Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

The Same Old Song, But with a Different Meaning Since We've Been Gone

Shannon Reed wraps up her summer of delving into literary and cinematic depictions of the classroom with appreciations of Half Nelson, Election, and The Class.

It's that time of year, folks. I've been watching the Facebook status updates as summer winds down for my friends across the country. First comes a note that there's only one week of summer left, then a sad little post about the last day of break, and then an update about the first day of school. Parents, teachers, students, people who can't wait for all of us to clear out of Starbucks between 9 and 3 — we all know it's here.

Well, not quite yet for me. I teach for the New York City Department of Education, and my first day isn't until the 8th of September. I remember that I used to be the last of my friends to go to college too. It's kind of like being the last person killed in a horror film, isn't it? You know what's coming, you've seen it happen to nearly everyone else... now all you can do is wait for the school year to come and get you.

Boy, that was grim. Well, of course the beginning of school year isn't only a horror. For one thing, it's an excuse to buy lots and lots of new school supplies, and I do love new pencils. For another, it's a time, for many of us, to reconnect with people we don't see over the summer but enjoy working with every day, whether that person is our school secretary (shout out to Sheila! Love ya! Save me extra chalk again!) or our kids' bus driver. Most notably, these last few days can be a time for reflection. We're hopefully far enough away from the last school year (and have had our brains adequately lulled by vacation) that we can take some lessons from it, and make resolutions about the year ahead.

I Know What I Did This Summer.

I have to admit, sitting down to read or watch school-related films didn't seem like as good an idea right now (when I'm knee-deep in curriculum planning and such) as it did in June, but I'm glad I spent time over the last few weeks watching and reading these works. Specifically, I read Tom Perrotta's Election and watched the 1999 film based on it. I rented and watched Half-Nelson and The Class (Entre Les Murs) too. All gently provoked me to ponder my role in society as a teacher, my style in the classroom, and what I think the, well, point of education is.

You might want to consider doing the same. Lots of lip service is given to the idea of self-reflection. It's a good idea. But I also know that, for me, and I bet, for many of us, self-reflection happens in the last 30 seconds before we fall asleep, after a day of teaching, working out, taking care of our kids, cooking, Civil War re-enacting and so on. (I just threw in the Civil War to see if you were reading everything). We're too busy doing to reflect very much. And then, when we do rarely have time, it's hard to know how to begin. Should we just sit on a pillow and stare out a window until enlightened thoughts appear? Can we brush the dog while we do so? Or cook dinner? Or watch Reba?

Sometimes it's good to have limits to work against, or an idea to place ourselves in relation to, if you know what I mean. One of the great gifts of being a reading (also, in this case, a watching) person is that what we read or watch becomes a concept that we can arrange ourselves in relation to. We read Pride and Prejudice and decide to be more like Elizabeth, less like her younger sisters or mother. Much more productive than wondering if we're a bit shallow, whilst brushing the dog.

It's hard to articulate this idea to students, but I think just allowing them to do this naturally is a great boon for them. It's the difference between being a passive observer of literature and an active one. The passive reads The Grapes of Wrath and wonders why Steinbeck spent so much time on a turtle. The active reads the same book and ponders how their inner courage, stamina and determination would stand up next to the Joads'. Reading, watching, stopping, thinking. It's good stuff.

I Want to Go to There (in Terms of Classroom Discipline, not Addiction).

The first film I want to discuss is Half Nelson, a tour de force for its star Ryan Gosling, who was nominated for an Oscar for playing Dan, a middle school teacher (and deservedly nominated, in my opinion). The film is nerve-jangling and very sad, and by the end of it, I was ready for a brisk walk and a fortifying cup of cold milk. That's not a negative criticism: it's an excellent film, and, I think, a great one to show to older students to discuss how setting and tone can affect readers and watchers.

From a teacher's perspective, Dan's classroom is a dream world. He wanders around it, giving articulate but a wee bit pretentious lectures to his 12-year-old History students, all of whom just sit there listening to him. In fact, when he arrives at class each day, they are already sitting there ready to listen. Yes. He gets there after the kids. Each day. This is, my non-teaching friends, quite unlikely.

