Teachers on the Screen

Mr. Keating

This past week, a friend who is in the education world asked me if I could recommend a movie that shows some teacher:student engagement or student:student interaction.  I came up with these titles first: Dead Poets Society, Freedom Writers, The Emperor’s Club, and Dangerous Minds.

I also came up with a few that are not as serious and not always as positive – but are funnier: Teachers, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Rushmore.

I taught for four decades and in that time saw plenty of depictions of teachers and classrooms on screens big and small that were unrealistic and often downright insulting.

I crowdsourced the request via email to a few fellow educators and was surprised at how quickly they responded and how many I had not thought of right away.  Here’s the list we collected with a few comments and clips. What did we miss? Add a comment.

Dead Poets Society
Freedom Writers
The Emperor’s Club
Dangerous Minds
The Paper Chase

Professor Kingsfield on the Socratic Method of teaching

Mona Lisa Smile
The Miracle Worker
Stand and deliver
October Sky
The Wonder Years (TV Series)

Boston Public (TV)
To Sir With Love
Mr. Corman

Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Animal House

School of Rock
Bad Teacher (hmmm…)
The Breakfast Club (more for student:student)
numerous Hogwarts scenes from the Harry Potter film series
The Karate Kid

Comedy is a good teaching tool.

Jerry Seinfeld plays a history teacher having problems teaching WWII

from Key and Peele – the substitute teacher

The Lost Practice of Writing Letters

Image by LwcyD from Pixabay

I wrote last weekend about writing a letter to your future self. I didn’t mention then that the inspiration for that was my seventh-grade English teacher who had us write letters to ourselves. She told us that she would send them to us when we were seniors in high school. So, the idea was to write to the person you thought you would be in five years.

She never sent the letters when we were seniors. She left our junior high and probably tossed our letters. I seemed to be the only one who even remembered that we had written the letters. I can’t recall now anything I put in my letter. I wish I could. I wish I had gotten my letter back. My 17-year-old self would have liked to have seen what my 13-year-old self was thinking about the future that had become the present.

Writing letters seems so old-fashioned today. I had students that were amazed that there were entire books of letters that authors, artists, statesmen, or historical figures had written.

vincent's signatureI showed my students a book of Vincent van Gogh’s letters. He wrote often to his brothers, especially Theo, and his sisters, other artists and friends from home. It is estimated he wrote more than 2000 letters and about half survive. Theo kept Vincent’s letters carefully stored. Vincent often discarded letters.

It is estimated that Thomas Jefferson had written 18,624 letters in his lifetime.

I also had my students write letters to famous people and I amassed a pile of celebrity addresses and copies of the responses they received which I displayed in my classroom. This was in the days before email was common and mostly in the pre-Internet days, so finding addresses and information required more difficult research than it would now.

When my students received glossy 8×10 photos with actual autographs and real letters from the people they wrote to, it was exciting. Some of my students got unusual responses because they wrote clever letters or wrote to people who probably didn’t get tons of mail. There was an autographed tennis ball, an Olympic swimmer’s cap, a few DVDs, signed copies of books, several hand-drawn cartoons and comic book panels, and an animation cel. One student asked Donald Trump to autograph a crisp dollar bill so that it would be worth “more than a dollar.” He did in that odd bold scrawl that became familiar to us during his Presidency and included a copy of his Art of the Deal book.  One student asked an author to record answers to her questions on the cassette tape she sent with the questions. She did. One boy asked a TV weatherman some questions about getting into the business and got a call from him at home.

I encouraged students to write to the contemporary authors that we read in class. We even wrote letters to Juliet after we read Shakespeare’s play about her star-crossed love – and we got answers from her. (Read my post about that to learn how)

They learned a lot about how to write letters. And by that, I don’t mean just the format of a business and friendly letter. For example, they learned that writing to the biggest star of the top-rated TV show probably would only get you a small photo with a printed “autograph.” But a clever letter to a minor character or the writer or director of that same show might get you a personal response or more. The student who got tickets and an invitation to visit the Saturday Night Live show backstage didn’t ask for that – which is probably why he got it.

