why”

Tamara Fyke is an educator and creative entrepreneur with a passion for kids, families, and urban communities. She is the creator, author, and brand manager for Love In A Big World, which equips K-8 educators with a social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum that is both research-based and practical.. Follow her on Twitter @tamara_fyke:

A few years ago, I watched the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why because my daughter and her friends were talking about it at school constantly. During my binge watching of the show, comments from my daughter included, “Tell me where you are in the show, Mom”, “Can you believe what happened to (insert name of character highlighted in that episode)?,” “I’m not watching that show anymore because I know everything since my friends at school told me about it,” and “I’m never telling you about anything I watch again because I don’t want you to watch it, Mom!” All of the remarks above led into deeper conversations about the topics covered in the show: bullying, suicide, friendship, drugs, alcohol, high school life, rape, etc.

One particular day when she was lamenting the fact that mom was watching this teen drama, I asked her, “Do you know why I’m taking time to watch this show?”

“No,” responded my soon-to-be 9th grader.

“Because it’s tough stuff. And I don’t want you to have to navigate it out on your own,” I stated matter-of-factly. My daughter didn’t say anything then. But when I let her know the other day that I was about to watch episode 13, she told me how upset I was going to be ... and last night she told me about a girl at school who gets picked on by everyone else. “I’m nice to her though, Mama. And I tell other people to leave her alone. She’s my friend, I guess.”

That’s why I watched the show. For her. I want to be a safe place for my girl to process what is going on in her world—always.

One question I asked myself time and again as the story of Hannah Baker and her classmates unfolded on the screen was, “Where are the parents?” The young characters on the show were left to wrestle through traumatic events mostly without any adult guidance.

Recent articles from The New York Times, Business Insider, and smaller presses stressed the controversy over 13 Reasons Why. Some mental-health experts, educators, and parents say that it glamorizes suicide. All urge parents to watch the show with their kids, especially kids who may be struggling with depression.

Regardless of our opinions about the show, it is a phenomenon, with over 3.5 million social impressions in the first week. It can be a tool to turn the hearts of parents and children toward one another. So what are we going to do about it?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Make time to listen to our students. I know it can be hard to find the time with all we juggle as educators and parents, but our kids are our priority! Even take time to play!
  • Take any comments about bullying at school seriously. Empower your kids to stand up for themselves and their peers. Talk with administrators about school climate and safety plans.
  • Educate yourself about the signs of depression. Remember depression is anger turned inward. Talk with your kids about healthy ways to deal with their anger, such as talking with you, deep breathing, journaling, exercising, painting, etc. Assure your kids that it is OK to feel what they feel.
  • Find a counselor or other mental-health professional as a referral. There is no shame in needing help for your students, their families, or for yourself.
  • If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

Thanks to Ericka, Rachelle, Keisha, and Tamara for their contributions!

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