"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Friday, March 18, 2011

Waiting for "Guffman"?

Waiting for "Superman" is clearly a one-sided production. It is produced by persons and groups who have agendas that are pro-corporate, anti-union, and as Diane Ravitch has said, are for the privatization and de-professionalization of education. (Check here for more specific names and information.) To discuss everything that is misleading or just incorrect in this film would take more time than I have, and others have already done it anyway. (Like this.)

Watch closely to see the problem.
Let's get the worst of the snark out of the way up top. Why does the title Waiting for "Superman" utilize both italics and quotation marks around the word "Superman"? In standard English, when I write out the title, I need to italicize the whole thing to indicate this is a title of a larger work, as I have done in the second sentence above. But when you make your own movie poster, you don't need to use italics because it's your work and we already know what the title is. So is the Superman this title indicates one of the many movies or television shows or comic books that go by that name? As in: I'm in line, waiting to get tickets to the movie Superman with Christopher Reeve. The quotation marks can indicate a couple of things. First, quotes indicate speech. As in: I'm waiting for someone to yell out the title of this superhero movie: "Superman!" Or quotes can indicate there's something idiosyncratic about the word or phrase it's setting off. As in: I'm sarcastically waiting around for some guy to save me, some "Superman" (air quotes and eye rolling included). So which is it? How am I supposed to accept what a film tells me if it equivocates on its title?

Seriously, the most bothersome aspect of this movie is the lip service paid to teachers. The director and narrator, Davis Guggenheim, talks about his favorite teacher and how important good teachers are. One DVD extra is basically an ad recruiting for teachers. ("Do something," they implore, as if pledging to see this movie is in and of itself "something.")

Yet, here's how the film characterizes teachers:

Jason Kamras won a national Teacher of the Year award in 2005. But instead of talking about what he's done to become the master teacher that all students need, Guggenheim asks Kamras about the process of teacher evaluation. Kamras describes a complex process for what is certainly a complex task, but Guggenheim is aghast and calls it a game. Kamras hems and haws and doesn't really explain anything. This film about what makes great education makes a teacher of the year look like an idiot.

Where would Lisa Simpson be without her teacher?
Back in 1991 a student brought a hidden camera into a Milwaukee school and caught teachers behaving badly. The superintendent at the time fired several of the teachers in the video, but then had to rehire them with back pay because he violated the contract. This is Guggenheim's excuse to discuss why teacher tenure doesn't allow teachers to ever be fired. The film then uses funny (or just plain satirical) clips from The Simpsons and the Jack Black film School of Rock to back up the claim that schools can't fire teachers who don't care. Not only does it seem like the "Superman" producers don't have any clue as to the context of these clips, but if you haven't seen these shows yourself, what would you think the point was? It's bad and manipulative film making. (Upon retrospect, perhaps the film makers completely understand School of Rock. In the film, Jack Black does, in fact, teach the kids life lessons and changes their lives. It's boiled-down de-professionalization; this proves that anyone can teach, right? Do I underestimate the evil here?)

My point is that Guggenheim uses three-second examples from one random video (the introduction of this video was given by the Milwaukee superintendent himself, saying "They gave a camera to a student..." Who? You know, "They.") taken 20 years ago to show that teachers are lazy, students are out of control, and it's all tenure's fault. Because you just can't fire these awful teachers. But isn't this exactly what tenure and contracts are for? Is it really fair of the superintendent to fire a teacher based on what an out of context student video shows? It makes me extremely wary of what I say and do in my classroom, thinking that, without the protection of tenure contracts, I could be fired for what I may or may not have said or done just because some student claims something. This actually happened in my fair city last year. A teacher was fired because he used the N-word during a lesson about race relations. One student was offended, and the teacher was fired. The teacher taught at a (rather prestigious) private school and was considered a "master teacher." Yet he had no recourse because he had no tenure, no contract ensuring him due process.

So, does "Superman" elaborate on what makes a great teacher, since this is what every student needs and every charter school has them? Of course. There's one scene that explains how KIPP charter school founders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg got ideas for their groundbreaking teaching practices. A math teacher they knew noticed (and here I quote the narration word for word because I can't really make a joke out of something already so awfully sincere that it's ridiculous to any teacher and should be to anyone with any education at all) "that her kids had trouble learning math terms, but could memorize a rap song. So she turned her multiplication tables into a song. For Levin and Feinberg, it was nothing short of a revelation."