We learn how to communicate in many ways – both about the mediums to communicate and the forms those communications can take. The email, the Facebook message, the tweet, tagging someone in a photograph, the text message, the phone call, the note slipped into your locker or left on your desk in school or at the office, the card from the store and the handmade card, the poem, the mix CD or playlist of songs, the note with the flowers, the Post-It note left by the little gift on the kitchen table, the message put in your lunch bag and a letter sent from many miles – or many years – away.

After my mother died, I found a box of letters written to her. Some were from my father who had died many years earlier. Some were from me, written when I was away from home as a child on vacation with relatives, and from me at college. They are priceless pieces of the past. I have a postcard reply from author John Updike. I have a letter from astronaut John Glenn I wrote in fifth grade when I thought I might become an astronaut too. I have all the letters to authors and actors and celebrities that I wrote each year when my students were doing that assignment. One from Mr. Fred Rogers is something I treasure.

I find it sad that letter writing seems to be a lost form of communication. When was the last time you received or wrote an actual letter to someone by hand, on paper, that was mailed? Probably, too long ago.

Our Love-Hate Relationship with Classic Novels

Twain quote

As an English major and teacher, I have read a lot of novels. I have also forgotten many novels old (classic) and new. Mostly, I have enjoyed and sometimes loved those I have read. So, when I saw an article about the most loved and hated classics (according to Goodreads users), I had to give it a read.

Mark Twain (who wrote some classics) said that “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” The author of the article compares reading classic literature to “going for a 6am jog. It has its loyal fans but few enjoy it. Most people want to tell others they do; sometimes people experiment with it, but mostly, people just don’t like it at all.”

As a teacher, it pains me to say that some classics that might make your “hated” list were probably required reading in a classroom. But some of the most popular classics are also assigned in American schools.

“Required reading” is not the way you really want someone to encounter literature, but if some of these novels were not required, people would never experience them.

These are also often the titles that students turn to cheats as a substitute for the actual book. In my student days, those cheats were Cliff Notes and Monarch Notes, but now the Internet gives them Spark Notes and even websites where they can buy or just download essays.

The novels on both the loved and hated lists are all good books, though they won’t be loved by all. I learned long ago that with books (fiction and non-fiction) and films, you hated book or movie is someone’s absolute favorite.

When I was in my most rabid reading days (ages 11-19), I devoured books like I eat potato chips and popcorn now. I would read a favorite author’s entire works. That was easier with Salinger and Fitzgerald and harder with Hemingway and Steinbeck.

I’ve written before about the Classics Illustrated Comics that I loved in my youth. They exposed me to many classic novels. Some of those readings led me to the novels. Moby-Dick is definitely an example of that. Many of those classic novels were way over my ability in elementary school but I made my ways through them and probably benefitted as a reader and writer.

I know the comics led me to read some novels by H.G. Wells (The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Doctor Moreau) and Jules Verne (Journey to the Center of the Earth, 20,00 Leagues Under the Sea) and Arthur Conan Doyle (lots of Sherlock Holmes and also The Lost World)

The Lost World comic, novel and feature film (1960 version) were the Jurassic Park of my (and Michael Crichton‘s) youth and had a big impact on my reading and thinking about science, if in a fictional and theoretical way.

I suspect that there are some classics that I think I read that I only actually read in comic book form.  I certainly had read a lot of comic book Shakespeare well before I read Julius Caesar in sophomore English class. I could speak pretty well in high school “cocktail-party conversations” about Macbeth and Hamlet if ever came up.

Novels become classics over time. I was once told that the book had to be 25+ years old but there is no rule. The Godfather makes the list looking a bit out-of-place to me next to the other titles. (Though I will always question a book or film labeled as a classic when it only came out that year.)

