Category Archives: Movies

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 sheโ€™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 doesnโ€™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. ๐Ÿ™‚

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.

The Music Video

Each year I try to include a new hook to get my students more interested in my English classes. Usually I can keep the energy level up enough, but another “in” is always welcome. This year I started using music videos (purchased online), and this year I used the following:

  • Green Day’s “Warning” during our Transcendental unit. The students love the ideas of the Transcendental writers, but they don’t always enjoy reading through the difficult vocabulary of the writings. Thus, I included this Green Day video as part of the idea of living by one’s own rules rather than the rules of society (sort of a Dead Poet’s Society carpe diem idea as well but 3.5 minutes long).
  • Blind Melon’s “No Rain” while teaching about individuality and finding one’s own group. This worked well with Modernism and Post-Modernism (loosely used) with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The students loved the Bee Girl, and we even had a quick contest to see who could do the dance. A few kids even talked about their own searches for the right group of friends. Powerful!
  • Dave Matthews Band’s “Ants Marching” is a good one for conformity and not taking charge of one’s life. The students really connected with the idea of going through routines without really thinking about them. This also came up during Modernism and Post-Modernism with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Plus, DMB’s “Typical Situation” has a fantastic chorus for teaching about conformity.
  • Blues Traveler’s “Runaround” was fun for teaching allusion and allegory. Since the entire video is an homage to The Wizard of Oz (which is perfect for the heroic cycle), the students easily saw the allusions and allegory. Also, Shrek is a fantastic set of visuals for teaching allusions.

I’ll have to see what other clips and videos I can find. ๐Ÿ™‚

Teaching Antigone

I started my Antigone unit, which is the first one where I really make the kids be independent; their autonomy is important to me. I want to see that my Sophomores are learning how to learn without my guidance. For me, independence is key. However, I do start them with some guided instruction.

First, I did provide the vocabulary for the week. Admittedly, this is a bit guided, but the kids truly do take over once I initiate the day. Here is our usual routine. Here is a bit more on our vocabulary lessons.

The last part through which I guide the students is the background information about Antigone. Since this is the third play in the Oedipus Cycle, I use a PowerPoint in which I tell the history of Oedipus (the story of Cadmus is on a poster outside my classroom), and the students take notes while looking for literary devices employed in the storyline.

Once this concludes (and the students are very excited because of the “eww” factor of Oedipus’ marriage), I ask the students to draw a family tree using the story’s characters. Eventually, they agree as a class after sharing their trees, and they always seem to get it right. ๐Ÿ™‚

Then, I put the kids into group of four. I pick the groups; the kids do not. This way I get them to mix it up, and I try to spread the dramatically inclined kids throughout the groups. Then I have the students choose to be an A, B, C, or D. This way the students, by chance, have picked their parts in the play. A = Antigone and Haemon, B = Creon and Ismene, C = Chorus, Teiresias, and Eurydice, and D = Choragos, Sentry, and Messenger.

I then have the kids spread the groups throughout the classroom (3 max in class) and into the halls. They have their parts and read/perform the play in their groups. Some take notes while others do not. Regardless, once they finish the play I have study guides for the kids to use to review the play. I walk among the groups during the periods to answer questions and clarify difficult passages. Really, the kids just take over and get to work.

Typically, the kids finish the play in about 3-4 days and need an additional 2 days to complete the study guide questions. They “correct” the study guides by debating in class and asking each other questions. I stay out of the discussion and only intercede if they aren’t being respectful or starting to get off-task. By this time, the kids have identified the literary devices used and have explored the major themes of the play.

Then, I assign a thesis paper or a presentation comparing and contrasting a character in this play with one from The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, or I assign the same paper/project using The Long Walk Home. I generally prefer using the film rather than the Shakespearean play for the paper/project because it leads us to the race relations in our next novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.

This is one of my favorite weeks because I get to watch the kids take over the reading, comprehending, and exploring. Fun times and always a confidence builder for them and me.

The Crucible Project

I gave my College in the High School students (an American Literature class) a project to go along with the conclusion of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. They had the options below, and every one was chosen by one of the groups of three. Each group had to choose one option in each part.

Part I: Compose a full block business letter explaining in detail how two characters are foils or compose two Shakespearean sonnets connecting three characters in the final couplet of each (no repeated characters).

Part II: Compose and perfrom a scene (on video) occurring after the final act of the play or perform a scene from the play in class with the class as your live audience. Note: Part of this class is a performance and literature class, so the students have periodic performances.

Part III: Choose a quotation or passage deemed the heart of the play and create a visual representation of it or create a storyboard/mini-comic of one act.

Part IV: Only one choice: create a chart detailing how 20 literary terms/devices are employed by the author, include a quotation as proof, and explain the effect of the term/device on a character, the act, or the play.

So far, I’m half-way through the projects and they are fantastic!

What other ideas could I include for a future project of this type? What do you do?