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
Teachers
Stand and deliver
October Sky
Rushmore
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

BONUS CLIPS
Comedy is a good teaching tool.


Jerry Seinfeld plays a history teacher having problems teaching WWII


from Key and Peele – the substitute teacher

Charly and Algernon

Charly
Cliff Robertson as Charlie with Algernon and the maze in the film Charly.

Daniel Keyes wrote and edited some pulp sci-fi and horror magazines and comics throughout the 1950s. In 1958, he wrote a novella called “Flowers for Algernon” about a laboratory mouse named Algernon whose intelligence is surgically enhanced and an experiment with a human subject.

I read that story in a high school English class and it sent me to find his 1966 novel-length expansion. Later that year, I saw the movie adaptation titled Charly. A decade later, I taught the shorter story to middle school students. I like all the versions and students usually liked the story and the film.

The story is narrated by Charlie Gordon. He is a janitor with a quite low IQ of 68 who is the first human test subject in an experiment to raise IQ.

I read some biographical info on Keyes. He was pushed to study medicine by his parents and struggled with the coursework. At some point in his studies, he began to wonder if it was possible to someone make someone by an intervention. He left medicine behind and later taught English to a class of special-needs students. The idea for his story was formed through both experiences.

“Flowers for Algernon” won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960. He was encouraged by his publisher to expand the story into a novel. They also wanted him to write a happier ending to the story. He refused.

The versions of his story have been around long enought that I don’t feel like it is a spoiler to say that the experiment works and Charlie becomes very smart, but the change is not permanent.

The book is written as Charlie’s journal entries and so the writing style, grammar and spelling change as Charlie changes. Algernon is a mouse that was an early test subject in the experiement. In a maze test, the mouse consistentlt beats Charlie in that task at the start of their experiment. But after the treatments, Charlie catches up and eventually is able to beat Algernon.

The story is science-fiction and certainly about experiments in increasing intelligence, but it is also a social commentary on how we treat mentally disadvantaged people in schools, the workplace, and society in general. It always sparked interesting classroom discussions.

The story ends with a poorly spelled note by a regressed Charlie to the reader to leave flowers on Algernon’s grave.

The novel version was published in 1966 and has sold more than five million copies and it has never been out of print. The story has been adapted for stage, screen, and TV several times. The feature film Charly (1968), won Cliff Robertson the Best Actor Oscar as Charlie. 

I also read Keyes’s book The Minds of Billy Milligan which is non-fiction written in novel form. It is the story of Billy Milligan, the first person in U.S. history acquitted of a major crime by pleading multiple-personality disorder. Milligan had 24 distinct personalities battling for control inside him. It’s quite a story.

 

The Lost Practice of Writing Letters

envelope
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.

Wandering Imaginary Places

watership down
View from Watership Down towards Nuthanger Farm || by  Peter S and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

When I was teaching, I often had students create maps for fictional “imaginary places.” Some settings in novels are so real that we might think they exist in reality. Many authors create imaginary places but base them on real places they know. We did some quite detailed maps of the half-real/half-fictional Tulsa, Oklahoma in the young adult classic The Outsiders. Creating settings maps required very close reading and a lot of critical thinking and sometimes some research into an author’s life and real maps.

The mystery writer Harlan Coben was a student of mine when I taught in Livingston, New Jersey. He often uses that town and part of New Jersey (he still lives not that far away) in his writing, but things are changed as needed. I recognize names and people (including my own) on those pages. When he describes a street he’s driving down, in my mind I can see that street.

I know from my child psychology classes that the creation of imaginary worlds and people is an important part of child development.

As a young reader, I loved books that had maps in them. Some books had a map on the inside covers. I had a Treasure Island and a Lord of the Rings that had maps. I also had a copy of Richard Adams‘ 1972 novel, Watership Down, that had a map.

picture book
Page from a picture book adaptation of Watership Down

That book is about a rabbit named Hazel who leads a group of his kind out of a dangerous place through an even more dangerous place. Their original home was being taken over by humans. The dangerous place they travel to is dangerous because of the rabbits that live there.

I love that novel and read it multiple times. I have always felt a connection to rabbits. It has been more than just liking these cute, fuzzy creatures. I feel some higher connection to them.

