Thursday, October 6, 2011

Education Films Series III, Our Town: The kind of teaching and learning that we all want in our towns

A few weeks before Waiting for Superman came out, I watched a documentary called Our Town. It's about an English teacher in Compton, California, who leads a group of students through putting on the first play, Thorton Wilder's classic Our Town, their high school has produced in years. It is a pure documentary--there's no agenda (or at least not any obvious one to me), moralizing, politics, or what my husband terms, "auto-hommage."

I liked this film on so many levels. It's not flashy, it's not sexy, mountains are not moved, it's not "Glee." Instead, it's real. Putting on a play is painstakingly hard work and the challenges of being a student and teacher in an inner city school are not small. The play was modest, it was not perfect, and some students failed to fulfill their committments to it. Despite the challenges and the lack of miracles, the film shows what a valuable learning experience putting on a play can be and how much such performances can mean to their schools' communities: the house was full every night.

Although I wholeheartedly agree that kids need a base of factual knowledge, I'd like to see a lot more emphasis on this type of learning experience, especially in places like Compton. This type of learning can be both meaningful and academic, academic in that kids studied and learned from a rich literary masterpiece and meaningful in that they saw the fruits of their hard work and commitment and owned their performances. Furthermore, there are elements of learning to being on stage that aren't available in other traditional content classes. Finally, kids in the most underprivileged communities need the same opportunities as kids in privileged communities to study subjects such as art, music, PE, science, social studies, foreign languages, and theater, both in and after class.

One negative: I didn't like the way the basketball program was demonized. On the one hand, I understand how much high school sports, in particular male high school sports, especially football and basketball, can suck up disproportionate resources and attention, while theater groups and the like are left to fend for themselves. This is a valid complaint. But my take is that the theater programs, etc, should be equally well funded and supported. Team sports aren't at all a negative. Just as being part of a performing arts cast can be a meaningful learning experience for kids, so can being part of a sports team.

To me, this documentary serves as a much better alternative to Waiting for Superman than any other recent education documentary out there. The teacher featured isn't superman--no one can be that--but she navigates  the nitty-gritty of educating teenagers with humanity and fortitude. These are the kinds of teachers we need to focus on retaining, and we can do so in part by allowing them to move away from test prep and towards rich and meaningful education.

It also struck me, since I wrote about teaching character recently, that this is the way to teach character, not explicitly and not on some chart or report card, but through having kids engage in interesting and meaningful learning and projects, to have them work hard and be part of a team and part of a community.

As for the students, when they look back ten years later, they're not going to remember the teacher that covered two years of content in one year; they're going to remember and value this amazing learning experience they had. In experiences like this, the teacher can end up covering way more material than anyone can imagine or measure. Despite the value of rich content, the most valued content of our memories are experiences, especially experiences like these where we confront a real challenge and come out better, wiser, and prouder. I hope that we aren't so busy with what we can measure that we end up losing what students and their families treasure.

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