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville is my best example. It is a book I love and have read multiple times. I would hesitantly recommend it though. It is not an easy read. The vocabulary and style are quite old-fashioned.  It takes on all the biggest themes. I would never want to teach it in a class where it was required. I would love to discuss it with other readers who enjoyed it. Still, despite my hesitation, should it be dropped from reading lists? That may be the only way people will encounter it. Perhaps, it should be one of several choices along with other classics. I used to give students such choices and groan when someone chose the shortest book. A short novel that you hate is much more painful than a longer one that you enjoy – though young students rarely accepted that as true.

Like Moby-Dick, Melville’s contemporary, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. also appears to be hated. It’s a lot shorter. So is Conrad’s Heart of Darkness but that doesn’t mean easier.

Given a choice of what to require in a classroom, I would go with East of Eden or To Kill a Mockingbird if it meant that my students would actually read the book and leave it with a good feeling. When I taught middle school, I taught The Outsiders many times, not only because it is a well-written novel and totally appropriate for that age group, but because they loved it despite it being almost a historical novel for them today and it having a good and pretty faithful film version (the media cheat) that they also loved but didn’t choose as a substitute.

The article also notes that Don Quixote (1615) is the first classic in the data and the next is Robinson Crusoe which came out in 1719. Where are the classics in between?

The top classic-producing authors are Jane Austen and Charles Dickens on the other side of the pond and Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck in America. But in this love/hate thing, quantity does not mean quality to readers.

Charles Dickens (who I mostly like/love and have taught with mixed success) gets average scores.

Jane Austen (who I was required to read and never enjoyed) has multiple truly beloved classic novels and has rabid fans for the movies and TV versions too.

Hemingway (who is very high on my loved list) is pretty much hated across all his novels. I would teach his “classic” short stories before attempting the novels.

Steinbeck (who I read voraciously in those teen years without ever being required to read) only gets some love for East of Eden. I suspect that being assigned The Grapes of Wrath wins it no love (but it is a great novel) and no one is assigning enjoyable his short novels like Cannery Row or Tortilla Flat. I taught and had students who loved Of Mice and Men. The Red Pony is short. I liked it and I taught it once. And only once.

What are your feelings about classics loved and hated,
and how much does it have to do with required reading assignments?
Did you discover some classics after your student days that you love?
Comments welcomed!


MOST BELOVEDloved books


The End of Summer Vacation

By the end of summer vacation, I don’t mean that late summer feeling that we get around this time of year.  I mean the idea that made the cover of TIME magazine earlier this month and a cover story titled “The Case Against Summer Vacation.” They’re talking about the end of summer vacation as we know it.

Now, what could anyone have against summer vacation?

Okay, we all know that it’s an outdated legacy of a time when we were a farm economy.  And adults all have treasured memories of  summers past. But when it comes to learning,  that long summer break does a lot of damage.

Kids forget a lot over the summer. But the students who lose the most are those who can’t afford to lose.

There is more than a century of research that shows that kids who are deprived of educational stimulation lose what they had learned earlier. Who fits the profile? Millions of low-income kids.

Educators call it “summer learning loss” or the “summer slide.”

Children who have high-quality, stimulating experiences keep exercising their minds. We don’t mean summer school. But it takes some money to go to  sleep away camp, take  summer vacations, visit museums, or take enrichment classes.

The writer of the cover story, David Von Drehle, says that he reread The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and was surprised that Tom’s summer vacation doesn’t begin until the end of chapter 21.  I was always a bigger fan of Huck Finn, but I actually thought that I lived a few Tom and Huck summers as a kid.

The school year was suppression. Summer was freedom. I never did a sleep away camp, but I  had summer park and rec programs. And I read a lot all summer.

But how do you get a kid to do reading or learning on their own if they don’t want to do it? And kids don’t get to go exploring like Tom and Huck or me in these protective summers, and that’s more true in a city where neighborhoods aren’t safe.

