"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I have avoided blog posts composed of lists, as I think that is sort of a crutch, but this thought seized my mind a few days ago and won't let go. It probably relates to my other blog, 24 Times Per Second, which I maintain as a model for my Film Studies class. But these are some of the people who may have put my feet on the path they walk today, even though many of them are fictitious.

The topic: Most inspirational movie teachers (presented in no particular order)

1. Mark Thackeray - To Sir With Love (1967) This may be the first film I actually paid money to see a second time. (In those pre-video days that meant going to the movie theater twice.) One of the most riveting things about the character and the movie is that Thackeray realizes early on that he is doing everything wrong. I mean, everything. All his assumptions about the students, all his goals, everything is wrong. (Personally, I like that he is not a trained teacher, nor does this seem to be a career goal, but something that is getting him through a stretch in life.) What he arrives at by instinct, trial and error is what today is called authentic-based learning. Real-life skills and real-life goals. And the film re-defined "learning" for a generation--instead of absorbing mounds of data, learning to observe and process the world--meaning the people--around us. Leadership, empathy, responsibility, engagement, humility and self-worth are his subjects.

2. Dewey Finn in School of Rock (2003). First off, we notice his passion for his subject--once he discovers what that subject is. Then, he devises an extremely authentic task: form a rock band and play publicly and--competetively. As with any well-designed authentic learning, there are many ancillary benefits, learning to work cooperatively, acknowledging and celebrating differences, problem-solving, etc., etc. The other chief characteristic of Dewey is his resilience and refusal to allow setbacks to become defeats, an indispensable lesson for our students. (For contrast, see the real-life model for Dewey in the documentary Rock School. That deranged screaming maniac should not be allowed anywhere near children.)

3. Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver (1988). Escalante might call himself persistent--others might use the word "stubborn." Edward James Olmos does stubborn really well, as fans of Battlestar Galactica will tell you. Again, an authentic task is posed, that is, passing the AP Calculus Test, which though in itself inauthentic, will open the doors to college for these disadvantaged youth. Besides his persistence, Escalante tailors his teaching methods to his students' priorities, interests and learning styles. If it makes a difference, Escalante is a real person. And from the evidence in this film, he is a bad-a**.

4. Albert Cullum in A Touch of Greatness (2003). Cullum is the man who, in the early 1960's, taught 5th-graders to debate as to whether Shakespeare or Sophocles was the greater tragedian. Cullum is another one of those people who found himself teaching and made it part of the creative continuum of his life. This film is a documentary, and thank goodness it is, because no one would believe his accomplishments if you could not see them. His greatest lesson to his students was not to follow the path trod by everyone else, to find your own way.

5. Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers (2007). What is remarkable about Gruwell's work is that she was not about bringing something new to the students, but teaching them to use what they already have and know to transform their own lives. This is the business of a writer; whatever their apparent subject matter, their actual subject is the self. The film, as a narrative film must do, shapes its subject matter in dramatic fashion, but nothing essential was altered.

6. Anne Sullivan in The Miracle Worker (1962). Let us say first that, while the Internet Movie Database lists three film adaptations of the William Gibson play, there is truly only one, the original with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. I saw this film in its initial release--one of my earliest movie memories, and the breakfast table battle sequence is seared in my memory. (I am privileged to teach the play in my freshman English classes.) Anne brings two gifts to her student: vision--the vision to see that there is a person inside that thrashing, destructive shell; and, again, stubborness--the stubborness (more politely, patience) to cultivate that prisoner and put her in touch with the rest of the world.

7. Rafe Esquith in The Hobart Shakespeareans (2005). Here is another nut who thinks 5th graders are ready for Shakespeare. If you don't believe it, you can see them performing Hamlet in this film. And the kids in question are from neighborhoods adjacent to those tough places in Los Angeles the Freedom Writers come from.

8. Leonard Bernstein on Omnibus. If anyone exemplifies the now-disfavored "sage on the stage" mode of teaching, it is Bernstein. The controversy goes on as to Bernstein's place in the musical firmament of the 20th century, but their can be no question that he was one of the finest teachers to be captured on film or tape. His great gift is being able to explain purely musical ideas to people without musical training. This requires the ability to get into another person's head, a person utterly different from yourself. Bernstein was always in touch with the universality of human life--a super-empathy appropriate for a super-teacher.

9. Richard Feynman in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. One of the most significant physicists of the 20th century, Feynman had a reputation as "The Great Explainer." He believed that if a principle could not be explained in a freshman-level survey course, the principle was not fully understood. (He and Bernstein could have been buddies--especially since they were both Jewish New Yorkers!) Also Feynman brought an insatiable curiosity to everything. This is a guy who would take constant readings to find out at what temperature Jello set, or whether he would count to himself faster if his heart beat faster. Every man, woman and child, whether a science buff or not, should read Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman. By law.

So what are the qualities we value in our movie teachers? Patience, persistence, curiosity, empathy, being student-oriented and instinctively setting real-world [i.e., authentic] tasks for students to accomplish.

Perhaps in a later post, we'll look at Bad Movie Teachers...

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