Friday, August 24, 2007

Movie Review

Over the summer I took a class on technology and writing at Auburn University. One of the assignments was to create a wiki with several of the other students in the class. My group decided on a movie review wiki. Here is one of my reviews

Review of the movie Freedom Writers (IMDB).

Hillary Swank plays Erin Gruwell, a teacher who chose to work at Woodrow Wilson High School, a minority school. Set in 1994, just two years after the LA riots, Gruwell takes a class of mainly minority students and inspires them to excel beyond anyone’s expectations. Along the way Gruwell has to fight those higher up than she in the school and school district. She pours so much of herself and her time into her teaching that she loses her husband (Patrick Dempsey). She works two extra jobs to have the money to provide her students with the books and extras she believes they need.

I watched this movie fully prepared to hate it. As a genre I dislike films about teachers. Being one myself I see all the inconsistencies. As in all teacher movies, the teacher apparently has one class. I know that isn’t the case, most people in the audience know it isn’t the case, but for narrative purposes the film must focus on the relationship between the teacher and one class. Unfortunately this has the effect of setting up unconscious expectations in the audience. If she just has that one class, what exactly is her problem? These movies need to let the audiences see the overload teachers often work under.

Also, as in many (if not most) films about teachers, there is the subtext of white teacher goes to minority school and inspires the kids to work miracles. Apparently, after she had the students do one particular exercise where they had to go to a line in the middle of the room and she passed out the journals there were no more discipline problems in her classes. That is unrealistic. I can see the problems would be reduced, but not entirely eliminated.

Also there is the subtext of teacher as martyr. Gruwell works extra jobs, sacrifices her marriage, and becomes extremely unpopular with the other teachers. Again, this is a common theme in movies about teachers. While I believe that what Gruwell did was heroic, I do not believe that is what it takes to be a good teacher. Why are teachers expected to spend their own money and sacrifice their personal lives if they want to make a difference? Why not just have the school system provide the necessary materials so that level of sacrifice isn’t warranted.

I would also like to say a few words about the other teachers in the movie. Department Head Margaret Campbell (Imelda Staunton) was given the role of villain. As was English teacher Brian Gelford (John Benjamin Hickey). I have a harder time demonizing these teachers. True they were not open, true they were obstructions, but they had both been there a long time. They had seen the school they started in change virtually overnight when the voluntary integration started. I am willing to bet they had precious little to say about that or training in how to deal with the new students they received. Although they were wrong in many particulars, I can’t see them as the bad guys, but only as other people who had been ripped up by the system and were just trying to survive.

Overall, even with the flaws, it was a heart-tugger. And knowing it is based on a true story makes it even more interesting. Gruwell left the school when her classes did. She moved on to teach college. I don’t say this as an insult or slam, but to point out there is a reason that teachers cannot pour so much of themselves into their work. It leads to burn out. Maybe some type of happy medium between martyr and uncaring teacher (the only two types portrayed in the movie) might be the best road to travel.

Erin Gruwell comments on the movie. From YouTube.

I'm Back

It has been way too long since I posted here. I could think of numerous excuses, but I won’t. I got a little lazy and then a little perfectionistic. I have found that if I put off writing something until I am certain it is going to be outstanding, I often do not have to write anything at all. I mean, why bother if it isn’t going to be great?

Oddly enough this is an excuse I have heard not just from myself, but from countless students over the last twenty years. I have rarely let them get away with this excuse. After all, writing is supposed be an exploration of the mind and an alternate definition for essay is to try. So I will essay to write something in here today, and I will not worry over it’s certain lack of perfection.

School started for me on 2 August. For the students at my school it started on 9 August. Five days of preplanning and, at least on paper, almost all of it taken up with meetings and workshops. While I do see a great deal of value in attending a good workshop, and we had several, I also see a positive value in free time being given for teachers to work on getting their classrooms ready and being able to sit down and do some preplanning for their teaching. Doesn’t seem like working that into the official schedule should be too tough, but it often is.

At my wife’s school (she is also a teacher), their preplanning week was similarly organized. The new, new principal did let all the teachers know that the school would be open until 9:00 every night and open certain hours on the weekend. Basically he expected that the teachers would volunteer their own time with their families to come and do the necessary work that his own schedule for preplanning did not permit them. Is it me, or does that seem wrong?

I have often confronted that attitude, though. The attitude that teachers should be willing--no, eager--to give up their own free time in order to spend more time at their job. And God forbid we ever complain about it. Then we are met with the “accusation” that we are only teaching for the money. Yeah, that’s right, I got into teaching in order to make my fortune. Somehow I feel I was misinformed.

Whenever I hear this, that teachers only work for the money, I always want to ask the person saying that why they go to work. After all, in our increasingly materialistic society, how much one is paid is a sign as to how important our society views that particular job. I find it distressing that such necessary jobs as police, firefighters, and teachers are not paid commensurate to the importance of our jobs. Somehow we are all expected to be grateful to have the opportunity to do this work and not complain about how more money would be nice.

I love teaching. I love being a teacher. I do not love that there always seems to be quite a bit of month left at the end of my money.

On the other hand, I knew going into this profession I would be on the low end of the professional pay scale. I have two degrees, several awards, and twenty years of experience. I make less that what corporate lawyers make their first year out of school. And yet I am expected to work as hard and give of my extra time as much as they do, if not more.

So why do I continue to do it? It is not entirely for the students. It is not entirely for the money. It is not entirely for the feeling of social usefulness I get doing this job. It is not entirely because I get to exercise my creativity on an almost daily basis. It is a combination of all these factors. The proportions differ from day to day, sometimes from class to class, but these are all component reasons to why I still do this.

And as long as I feel I can make a positive difference, make enough to live somewhat comfortably, feel useful, and creative--in whatever proportions come my way--I will continue to do this job. Even if I don’t always enter the door each morning with a bounce and a smile. I’m here and I am going to do my best. That’s about as good as it is going to get for me. And I just have to hope that that is good enough.