Let's skip over that, though, and be thankful, at least, that he at no point gives an inspiring speech or teaches the kids to dance. The beauty of this movie is the relationship between Gosling's teacher and his student, Drey, played with a stunning naturalness by Shareeka Epps. She is the only person I've ever seen on a TV show or movie who made me think, "She could be one of my students." (And one of my students was actually in Mad Hot Ballroom!). While I couldn't show this to my students (the film is riddled with profanity), I wish they could see this character that looks and talks so much like them. It's hard to incorporate high-quality literature that uses the language that they do right now; a modern film can be a way of reflecting on how we communicate today.

Dan's an addict, and it's not giving too much away to let you know that early on, Drey discovers him smoking crack in the girls' locker room. It's a terrible scene, because you know he waited until the students were all gone and didn't want to be discovered, but now is dependent on her help and silence. The filmmakers capture the scene in tight detail — his hands, her eyes, until finally pulling back, and you realize that Dan in on the floor of a toilet stall, with Drey's small frame crouching over him, holding his hand.

The movie, first of all, made me think that nothing I'd ever done in the classroom was all that bad, comparatively. Maybe I will bring that scene up at my next faculty review. But it also made me think about teachers' — and, hey, adults' — unwillingness to be vulnerable to our students or kids. We make the mistake of thinking that as leaders, we should always be right, do right and advise rightly. But how can we expect our kids to learn how to be flexible, forgiving people if we don't show them how we're flexible, and how they need to forgive us for messing up.  

I'm not advocating for more crack dealers in the classrooms, of course, but the theme I took away from this film, and hope you might too, is to reflect on how I might let my students see who I am, besides just "Ms. Reed," this year.

Just Like a Scarlet Letter in That Respect.

OK, so, there's Election the movie, and there's Election, the book. And, unusually for me, I cannot come down on the side of reading the book. The movie is, of course, based on the book, and most, but not all, of the pivotal plot points are the same. What's different in each is the motivation of the characters, and our understanding of why they do what they do.

The author, Tom Perrotta, is great with character voice. This isn't as common as it sounds. Here, he's written intertwining narratives in the voices of about 8 characters, all speaking in the first person. I never got confused about who's voice I was reading. I don't know if I'd teach this book in the classroom (although it would make for a fascinating ethics — or is that morals? — debate), but it could be used to help students understand the power of first person voice, as well as the singular (ha) difficulties of maintaining it.

That said, the movie's funnier. And, for teachers, a little more accurate about what high schools are like. In the first few minutes of the film, Matthew Broderick's teacher encounters Tracy Flick, the school overachiever. They're way too similar to like each other, and the stilted conversation that ensues is a classic example of difficult student/teacher conversations we've probably all been a part of. Remember, kids are people, and not all people get along.

That aspect of the two main characters being so similar stayed with me. Without really meaning to, I began to think about some of the students I didn't get along with last year. In some cases, it was, retrospectively, because we were too much alike. I have little patience for drama queens who whine and make up ailments. Um. Guess what I did in high school? And I don't like it snappy come-back-ers. Um. Have you read this column? I think I'm pretty good at not playing favorites, but it's true that the kids I get along best with share a number of characteristics with all of my friends: (1) they think I'm funny, 2) they like my hair, etc. It's not very uplifting to do this kind of thinking, but it is necessary if I want to grow as a teacher. I'm resolving worry less about whether I am liked or like a student, and more about how I can help them best learn.

If I Spoke French, I'd Put Something Very Apt in French Right Here.

The Class is the film I'd most recommend. Watching it is also a textual immersion, for many of us, because the film is French and subtitles are needed. (As an aside, since I'm hearing impaired, I watch most everything with closed captioning, and I'd recommend considering using it in your classroom, when screening films. I think it helps some students take in more of the dialogue and narration, and certainly makes it easier to compare a novel's text to the film adaptation's.) The film shows the novelist and teacher Francois Begaudeau, playing himself, going through a year of teaching in a Parisian public middle school. In an intriguing twist, almost all of the students, teachers, and parents play themselves. It's not a documentary, but it is a docu-drama. Try that distinction on for size with your students!