The rabbits finally reach Watership Down which is a chalk hill in England’s North Hampshire countryside. Adams lived in the nearby town of Whitchurch. He would take walks with his children to the top of Watership Down and, like some other authors such as A.A. Milne with Pooh – he told them stories about the rabbits who lived there. Eventually, he wrote them down and so the book was born.

All of the locations described in the book are real places and you could do a tour of the settings using the map in the book.

I have looked the place up online and apparently, it is a popular spot with cyclists, walkers, and exercising horses along Wayfarers’ Walk. A section of  Watership Down is a biological Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Going way back, the Down is in the midst of an area is with Iron Age burial mounds, enclosures, and field systems.

There is a tree that was planted at the north end of the wood to mark where the rabbits choose to make their new warren. That tree replaced a beech tree that was destroyed by a storm in 2004. The roots of that beech tree is where the rabbits’ warren is in the novel.

I have read that the wooden fence protecting the tree has been, perhaps understandably, “vandalized” by visitors who have carved the names of some of the rabbits from the novel, such as Bigwig, Fiver, and Hazel.

I had a shelf in my classroom with some novels that had maps in them and a few books about imaginary places and creating imaginary worlds. (click on the book covers below for info).  I always had a few students who would fall into those books and linger longer than necessary in them and sometimes ask if they could borrow one over the weekend.

I was such a dreamer thinking and sometimes drawing maps of Atlantis, Xanadu, Shangri-La, El Dorado, Utopia, Middle Earth, Treasure Island, Wonderland, Freedonia. These days I’m sure readers and watchers have been imagining Jurassic Park and the world of Harry Potter – although movies kind of ruin imaginary places by making them seem “real.”

I always thought that one day I might walk Watership Down with Karen, my longtime friend and fellow rabbit person. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe just in our imagination.

               

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 HATED

MOST BELOVEDloved books

 

The Secret in Teaching

classroom

I met a woman this past week who had been my student 30 years ago. She recognized me and (as I had always told students at the end of the school year) she introduced herself wisely – “I’m Lisa and you were my eighth grade English teacher.” Some synapses fired enough that I did recall her by her student last name. She is now married with two children, one in 8th grade, and she is a teacher.

I have reconnected in person or in Facebook with a surprising number of former students who went into teaching. I’m not presumptuous enough to believe that I had something to do with their career choice, but I’d like to think that I at least modeled some good lessons and behaviors.

She was nice enough to say that she loved my class and still remembered certain lessons and books we read and even a few things I had told them that didn’t really have to do with our classwork. She asked me, “What do you think is the secret to being a good teacher?”

That is a difficult question to answer. I gave her too many possible answers (enthusiasm, willingness to experiment and fail, love of your subject…) but when I got home I thought of a poem to answer her.

The poem is one I occasionally used in class, though I’m not sure it is as good a selection for students as it is for teachers.

That poem is “The Secret” by Denise Levertov. The two girls in that poem remind me of Lisa (not her real name) and others who would come in after school sometimes to talk. At times, they had a question about an assignment or something we read or talked about in class, but once and awhile I knew that their initial question was a pretense to ask or talk about something not really part of the curriculum.

In Levertov’s poem:

Two girls discover
the secret of life
in a sudden line of
poetry.

I’d like to imagine that Levertov actually did have two girls come to her like in the poem. As a poet, I would love to have someone come to me to say that a line of my poetry did that.

Levertov continues:

I who don’t know the
secret wrote
the line. They
told me

(through a third person)
they had found it
but not what it was
not even

what line it was.

You read a line or someone says something in class and it is a revelation in that moment.

No doubt
by now, more than a week
later, they have forgotten
the secret,

the line, the name of
the poem. I love them
for finding what
I can’t find,

and for loving me
for the line I wrote,
and for forgetting it
so that

a thousand times, till death
finds them

Lisa, what is the secret? I know that it is not just one thing, but I know that an important part of it is:

they may
discover it again, in other
lines

in other
happenings. And for
wanting to know it,
for

assuming there is
such a secret, yes,
for that
most of all.

 

I am so happy for Lisa and for any of my students or any teacher who want to know the secret, and for assuming there is such a secret. Yes, for that most of all.