...and pause for effect...

The font of Best Practices.
Ask any teacher. Any teacher at all. Go ahead, do it right now. Ask any teacher if it is a revelation in teaching practices to use rap music to teach their students facts they need to know. (If it wasn't done before, LouAnne Johnson showed a generation of bright-eyed, idealistic teachers how to do this in 1992 with My Posse Don't Do Homework.)

But wait, there's more. After revealing to the world something that no other teacher apparently ever knew, the film shows classrooms of teachers and kids from KIPP charter schools performing rote memorization. In fact, it's call-and-response, like students in the one-room school house in Little House on the Prairie chanting, "In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." I can't deny that KIPP schools might be successful with these practices, but it's utterly ironic that most teachers today are criticized for teaching in this manner. If I were to do this in my classroom, I would lose my tenure like that (Snap!).
This is where real learning occurs.

If the statistics presented in this movie haven't manipulated you enough, the ending is designed to make you so angry at the state of education today that you'll do something crazy, like text a word to some number. (This is what you're asked to do while the credits roll; it's not explained what texting this word to this number will do. It's like someone asking you to follow his blog.) "Superman" tracks five children in their bid for acceptance into charter schools through the required lottery. In the end only one of the five children actually wins the lottery they must endure. The one accepted is the rich, white girl, while the three poor black children and one poor Hispanic girl don't get in. Guggenheim and the producers can't help that and, sure, it's sad that they don't get in.

What's sadder, though, is that they believe, the movie believes, the corporate reformers believe, they all want you to believe that this was the only hope, their Obi Won Kenobe. Now they will be subject to those awful public schools that don't know how to teach because of the unions and tenure and lazy teachers who care less about young minds than cashing their big, fat paychecks. (Now, there's an apropos Simpsons reference.)


  1. When I was in seventh grade my English teacher taught the class our helping verbs by teaching them to us to the tune of the Macarena.

    Everybody passed that test.

    My Spanish teacher taught us the names and capitals of Middle and South America with songs. I still sing it in my head. And the days of the week.

    I think it makes learning easier for kids who struggle, and more fun for those who get bored easily. Whoever says that's a bad idea is silly.

  2. I can see that in my zealotry I was ambiguous.
    It's not that using music or anything at all that helps kids learn is a bad idea. The problem in the movie is that they seemed to think that this woman, and therefore the KIPP charter schools, were the first teachers to ever come up with the idea. Every teacher I know uses creative means to reach their students. Some things work for some kids, other things work for others. My bet is that those tunes you still remember came from teachers you remember because they were dynamic and loved their subject. That's difficult to measure.
    I hope that wasn't too didactic.

  3. I didn't think you were saying it was a bad idea. My response was targeted at people you said criticized teachers for using these means to teach students.

    My English teacher was pretty awesome and I adored her. My Spanish teacher...I think she hated teaching.

  4. I was going to try to come up with a math rap, but I think I'll spare us all from having to endure that.

    This is a good post. I haven't seen this movie, but I had been interested in it. I wasn't sure what angle it was going with. I just knew that it was about education and kids. If they're blaming everything on the teaching system, then I definitely don't agree with that. I had plenty of teachers, some good, some bad, just like anything else. I think most of the problems with these kids start at home, but that seems to be something are people are increasingly less willing to except. It's easier to watch a documentary that gives you a villain to blame.

  5. Bryan, you've hit it on the head. Every teacher knows how difficult it is to deal with students who don't have support from home, but it is never politically expedient to say this. So politicians and reformers are attempting to change the way teachers work, without dealing with the root cause of the problems. It's demotivating to teachers, which is NOT good for the students. Duh.

  6. I agree that the problems in education is mostly culture and home. Blaming teachers is just an excuse for the hard right to get the government out of education. Judging from the mess in Wisconsin, they are making progress (or regress?)

    These KIPP guys? Seriously? Music works? Did these yahoos have any educational experience before opening schools?

    Thanks for the review. I think I'll skip the movie.

  7. @ Johann: Thanks. I can't argue with the KIPP success. It's just misleading to suggest that charters are doing everything right when they get to pick and choose who stays and goes within their system.
    And the problem with the film is that it suggests a rather pedestrian teaching practice is the key to reform. Music works, sure. You got anything else?