I was won over right away by how the film begins — Francois arrives at the empty building as a new year begins — and by the next scene, in which the teachers introduce themselves to each other in one of those "Hi, my name is Shannon, I teach English" exercises that I have personally performed 20,000 times. It feels real, it looks real, it (was/wasn't) real.

There are parent-teacher conferences, a faculty meeting (which mostly revolves around the break room coffee maker), and, best of all, long extended sequences in which we see the class in action. Yes. Francois teaches and the kids respond the way kids do — sometimes with the correct answer, sometimes with the wrong answer, sometimes with a non sequitur, and sometimes with inanity or hostility. Some of these classroom scenes go on for over 10 minutes, a minor miracle of filmmaking, because you are actually immersed in the language and dialogue of, well, school.

I especially liked how, just as I do in my classroom, I anticipated who would speak next and what kind of comment they would have. It reinforced my realization that I subconsciously categorize my students and need to work on ways to shake up the room and the learning process so we're not always in a situation in which we know how everyone will respond. Francois's classroom didn't show any of the tricks we use in the U.S. — changing seating plans, moving desks around, up on our feet learning — and it was interesting to ponder whether they would have made a difference in his room.

I admit that the translation from French to English doesn't seem to work well at all times, a common problem with foreign films, in my opinion. At one point, a small moment over the phrase "the penny dropped" took me out of the film. I don't know the French equivalent they were replacing, but the English expression is no longer used much, if at all. You could discuss the fluid nature of idiom with your students, based on this... how we still say some expressions that are outmoded ("The pot calling the kettle black" has little literal application in a world with fewer pot and kettles) but have dropped others that, for some reason, no longer hold favor (e.g., "The film was way out!").

With that caveat, I have to say that this is the only film I've ever seen that I'd encourage new teachers, people thinking about becoming teachers, or people who wonder just what goes on in a classroom, to watch. The overlapping dialogue, the ruminations, the tangents, the moments of discovery — they're all here. In fact, I'm thinking of showing part of this to my students (not the whole thing, which does, actually, get a little boring, just like a real faculty meeting) and having them compare how dialogue flows here with how it does in any other "high school" film. I know they will see a difference. It's not that one is better than the other, but I sure would rather someone expect to see this when they come in my classroom, and not students on top of their desks yelling poetry. We only do poetry yelling on Fridays, by the way.

What did this film make me reflect about? Well, I don't want to give away what happens — which is nothing too dramatic but the film is very small without at least discovering the plot as you go — but it made me again reflect on the frailty of teachers. I won't get up on my "We have a tough job!" soap box again, because I know there are lots of tough jobs out there and they do not involve 2 months off each year. However, the film warns me, and can warn all of us, of the danger of not stopping when you know you've gone far enough.

In fact, think about all of the literature out there that we read that features this very flaw. Oedipus didn't let up when he had a bad feeling in his stomach. Those Perfect Storm guys, they knew they should've turned around. Even my precious Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice knew she should have held her tongue. So often, these books show us, it's not that we didn't know that we should stop, but rather, that we knew and didn't stop. Francois makes this mistake, too. His recovery from doing so should keep you and/or your students talking and debating for some time.

We Can't Go On. We Must Go On.

So, in the end, I'm glad I watched these films and read that book. I'd never do so during the course of the school year, when I prefer my entertainment to be from galaxies far away or time periods in favor of hoop skirts. I hope you might dip into them too, especially The Class. Or return to a book about teaching or education or schools that had meaning to you. If you're a teacher, maybe you even want to return to that one book you read in grad school that made you more, not less, excited about teaching literature. These prompts to think about the importance of what teachers do each day are important, helping us to think in ways more broad than looming 8th period usually allows.

