Saturday, August 16, 2008

Dear Hollywood: Go make insipid movies about some other profession

One of the requirements for my first session of grad classes this summer was to watch Freedom Writers and discuss the different assumptions the students & Ms Gruwell brought to school. Luckily, our professors are open to critical interpretations of everything, so we could have a good discussion about the problems with the Hollywood version of teaching.

How is she only ever shown teaching one class a day? What about her other 150+ students, are they not good enough for her field trips and dinners and such? Seriously, she may have taken two extra jobs, but you can't make me believe she had enough money to buy 180 copies of every book she wanted her students to read. (Where am I getting this number? I teach six classes of between 25 & 30 students each year, so I think it's pretty reasonable to assume that she has at least as many students as me.)

There are a lot of other issues with this movie, and the whole genre of heroic teacher movies. As a recent op-ed at the NY Times explains:

While no one believes that hospitals are really like “ER” or that doctors are anything like “House,” no one blames doctors for the failure of the health care system. From No Child Left Behind to City Hall, teachers are accused of being incompetent and underqualified, while their appeals for better and safer workplaces are systematically ignored.

Every day teachers are blamed for what the system they’re just a part of doesn’t provide: safe, adequately staffed schools with the highest expectations for all students. But that’s not something one maverick teacher, no matter how idealistic, perky or self-sacrificing, can accomplish.

If the only way to be a good teacher is be as self-sacrificing as Ms Gruwell, then we have a problem. Actually, there's no "if" about it. Chris Lehmann, principal of SLA often talks about issues of sustainability and system in teaching. Just the other day he had a good post, in which he said:
But if being a great teacher is only achievable by Herculean effort, we're going to always struggle to create systemic reform. What do we need to do to make it easier for more and more teachers to always make that right choice toward careful crafting of curriculum?
I don't know, but I know that it's something that needs to be figured out.