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.


Chris Lehmann said...

And let's remember something -- Erin Gruell left the classroom after four years. She's doing amazing work with her foundation now, sure, but in the end, she never made what she was doing sustainable.

loonyhiker said...

And even though what she did and still does is to be commended, does this movie romanticize teaching a little too much? What about all the paperwork we have to do on a daily basis? lunch duty? faculty meetings? bus duty? Plus, people think that if she can buy the kids books and work umpteen jobs, why can't the rest of us?

Penelope said...

Chris-- Exactly. We need sustainable, realistic solutions, not "miracles".

Pat-- Don't all teacher-movies romanticize things, really?

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Regan Ross said...

You know, it comes back to that saying that goes something like, "Because everyone's been through the school system, everyone thinks they're an education expert." Granted, remarkable stories are worth broadcasting ... and many of those stories are about schools and great teachers. But I agree with you that, given the present conditions and limited resources, successful teaching requires personal sacrifice. And because personal sacrifice is neither scalable nor sustainable, things need to change if we want better teaching, and better education. We need better tools. We need better resources.

Regan Ross

Kit said...

I am not yet a teacher as I am finishing my last year of college but I did find your post interesting because I can relate. I have to admit, it was the the romanticized images of teaching from such shows as Boston Public, Freedom Writers, and others that first made me want to be a teacher. But I now agree that there is so much more involved in being a good teacher. I agree that we need sustainable, realistic solutions, not "miracles". Good point Penelope!

Bryterlater said...

Great blog!

Holy smokes we just had this conversation in our hallway today. Somebody said something and I responded "I guess they won't be making a movie out of my work"

I do all I can while trying to maintain a private family and social life.

The heroic mumbo jumbo really chaps my hide...