Antidote to an educator’s depression
By Mark Phillips
After spending a few weeks watching films about the proclaimed “Crisis in American Education” -- The Lottery, The Cartel, and Waiting for Superman, I considered calling my doctor to prescribe an antidepressant. I also wondered if I should have pursued a different career, maybe driving a truck or making shoes.
The lingering images were those of hopelessly decaying schools, disappointed kids and parents, obnoxious union leaders, and corrupt politicians, brightened only occasionally by scenes from a few good charter schools and some dedicated reformers. Albeit these reformers also kept reminding me of how bad things are in education!
I know I’ve played my part at times, focusing on changes needed in education and bewailing the failures of public policy and funding. I know that we have lots of challenges. But I needed to be reminded that, in spite of all of this, most teachers are doing a good job and most kids are not miserable in their schools.
Then I got lucky and had a couple of great weeks. First, I got to see a film that premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival, Most Valuable Players. A documentary about a competition between schools in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley for the best musical theater production, it’s filled with vibrantly alive, extraordinarily talented, happy teenagers and engaged parents and teachers. Hundreds and hundreds of kids in public high schools, blessed with great teacher/leaders and supportive parents. A light in the darkness.
My lucky streak continued when I viewed the advance screener for August to June, a new film by Tom and Amy Valens, documenting a year in the life of the open classroom at the Lagunitas School, in West Marin, California. I’ll have much more on this film when it premieres in January, but it’s a treat and a reminder of what’s possible when gifted and caring teachers, engaged parents, and kids who are happy to be there, “live” together in a classroom. The film moved me to tears and laughter, my favorite combination. And at the end there is a long list of the many other similar schools in the United States. What a great antidote to educational depression.
Then I spent a few hours with two of my daughter’s English classes at Mt. Eden High in Hayward. The school is grossly underfunded and her 36-student classes are much too large. Too few of these kids, many second generation Americans for whom English is the second language, will go to college.
Yet the feeling here is not depression or resignation. Both classes, and those of many of her colleagues, are alive. In a school the reform filmmakers might have condemned, there are excellent teachers and vibrant students and, despite the obstacles, some very good things are happening. And my interactions with the kids left me feeling anything but depressed.
Finally, I participated in the first of this year’s monthly A Place in the World events of the California Film Institute. Students from three local schools attended, each innovative and highly successful: The TEAM program at Tamiscal High in Marin; Envision Academy, a charter school in Oakland; and Leadership Public School in Richmond.
After viewing a film, the students spent time in discussion groups, each a combo of kids from the three schools, and in every group the kids were totally engaged, hitting every point in the film, as well as friendly and open with each other. At the very end one student said “Can we do this every day?!”
I know changes are needed in our public schools. I know things are not like this everywhere. But I also know that these experiences are more representative than the melodramatic tragedies emphasized in the wave of reform films. Experiencing each of them sure beat a dose of Prozac!
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| November 9, 2010; 2:24 PM ET
Categories: Guest Bloggers, School turnarounds/reform | Tags: educational films, mark phillips, school reform, the cartel, the lottery, waiting for superman
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