One summer learning expert, Harris Cooper at Duke University, concluded that on average students lose about a month of progress in math skills each summer. Low-income students lose as many as three months of reading comprehension compared with middle-income students. Other studies suggest that ninth grade summer learning loss could be blamed for roughly two-thirds of the achievement gap separating income groups.

Ron Fairchild is the CEO of a nonprofit organization called the National Summer Learning Association. He says that we would all expect that athletes and musicians performance would suffer without practice over the summer. And they do practice, whether it is on their own or in some formal setting. Why should we expect it to be different with reading, writing, science or any other subject?

Should we extend the school year? Other countries do have longer school years. But it probably won’t happen here.  Not only is summer vacation a part of the culture, it’s a part of the economy. Travel programs, camp programs, sports programs, theme parks and others all live by summer. And they have lobbyists. (The statute that stops Virginia schools from reopening any earlier in August is known as the Kings Dominion Law in honor of that amusement park near Richmond!)

There was talk about 12-month school back in the 1970s. I remember asking my middle school students to take the pro side of that debate. They came up with summer slide on their own. But they also came up with most of the arguments against it too, especially cost – from having to pay teachers more, to adding air-conditioning to our northern schools.

So, twelve months of school and getting rid of summer vacation won’t be the solutions. Summer programs that often don’t really resemble “school” is probably closer to the answer. Those cost money too.

the boys
My own Tom and Huck searching for the Jersey Devil in the Pine Barrens.

My wife and I were both teachers and, like almost every other young teacher, we had to find summer jobs. It sucked.

I taught summer school, worked a recreation program and taught filmmaking at a summer camp one year. I hated all of them.

When my first son was born, my wife and I decided that one of the real pluses to teaching was having the summer off and we decided that being able to spend nine weeks with our son was worth a lot more than any summer job. We never worked another summer.

I know that’s a luxury that most parents can’t afford in money or time.

What scares me is how many parents send their kids away for the summer. We were talking recently to a couple who are also both currently teachers. They were very excited about sending their very young kids away for part of the summer. They asked where our boys had gone. They were incredulous that my sons had never gone away. “What did you do with them all summer?” they asked with fear in their eyes.

That would be a long answer, because we did everything.

That’s what summer is supposed to be.

Searching for the Jersey Devil

I Love You, Winnie Cooper


There is a movie in theaters this summer called I Love You, Beth Cooper , but,  back in 1968,  I would have declared my love for Winnie Cooper.

Of course, Winnie was just a character on the TV show, The Wonder Years. The show was that newer genre of dramedy, and it ran for six seasons on ABC, from 1988 through 1993.

The three friends – Kevin, Winnie and Paul – were entering seventh grade when the series began and ending their junior year in high school when it ended.  The series was canceled before they got to senior year and graduation.

Each TV season was set 20 years before the current year (the 1988 season depicted 1968) and episodes were narrated and commented on the 20 years older Kevin (played by Daniel Stern) in a tone that was alternately nostalgic and sarcastic.

I was writing a piece on the actress who played Winnie Cooper, Danica McKellar, for another site last week. McKellar went on after the show to study mathematics at the UCLA, graduate summa cum laude, co-author the Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem, and  write several books on math for middle school students. She wants to fight math phobia and make it less threatening and more intriguing, especially for girls.

That other post focuses on teaching and math, but while writing it, I had plenty of thoughts about my own connections with that TV series that I decided to post here.

wonderyrs3In 1968, I was just exiting junior high school – not far off from the fictional Kevin.  I could identify somewhat with that character: pretty shy, having trouble in math, apprehensive about high school as I had been about junior high but hoping it would be a fresh start. If I had attended the newly renamed Robert F. Kennedy Jr. High with Kevin, I would definitely have been competing with him for Winnie’s (real name Gwendolyn) attention.