  8. I get irritated at any propaganda piece that looks at only one side of a story and tells "lies, damned lies, and statistics."

    As an intelligent man you know that the public educational system isn't perfect, and you might even be willing to debate the fine points of the issues, but this "Superman" farce isn't going to sway your opinions even the slightest.

    The thing is, though, the movie wasn't aimed at you.

    Once upon a time I got tricked into seeing a Michael Moore movie as part of a focus group. One of the questions we were asked after was "Did you find the movie to be biased." My answer was, "Duh. Yeah." I got yelled at by several members of the audience who told me Mr. Moore's movie was nothing but the truth, and that they agreed with it. I tried to explain what "biased" meant, but they were too busy practicing on me the new terminology they had learned.

    Your movie was aimed at those type of morons. Whether a person agrees with the views expressed or not, watching crap like that, in the words of Billy Madison, makes us "dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul."

  9. I've had some good teachers, but I overall found public education very frustrating. I remember in second grade - having mastered addition and subtraction in the year prior - begging my teacher everyday if we could start multiplication and division. She kept telling me "not yet". We didn't touch it until the end of the year. I got my fix by doing my older sisters homework.

    By the time I was in middle school I was bored out of my mind. I studied and did my homework enthusiastically - I picked up on stuff. I completed all the reading ahead of schedule. I was reprimanded for moving too quickly because other students weren't able to keep up.

    My sister was on the other end of the spectrum. Her teachers handled it by calling her stupid in the middle of class, in front of other students. They allowed other kids to ridicule her on a daily basis and no one ever did anything to stop it despite many, many complaints. When she finally gave up trying because they had already given up on her they recommended she get held back a year, so she did all the same classes before - only for us to discover in her highschool years that the school had never filed the paperwork necessary to make the "being held back" official. One of her elementary school teachers used to hit her with a ruler when she wrote with her left hand. She's now "right-handed" but her writing is sloppy, her spelling is awful.

    We started homeschooling through a charter school. My sister graduated on time, as though she had never been held back. I graduated a year early.

    I truly believe that there are good teachers in the public school system, and that some form of tenure aught to endure. I do also believe that as a whole public schools fail the taxpayers and our children with programs like "No Child Left Behind" and until that's rectified no kid of mine will ever see a public school if I have anything to say about it.


  10. @ Doug: It is interesting that the opinions you disagree with are the most dangerous. Usually, I don't speak out like I have about the "Superman" movie, but it's something I obviously have some experience in, and the misleading information contained therein I do, literally, find dangerous to the future of our country.

    @ TK: A public school education is clearly not going to work for every single person. Charter schools, in fact, began as a way to work with, in conjunction with the pubic schools, the students that didn't fit in to the usual system. Instead, charters have turned into elite systems that work at the expense of public schools and teachers.
    For every bad example of public schools, there's a good example, and I think the most important thing is that students are able to work it out with the help of all of their teachers and parents and other support groups. The trouble starts when students don't have any of the other support.

  11. If ur (the texting generation did the smart thing with that word) interested in contributing to my campaign, i will appoint you Secretary of Education when I win the election.

    Out of curiosity, how would you react to a movie that was just as biased but slanted the way of your views? Personally, I would find it almost as offensive - but only almost.

  12. Doug, I will accept your appointment only if you never use texting language in my presence again.

    I do try to take my documentary viewing with a grain of salt. For instance, I would line up with Michael Moore politically on a lot of issues, but I really don't like the heavy-handed style of his films.

  13. I can't promise that, Brent. I can't promise that. Who knows when one of you're comments might provoke me into it? And yes, I am perfect and have never made a mistake, which gives me permission to tease you forever.

  14. I haven't seen the "Superman" movie, but it sounds alot like a Michael Moore movie. I always walk away from his movies feeling emotional and worked up, but then when you start to question some of his facts and angles, they don't hold up. It's amazing how someone can walk us down a path and the steps seem in logical sequence and you think you understand but then you find out later that you really did miss a big complex picture.
    If it's any comfort I don't believe that the common men, like myself, really believe the teachers union is what is ailing America. There are definately some vocal morons, but I don't think that most people who actually have kids (unlike Oprah) and contact with thier schools actually think teachers are underworked and overpayed.