Teaching in and with the movies

As you settle in to watch this year’s Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, here are a few movie recommendations from Stenhouse authors. We asked them to share their favorite movie about teaching, or a movie that they used in the classroom successfully. What is your favorite teaching movie?

Tim Gillespie (Doing Literary Criticism)

Most movies about teaching give me a stomach ache, because they follow an archetypal and unrealistic narrative arc: idealistic young teacher walks into crumbling school with criminal kids, brain-dead teaching colleagues, and venal administrators, and by superhuman application of love, self-sacrifice, and creativity (like letting students do something phenomenally innovative such as writing stories about their own lives), inspires kids and saves lives before going on to be fired…and writing a book. I don’t want to be cynical about these films — we all need stories of inspiring models — but the real work of teaching seems so much more complex to me. For that reason, I like Renaissance Man, the 1994 movie flop with Danny DeVito as a down-on-his-luck guy who unwillingly takes a temp job tutoring a bunch of U.S. Army misfits so they won’t flunk out of basic training. Somehow he hooks them on Hamlet and gets most of them through. But not all. And not perfectly. And not always gracefully. So even with its imperfections as a film, that’s what I appreciate about Renaissance Man. I know that teacher.

Erik Palmer (Digitally Speaking)

I hope that every teacher has a movie about an inspiring teacher that they love. We should all aspire to make the huge difference in the lives of children that we have seen on the big screen. I look at the Academy Awards differently, though. They are a lesson in the elements of effective speaking. Why is there an award for screenplay? Because you need to have something worth saying. Why an award for actor/actress? Because how you say the message is critically important.  Why an award for directing?  Because if you are going to create something for all to see, you need to make sure the message is well recorded. Why an award for soundtrack? Because when you add sound, it better contribute to the message. As we flip instruction and have students making videos we post to YouTube, we need to make sure that we don’t hit the record button until each piece is perfect. Would this get an Academy Award for acting? No? Then teach speaking. Would this get an award for Soundtrack? No? Then don’t loop some meaningless music. At some point, if we do our work well, we can claim the Best Short Subject award.

Kate Messner (Real Revision)

It’s probably an unconventional choice, but when I was team-teaching ELA with Social Studies, we used to view scenes from the musical 1776 in connection with our study of the writing of the Declaration of Independence. The students enjoyed the challenge of evaluating what was based on history and what was fiction, and the movie version of this musical does a great job reminding learners that the people who shaped our American history were just that — people, with agendas and quirky personalities and flaws galore. And besides all that, how can anybody resist watching the Founding Fathers burst into song?

Rose Cappelli (Poetry Mentor Texts)

There are many wonderful movies about teachers and teaching, but I think I would choose “The Miracle Worker” as one of my favorites. Annie Sullivan saw the potential in her student, Helen, and worked tirelessly with her, never giving up, until that potential was realized. That is what good teachers strive to do everyday in the classroom. Annie is a shining example of what it means to be a teacher.

Mark Overmeyer (How Can I Support You?)

A film I have shown many times to students in upper elementary and middle school is All Summer in A Day, a 1982 adaptation of the classic Ray Bradbury story. The story tells of school children on Venus who are anxiously awaiting their day playing in the sun, which only comes once every seven years. Enter the “new kid” recently arrived from Earth, who has experienced the sun all her life. A painful, yet realistic, bullying episode is at the heart of the story and the film. I never show the film without reading the story first, and the students are split on which they like more – although perhaps “like” is the wrong word. In fact, I have had many students through the years say they hate the story and the film because it is so sad… but then amazing discussions begin about peer relationships. The film is rated G, and there is no violence at all – a plus in these trying times…

Kimberly Hill Campbell (Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay)

We used to have a final course for our M.A.T. students in which we asked them to reflect on what they had learned during their program.  As part of the course, we showed them clips from films about teaching with the recommendation that they return to these films during those times when they were struggling to remember why they chose to teach.  I cannot tell you how many times I have watched these films and been re-inspired about teaching.
Up the Down Case (Sandy Dennis plays an idealistic, first-year teacher who does all she can to support her students–also a wonderful book)
To Sir, With Love ( and yes, I used to have Lulus’ album with the title song she sings to Sidney Poitier in this movie).
Music of the Heart (Meryl Streep plays a committed music teacher)
Stand and Deliver (Edward James Olmos was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Jaime Escalante’s efforts to change expectations regarding math–and what students can do when their teacher believes in them)
Children of a Lesser God (William Hurt pays a hearing teacher who teaches and learns with deaf students–and Marlee Matlin, a graduate who now works at the school).
Dead Poets Society (I also use this with preservice M.A.T. students when we explore the poetry of Walt Whitman. I love the scene where Robin Williams celebrates Whitman’s “sounding a barbaric YAWP”).
Teachers (Nick Nolte plays a burned out teacher who has to be reminded of why he teaches)
Mr. Holland’s Opus (which was filmed at a high school here in Portland, OR.  And yes, I still cry at the ending–every time!).
The Emperor’s Club (Kevin Kline plays a Classics teacher at a boys prep school who makes some interesting discoveries about his students)
Half Nelson (Ryan Gosling earned an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of an edgy teacher who inspires students to think for themselves)
Kindergarten Cop (I know this is an unusual choice and Arnold Schwarzenegger was a cop playing a teacher, but his interactions with his young students and his discovery that teaching is incredibly challenging makes me smile–and it was filmed in Astoria, OR)

Add comment February 22nd, 2013

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