Winnie’s older brother is killed in Vietnam in 1968 and most of my friends were thinking about having to register for the draft in a few years. There was a lottery drawing used to determine who would get called to serve first. I would put lottery in quotation marks since it’s not what young people today would consider to be a lottery (unless they had read the short story by Shirley Jackson by that name), but it was really a lottery. The system had not been used since 1942, but was reinstituted in 1969 by the Selective Service System. It changed the system from the “draft the oldest man first” method to the “luck of the draw.”

Similar to those television lottery drawings, there were 366 blue plastic capsules containing birth dates placed in a large glass container and drawn by hand. With radio, film, and TV coverage, the capsules were drawn from the container, opened, and the dates inside posted in order. I sat in my Tinsley dorm lounge at Rutgers College in 1972 watching with my fellow frosh.

In the order that was called to report that day, my birth date came out as #352. A lucky day for me, but it was tough sitting there when someone’s birth date came up in those low numbers.

It turned out , this lottery which was for men who would have been called in 1973, was lucky for all of us – no new draft orders were issued after 1972.

While I would have had that crush on Winnie Cooper as a teen in 1968, in 1988, when I was watching those episodes, I was teaching 8th graders English in New Jersey. The show evoked memories of the past, but it also connected with my present.

The teacher on the show I liked was Mr. Collins (played by Steven Gilborn) who taught algebra. He was strict, serious, kind of boring but really cared. He helped Kevin out when he was giving up in his class, but he didn’t hand him a good grade. Mr. Collins died of a heart attack (I think the episode was titled “Goodbye). The last test he had give was one where Kevin had decided to draw doodles as answers as a stupid “protest” against algebra, so the news of his death makes Kevin feel really guilty. A replacement teacher tells Kevin that Collins had “misplaced” the test and so he has to take it over. He really gives it his best, taking into account all the teacher’s advice. In one of those borderline corny/touching moments in the series, he sees Collins’ ghost who is pleased at his effort.

The series finale ends with adult Kevin saying:

Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers, the next day you’re gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place, a town, a house, like a lot of houses. A yard like a lot of other yards. On a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back…with wonder.

If you do an image search on Danica McKellar, there are plenty of sexy shots of the actress today. But Winnie is like most of the students I taught in middle school and never saw again. For me, they will never grow up.

Unfortunately, The Wonder Years is not currently available on DVD (I heard it was because of all the music used in the episodes) but you can watch the final five minutes of the series finale.

Summer Reading

When someone says “summer reading” I think of both enjoyable books and school assignments. It’s a crazy seasonal mindset that we have that there are books that are better suited to the warmer months, vacations and the beach.

I blame school for this.

No matter what grade you were/are in there was “school reading” that you did in fall, winter and spring that tended to be serious stuff. Most kids I knew did NOT read during the summer. I read a lot. Too much probably.

Nowadays, every local library seems to run a summer reading program for kids. Our town library has the theme of pirates this year. I did it for a few years with my sons. You read lots of books and get little prizes along the way. Those prizes were a big motivator for my youngest who loves competition. The only thing I didn’t like about these programs was it seemed really focused on consuming mass quantities of books. The more you read (or pretend to read), the more stuff you get.

I read in the summer because I wanted to read and had the time to read, but I still don’t know how to instill that spirit in someone who doesn’t get pleasure from reading.

I wrote on another blog  about a poll that NPR is running to determine the best “beach books”. They give a list of 200 titles to choose 10 from and there are lots of good books there, but the list is heavier on “literary” fiction than I think you will find if you survey the blankets for books at the Jersey shore this month.

There were some literary reads that I did in summer and really enjoyed. I was a kid who worked my way through authors. I read a ton of Steinbeck one summer, everything by Salinger another year, a summer’s worth of Hemingway.

Either I am more distracted these days or I have less time or my ability to read has eroded because I am lucky to get through three books during the summer lately.