Not to mention, it's great to continue to read books, watch TV, go to movies and generally be a media-consuming beast. After all, don't we want our kids to do that? It's hard to make a case for their picking up a book, or discussing a movie thoughtfully, if they never see us do it. So, folks, read, watch TV, go to a movie. Go ahead. There's a little bit of summer left.

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Monday August 24th 2009, 4:23 AM
Comment by: Tom C. (Haarlem Netherlands)
nice article, Sharon. Two small obsrvations.

First, when you said "While I couldn't show this to my students (the film is riddled with profanity),.." I was surprised you thought sparing your kids from profanity I'd imagine they're very familiar with (I says 'assume' because i don't know the film or your students, but it's hard to imagine any profanity that secondary school children don't know). Given how you clearly devote a lot of thought to how best to help your students' open their eyes to the world as it is and reflect upon it (oh that more of my old teachers had been so committed), I would have thought ruling out showing them a thought-provoking film simply because it has a lot of swearing seems a strange decision. Swearing is what people do in real life. showing them swearing in a film is no more an endorsement or acceptance of it than showing someone doing crack would be an endorsement of that, and I would have thought nearly all students woud be aware of that fact (though maybe I'm wrong... ? I'm not a teacher).

Secondly, a pernickerty point (aren't they always!) on the subtitles. The phrase "the penny dropped" is still very common in England (probably partly because they still have pennies) and it may be that the transaltors of a French 'art house' film are more focused on subtitling for their audience in the neighbouring UK than for the US. Which actually makes me wonder: given that on the one hand the US is a vastly bigger market than any european markets, but on the other that certainly in countries like the netherlands where I live a far higher percentage of the cinema-going public watch art house and/or subtitled films, i wonder where art house filmmakers focus when they think about such issues as how to translate the text, film posters, marketing etc. The US or (the in many ways very different) European audience...

Be intriguyed to hear your views on the above
Monday August 24th 2009, 9:06 AM
Comment by: Shannon R. (Brooklyn, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Well, first off, my name is Shannon. : )

In terms of swearing in films, I have heard the argument you put forth and it's a very valid one... my students indeed use profanity intensely. However, I am also answerable to my students' parents and my administration, both of whom do not want 13 - 16 year-old students watching R (or even questionably PG-13) rated movies in school. I don't have a problem with that, especially when there are so many other works for us to dig into during their first two years of high school. Yes, I show them films with violence and drug use and rampant Puritanism, but swearing is a problem they already have, and it is vehemently (and, to my mind, correctly) despised by their adult care-takers who want them to know you can't go through life using only such a limited, off-putting vocabulary.

Thanks for the heads up on "the penny dropped" in England. I've not heard it there either, but I'm always hearing new turns of phrase each time I visit the UK. Of course, that was one example of several in the film; Didn't want to go into the biggest off-kilter phrasing so as not to ruin the film for readers who want to check it out. It's not really a complaint about the film -- just makes me wish I spoke or read French better! As for how movies are marketed, I have the faintest idea. And sometimes, I think the people who market movies do not either. : )
Monday August 24th 2009, 2:49 PM
Comment by: Tom C. (Haarlem Netherlands)
oops sorry about the Sharon/Shannon blunder - written in haste! Yes I see your point about the swearing thing, though still wonder why parents/authorities can't distinguish between showing a film in which characters swear and endorsing swearing. If you read The Iliad in class you're not encouraging violence or colonialism if you study 19th century history. But there we are.

you're right about the wierd subtitles you sometimes get. Dutch TV has lots of strange 'understatements', when a character in The Sopranos comes out with a tirade of aggressive verbal abuse and the text at the bottom of the page reads something like "No way, pal". And it's not because the Dutch are coy about swearing, believe me!

Anyway, keep up the good blog, Sasha.

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Shannon kicks off her series on classroom classics with "Up the Down Staircase."
In Shannon's second installment, she tackles "Dangerous Minds" and "The Freedom Writers Diary."