Category Archives: Movies

Avatar and the Classroom

I recently went to see James Cameron’s Avatar (in 3-D no less) and was visually awed. In my lifetime few movies made me feel like I had seen a change in cinema, but there have been a few: Star Wars, Aliens, Jurassic Park, and Lord of the Rings.

After watching Cameron’s groundbreaking movie, I reflected on themes that could be turned into lessons by using clips of Avatar. Here are a few ideas I came up with:

  • the preservation of the planet,
  • the connectivity of all life on Earth,
  • imperialism,
  • the western expansion of the Americans into Native American territories,
  • the bully tactics of larger nations against smaller nations in acquiring desired resources,
  • word choices (in particular, the ore sought is called “unobtainium”),
  • the idea of the white savior aiding the people of color,
  • a dependence on technology versus a life living off of natural resources,
  • military and diplomatic tactics/solutions, and
  • how this film is actually a love story.

I’m sure there are more themes in the film, but these are my initial thoughts. Any ideas from the film that you think could be added to the list? Any ideas you think don’t work? Let me know.

WALL-E and the Classroom

My nephews are here, and we’re having movie night with WALL-E and popcorn.

Ever since I first saw this movie I thought that the first section of the film would be excellent for an environmental studies unit while the last section in space would be great for Self-Reliance and the theme of independence.

Of course, the space section could also be part of a technology unit or a health unit as well.

I’m guessing Ray Bradbury would have a commentary for us, especially if you’ve read his short story “The Pedestrian” or Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations.”

There’s just so much in this movie!

Stretching the Truth

I couldn’t sleep this morning, so I watched Resurrecting the Champ about a reporter who composes an article about a former boxer who fell on hard times and became homeless. While I enjoyed the film, something just felt “off” as I watched. I decided to look up the true story upon which the film is based and felt disappointment upon discovering that a major plot point of the film is false.

Spoiler Alert!

The reporter in the film, Eric Kernan, Jr., writes about a boxer whom he believes is named Satterfield when in fact that man has assumed Satterfield’s identity. The Homeless man, known primarily as “Champ,” was a boxer but one named Kincaid. Kernan’s article brings him fame and potential fortune until the truth is revealed, and he loses his reputation and must then compose a second article redacting the first, which also becomes a piece about truth and love.

However, the real author of the pieces (upon whom the film is based) actually began writing the article about Champ, but he discovered the deception prior to completing the piece and changed it into a story about how he was deceived.

This may not seem like such a big deal, but it reminded me of a post I wrote a few days ago about how teaching is distorted on-screen. The protagonist of Resurrecting the Champ appears somewhat morally corrupt and makes journalism appear sullied. As Dana Parsons says in her commentary on the film:

“…we get a movie that beats up the newspaper business for being so hot for a story that it doesn’t bother to check things out. The reporter is reduced to a bum in his own right who, even after learning the truth, is reluctant to publicly acknowledge it. He’s not only lazy; he’s unethical.”

Dana Parsons is a journalist for The Los Angeles Times, who personally knew the original author, who further states that:

“Rather than running with the story, as would be the temptation, Moehringer put so much time into it that he eventually learned — to his great distress — that the guy posing as former contender Bob Satterfield really wasn’t him.

I remember us talking in the office when he learned the truth. He acted as though the world had come to an end. All that time spent on the story, he lamented, for naught…All the things the movie says the reporter didn’t do — ask the boxing experts, check the archives, talk to Satterfield’s relatives, be skeptical — the real-life Moehringer did.”

Journalism is shown in such a poor light in this film that I couldn’t ignore the similar way teaching is skewed on film and on TV. The realities are ignored in favor of what the producers and directors believe the public wants. As Champ says in Resurrecting the Champ, “I gave you the man you want[ed].” And so we got the story the film industry thought we wanted.

Instead of presenting what people truly feel and do as teachers (and in this case journalists), we are given a tale, a fabrication of the truth. Maybe truth can be stretched for a purpose as in a film like Big Fish, but I would prefer the truth.

Of course, this led me to think about the classroom as well. Students often tell me that some of the most interesting things they learn about the writers and historical figures in my classes are the imperfections; they tire of myth and want truth.

The students enjoyed hearing about how Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden alone in the woods, but he allowed himself reprieves from the absolute isolation and independence of the famous pond when he would visit his buddy Ralph Waldo Emerson from time to time. The students’ question “how could he do that for so long” is duly answered.

Ken Kesey became an interesting figure when the students learned of his drug use and flight from justice. Abraham Lincoln’s shifting views of slavery interested the students as did Benjamin Franklin’s dalliances with women, and Thomas Jefferson’s relations with his slaves, and the Colossus of Rhodes’ true appearance, and Thomas Edison’s ruthlessness, and Marie Antoinette’s attributed words about peasants eating cake (which she never said), and Napoleon’s true height, and how George Washington could be considered the 15th President of the United States.

