Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Guggenheim surprises with a big wet kiss to teachers

I finally got around to viewing Teach today, Davis Guggenheim's follow-up film to the slanted and contrived Waiting for Superman. I confess, I wasn't anxious to see another of his films. But in this one he leans the other way. Teach follows four dedicated teachers and attempts to document what the life of a teacher is like. 
Shelby Harris, 7th grade math teacher at Kuna Middle School, Kuna, Idaho; Joel Laguna, a 10th grade AP World History teacher at Garfield High, Los Angeles, California; Matt Johnson, a 4th grade teacher at McGlone Elementary, Denver, Colorado; and Lindsay Chinn, a 9th grade Algebra teacher at MLK Early College, Denver, Colorado.
If this film is an apology, or "a valentine to the teaching profession," as the New York Times suggests, so be it. Apology accepted. As with Superman and his An Inconvenient Truth, Guggenheim sets a course, and stays the course.

These teachers are not portrayed as incompetent union-card-holding slackers. They are not dashing the hopes and future productivity of their public school students who failed to win a charter school lottery. They are everyday heroes who battle to overcome society's ills as they are manifested in our children. These heroes don't leap tall buildings. They engage with real problems and they suffer the kinds of setbacks every dedicated teacher understands.

As Hechinger's Sarah Butrymowicz reports, 
One of the most intriguing dilemmas highlighted in the film occurs in Lindsey Chinn’s ninth-grade algebra class in Denver. Her students are exceeding district averages on the material that she has covered thoroughly, according to mid-year assessments. But the class is behind schedule. Chinn and her administrator debate if it is better to cover less material, but truly master it, or teach everything that will be covered on the end-of-year standardized tests, knowing the pace would be too fast for most students to grasp the concepts.

It’s an important issue and one that gets to the heart of the debate on standardized testing for accountability. But after raising the question, the film doesn’t address possible answers for teachers trying to encourage mastery while simultaneously trying to cover all the material on the test. Thus, “Teach” misses the opportunity to have a real conversation about the quality and use of the standardized tests and ways in which they might help and hinder teaching.
But for all of its good intentions, I'm not sure Teach gets us any closer to understanding the complex nature of teacher effectiveness.

This from Take Part:
We all have had a teacher who’s shaped us, inspired us, even scared us, and whom we can credit with having empowered us to become who we are today. In his third documentary to look at education in America, Davis Guggenheim brings us “TEACH,” which asks the question: what does it take to be a teacher? Offering a rare glimpse inside four public school classrooms, Guggenheim invites us to follow the struggles and triumphs of America’s education system through the eyes, minds and hearts of its most essential resource: teachers.

Intense and emotional, this year-in-the-life of four public school teachers illustrates how tenacity, innovation and a passion drives these educators as they navigate the ups and downs of the 2013 school year...

These educators mentor their students to overcome obstacles and strive for success. While they all aspire to be the best at their jobs, Guggenheim’s subjects are diverse in every way, implementing unconventional and collaborative methods, teaching different subjects and age groups in a range of communities. Yet, they all have one common denominator—the grit and resolve to hang in and make a difference to their students.

This from the New York Times:

A Soft Pitch on Education From a Hard Hitter

Davis Guggenheim Goes to School With New Film

People tuning into “Teach” on CBS on Friday night [Sept 6th] because they see Davis Guggenheim’s name attached to it and expect another barn-burning look at dysfunction in the educational system may find themselves asking, “What have you done with the real Davis Guggenheim and who is this bouquet-lobbing impostor?” 

In 2010, Mr. Guggenheim caused a stir in the educational world with his documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” an unflattering examination of American education that was particularly hard on teachers unions. But “Teach,” hosted by Queen Latifah, is more or less the opposite of that film. It’s a valentine to the teaching profession, following four relatively young teachers through a school year as they ardently try to raise test scores and bring stragglers up to grade level. 

Nothing wrong with that. There are plenty of energetic, committed educators; why not start off the school year by giving them a pat on the back? The real shortcoming of “Teach” isn’t its lack of teeth; it’s that the camera-in-a-classroom approach, a favorite of documentarians trying to say something about schools, is rarely very illuminating. How learning happens can’t be reduced to a film clip, even a two-hour-long one. 

The four stars of “Teach” are Matt Johnson, a fourth-grade teacher in Denver; Shelby Harris, a seventh-grade math teacher in Kuna, Idaho; Lindsay Chinn, a ninth-grade algebra teacher in Denver; and Joel Laguna, who teaches advanced-placement world history to high school students in East Los Angeles. All seem like the kind of teacher you want your child to have — tireless, innovative, determined — and their students don’t try to intimidate them or crush them with indifference or act up in class. But, of course, there are cameras in the room; it’s impossible to tell how they affect the behavior of adults or students. 

The film does at least convey what these teachers are up against as they try to improve results: a wide swath of skill levels, with many students arriving in their class already considerably behind. “When Shelby looks at the data from her students’ test results,” the narration says, “she realizes she is standing in front of a class whose abilities range from third to 11th grade.” 

The teachers experiment with alternatives to stand-and-lecture instruction, and all four hit a wall at midyear, turning to mentors to talk them through their discouragement. It’s moderately interesting but seems artificial. The film barely looks beyond the classroom, even though learning is a complex process that involves extracurricular activities, the home front, peer groups and more. A “Glee” episode is more revelatory than much of “Teach.” 

That said, it’s nice to see four educators who care more about their students than they do about salaries or tenure. And it’s certainly true that while a documentary that looks only at the classroom is not going to give the full educational picture, no learning is likely to take place without a good teacher in the mix.


Anonymous said...

Kind of like looking at the news - they feed us car wrecks, killings and political scandal but not much in the form of positive events or behaviors. Maybe that is what the audience craves and if so how discouraging for for us all. We live in a time where hours of TV programing are devoted to telvising the most outrageous "reality" that we become almost desensatized to its content and even normalize it as common place, acceptable behavior. It is sad but understandable that folks would find the lives of teachers so boring in comparison. Perhaps if they would have been more adversarial with students & parents, had some sexual liasons or blown something up it would have made for more interesting viewing.

Anonymous said...

Go figure, teaching isn't some sort of glamourous job staffed by "supermen" or "superwomen" who engage in high profile, newsworthy behaviors everyday. Just regular people trying to help children within the parameters and conditions that have been imposed upon them. Sounds like some of the reviewers are disappointed that the video was too mundane