For the first 47 years of my life, I had the summer off because I was a student or a teacher. Yeah, I had summer jobs, but I was “off” from my regular routine. It’s a luxury that I only really appreciated when I left teaching to be a 12 month employee and realized that even a CEO can’t take off the whole summer. Of courses, teachers and students don’t get paid for that summer off, so it has a big downside too.

If I really think about it, the summer reading I loved most as a kid would never make any NPR list. I loved reading comic books. I read very eclectically too. I had boxes of Archie comics, Classics Illustrated, Superman, Batman, Richie Rich, Silver Surfer, and lots of other titles. My mom broke my heart (and possibly my bank account) when she gave away most of my comics to some neighborhood kids while I was away at college because she assumed I was “past that.” I associate comics with summer.

I also loved to read magazines and for summer Surfer and Surfing, Field and Stream and Popular Mechanics were favorites. Surfing magazines were the first subscriptions I bought with my own money. Even though my surfing life never went much further than the Jersey shore, a hand-me-down, dinged Greg Noll surfboard and many hours spent hanging around the Ron Jon surf shop on Long Beach Island in New Jersey (not far from Surf City), I did think of myself of as a 1960s surfer with blond hair, baggies

My fields and streams were in suburban NJ too, but I never tired of catching sunnies, perch, and the occasional bass, catfish or trout. My field work was of the tracking variety rather than the hunter side. I did shoot a rabbit once while hunting with an uncle and it had a devastating effect on me. Never wanted to go again, though I continued to read accounts of hunting with great enthusiasm.

Though I never built most of the things that Popular Mechanics had plans for in its pages, I always was building stuff with my friends over the summer. Clubhouse, treehouse in the woods, our first skateboards, skimboards for the beach and, of course, a go kart.

An episode of Our Gang/The Little Rascals inspired my first one built from cast-off baby carriage wheels and parts. What a death trap that was to roll down a steep street. I wanted to build and race a Soapbox Derby style car, but that just wasn’t a possibility of my childhood. We even tried building a motorized cart using an old lawn mower engine and bicycle chain drive. It was a disaster that could only go if no one was sitting in it, but a lot of fun to work on one summer.

jawsThe actual books that I really would put on my summer reading list are titles that I not only read during a summer, but that had some seasonal connection. I have already written here about Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine and he would have several books on my list.

I clearly remember sitting in my backyard reading Benchley’s Jaws the summer of 1974. That is a perfect summer book in its readability and content. If you only saw the Spielberg film (a great film with terrific editing), you should pick up the book this summer.

Back in 1972 or 1973,  I spent the summer living in Watership Down and realized that there was a reason I was once told that one of my totem animals was the rabbit. Their anthropomorphised epic odyssey to find a new home had a whole culture, language (Lapine), proverbs, poetry, and mythology that I loved more than I ever was able to get into the much more heralded Middle Earth of Tolkien. To this day, my wife and I will comment upon seeing rabbits eating at the side of the road at dusk that it is time to silflay.

Perhaps in a similar way, I got caught up back in 1979 with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and all the books in the series and other by Douglas Adams. I was teaching at a junior high then and I was able to get some students who said they disliked “science-fiction” to read and enjoy the book which I still find to be laugh out loud funny.

The following summer, my big reading discovery was A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole which made me want to visit New Orleans. Unfortunately, it was the New Orleans of the 1960s that I wanted to see, so I was 20 years too late. That title is from Jonathan Swift: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Ignatius J. Reilly, the protagonist, is an educated sloth who still lives with his mother at age 30, and his “picaresque” adventures in the French Quarter still makes me laugh out loud. I’ve read the book a few times and listened to the audio version (read wonderfully by Arte Johnson) a few times too.

For me, the best summer books are not so different than the best books because they are works that I can get lost in to the degree that I forget the world around me for a time.  Movies can do the same thing for a few hours, but books can do it for many hours.  Those best books also have a bit of an obsessive, can’t-put-it-down quality, that is almost frightening when it takes hold of you. Summer reading is all about escape.

(Inspired by this earlier post on summer books)