They say the same things about the characters in the texts, too. Every year the students find Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities “boring” because she is not three-dimensional; she has no real imperfection. Lucie is perfect in every way and betters everyone around her. How dull! How predictable! But these same students love Sydney Carton’s boorish and drunken figure as he transforms himself from “a disappointed drudge” into a “far, far better” man.

When we reveal truth we may actually increase interest and appreciation.

The Teacher as Savior Myth

Teachers, when showcased on film, seem to be viewed as saviors to the underprivileged children of the world and people to whom all other teachers should aspire. However, the reality surrounding these teachers of greatness is often left unsaid. Many of these teachers leave the profession soon after the events of depiction are shown while others become mainly speakers rather than teachers, and some are just unable to work within or change the system as a whole (more a problem of the system and administrators than the teachers themselves).

Despite even this, my biggest objection to teachers in film are the new stereotypes of the white woman (or man) saving the less fortunate and storytellers changing reality to make the film more palatable. This can most recently be seen in Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers.

Freedom Writers is the story of Erin Gruwell’s successes in an inner-city high school, and this film–while inspring to many–is not free from criticism. Josh Tyler, Editor-in-Chief of CinemaBlend.com, goes so far as to say Ms. Gruwell (in the film) is “a pampered, idealistic, white girl with grand ideas about how she’s going to save the ghetto.” He further states in his review that Ms. Gruwell’s detractors:

have a point. She was the right person, with the right class, at the right time. She doesn’t discover a magic formula for getting gangbangers to stop shooting each other in the chest, she simply stumbles on a class full of downtrodden, violent kids who happen to be ready to listen. As portrayed in the film, the secret to her success was simply blind, stupid idealism.”

While I believe Mr. Tyler’s criticism may be a bit harsh, he does note that Ms. Gruwell’s successes with her methods are not repeatable, are not reproducable. This is, of course, not really spoken of when noting a teacher’s successes and failures.

An additional and maybe far more sad example of a myth filling social expectations rather than reality is in Dangerous Minds when LouAnne Johnson is shown using Dylan lyrics to inspire her students when she actually used rap lyrics. As Roger Ebert states in his movie review:

The real Miss Johnson used not Dylan but the lyrics of rap songs to get the class interested in poetry.

Rap has a bad reputation in white circles, where many people believe it consists of obscene and violent anti-white and anti-female guttural. Some of it does. Most does not. Most white listeners don’t care; they hear black voices in a litany of discontent, and tune out.

Yet rap plays the same role today as Bob Dylan did in 1960, giving voice to the hopes and angers of a generation, and a lot of rap is powerful writing.

What has happened in the book-to-movie transition of LouAnne Johnson’s book is revealing. The movie pretends to show poor black kids being bribed into literacy by Dylan and candy bars, but actually it is the crossover white audience that is being bribed with mind-candy in the form of safe words by the two Dylans.

The lack of reality in this film detracts from a vital piece of information about teaching kids, especially those who may be resistant to learning: using material relevant to the students can be a major hurdle to overcome. Simply using material the kids will accept can be a gateway to skillbuilding and possibly to other literature.

Even when the teacher in question is not white, the reality of the teacher is often ignored or eschewed in favor of a more palatable tale. Jaime Escalante’s successes, as seen in Stand and Deliver, are wondrous to behold. However, his headbutting with the union and administration is ignored as well as his inability to change the perceptions about inner-city students (even in his own school!). His teacher partner isn’t even shown or mentioned in the film.

I wish that it wasn’t necessary to show teachers working in isolation to achieve results, that they have to fight the system to succeed. Systems are always more successful in raising overall student achievement than an individual; systems can touch more students. I wonder where the stories are detailing how a school or school system rises to success, where teachers and administrators actually work together. It does happen from time to time. 🙂

Still, these stories make me feel good. I guess I’m as suckered as the rest of society when it comes to these films. As a teacher I would like to think I can have even a fraction of the impact these teachers had. Maybe I have or maybe I might one day, and maybe that’s why I keep watching these films.

Side note #1: If you were to make a movie about teaching or a teacher, what would it be?

Side note #2: I remember that show Boston Public on TV about ten years ago, and it was one I really hoped would show some of the realities of teaching. However, it quickly devolved into a tawdry and weak soap opera.

I might have been appeased a little bit had they even had one teacher who graded papers for real. Every school has that one teacher who is buried in papers to grade; for me, grading papers is the most time-consuming part of the job. I thought I could have at least watched the show had there been a teacher in the background of scenes who never speaks but is constantly grading. During the staff meetings or in the staff lounge, that one teacher could have been present with that ever-large stack of papers.