Heads of the class: Back-to-school movies that deserve recognition

08/09/2014 4:44 PM

08/13/2014 12:34 PM

Some of the most meaningful films and television series revolve around what happens inside schools. From character-driven movies such as “The Breakfast Club” that debunk high school hierarchies, to social satires such as “Mean Girls” that reveal the darker side of adolescence, school-themed narratives give us a chance to see dramatized versions of experiences we’ve all lived through.

As many students head back to school this week, we asked local educators and community leaders to tell us about their favorite school-themed movies and television shows. (Answers edited for length and clarity.)

Andrew Davis, English teacher at Wichita West High School

The movie: “Stand and Deliver” (1988) – The true story of East Los Angeles high school teacher Jaime Escalante (Edward James Olmos), who despite skepticism, sought to change his school’s culture and get his kids taking AP calculus.

A+ scene: Escalante is promised computers but they never come. Finally, in the last few minutes of the film, the secretary tells him, “Good news! The computers are in.” His response is perfect: “Yep, that’ll do it.” It’s not the tools; it’s the teacher.

General assessment: Having taught AP language and composition in the Wichita District for nearly 20 years (the first 10 facing a great deal of resistance from peers and administrators), I strongly identify with any teacher who has to buck the system to do right by students.

Lessons learned: It’s not the awards won; it’s the teaching done. It’s not the strategy employed; it’s the learning enjoyed.

Oletha Faust-Goudeau, Kansas state senator

The show: “Welcome Back, Kotter” (1975-1979) – A sitcom about a wisecracking teacher who returns to his high school alma mater in Brooklyn to teach a rowdy group of students. The show co-starred a young John Travolta.

A+ scene: The scenes I like most were when Vinnie Barbarino (Travolta) would stroll into the classroom late, but cool, because he still wanted to learn.

General assessment: Mr. Kotter, the teacher, and the entire cast of students were memorable, hilarious and fun to watch. You could really identify with many of them.

Lessons learned: This show taught me that even though we are all different people from many walks of life, we all deserve a good education.

Lela Meadow-Conner, executive director, Tallgrass Film Association

The movie: “Election” (1999) – The personal life of a high school teacher (Matthew Broderick) is complicated when he works with students during class elections.

A+ scene: I love the whole movie, but the “Pick Flick” scene is classic. Reese Witherspoon’s character Tracy Flick discovers that Paul, the school jock played by Chris Klein, is challenging her for student body president. I love the editing. It’s also a great use of voice-over and exposition of characters.

General assessment: The performances by Witherspoon and Broderick are spot-on dark comedy, and the satirical script directed by Alexander Payne is superb.

Lessons learned: Nice guys might finish last.

Debra Cole, humanities teacher at The Independent School

The movie: “Dead Poets Society” (1989) – An English teacher (Robin Williams) inspires a love of poetry within his students and ignites a spark to seize the day.

A+ scene: Mr. Keating has his students kick soccer balls while yelling poetry aloud as a way to demonstrate freedom and their own non-conformity.

General assessment: I am touched and inspired by any educator in any movie that gives of himself or herself passionately, and especially when that passion is contagious to students. I strive for this engagement every day in my classroom.

Lessons learned: I love what I teach and love sharing my enthusiasm for the content with my students.

Cynthia Martinez-Woelk, art teacher at Irving Elementary

The movie: “To Sir, With Love” (1967): An unemployed, idealistic black engineer applies for a teaching position instructing rowdy white students in the slums of London’s East End.

A+ scene: When Mr. Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) decides to pass on the job opportunity that he’s been waiting for as an engineer to continue teaching. He had been struggling with troublesome students and didn’t realize the impact he made on them until they showed their appreciation with a letter and small gift.

General assessment: I love this movie because it shows how teaching is not an easy profession, but all of the hard work is worth it to make a difference in the lives of students.

Lessons learned: Teaching is an extremely rewarding profession. Teachers really can have a positive impact on a child’s life.

Mark Shultz, counselor, Payne Elementary School

The movie: “Summer School” (1987): A high school gym teacher’s (Mark Harmon) summer plans are canceled when he is forced to teach a remedial English class to misfit students.

A+ scene: The scene that stands out the most to me is toward the end when the principal is meeting with Mr. Shoop. The principal tells him that he failed as a teacher, and Mr. Shoop passionately defends his students and the progress they made. Every single one of his students showed academic growth. While they might not have passed the requirements for the standardized test, they were not failures because they all learned in the process.

General assessment: The movie reminds me of some of the fun things that teachers do to connect with the students in their classes … I like to think that my personality and style are similar to Mr. Shoop.

Lessons learned: While tests are important, there is so much more to education than what test scores show. The important thing is that students are able to show improvement.

Sharon Martin, journalism adviser at Wichita East High School

The movie: “The Breakfast Club” (1985): Five high school students from different cliques connect during detention and discover they have far more in common than they thought.

A+ scene: The movie ends with a memorable scene when Mr. Vernon is reading the essay that he assigned the students to write explaining who they are. The essay points out that Mr. Vernon will see in them only what he wants to see.

General assessment: It reminds me to see students as individuals, to listen to their stories and not to make assumptions about who they are. I have had students who are parents, who pay their parents’ mortgage, who suffer from chronic illnesses, and who must work to eat. I have also had students who were under tremendous pressure to aim for a specific career goal or who were relentlessly pushed to achieve a specific grade point average.

Lessons learned: “The Breakfast Club” characters are unique individuals to whom school is secondary. Surviving self-imposed, peer or parental pressure is the No. 1 priority so my job is to assist them as they deal with those pressures and at the same time guide them as they learn to work as a team.

Jedd Beaudoin, musician and host of ‘Strange Currency’ on KMUW

The movie: “School of Rock” (2003): A cash-strapped wannabe rock star (Jack Black) poses as a substitute teacher and tries to form a band out of his prep school class.

A+ scene: A whole lot of the film actually takes place in the classroom – something some school movies seem to fear.

General assessment: The film is seamless. I avoid a lot of comedies because they have deep ebbs. Director Richard Linklater is an expert at comedic pacing and direction, and Mike White’s script is ace. This is a rare movie that I have to watch from end to end each time.

Lessons learned: The movie I wanted to see that night was sold out, so I “settled” for “School of Rock.” Talk about a bargain. That was one lesson. I also remembered how much I love AC/DC! But there’s also something to be said about the realization that your students might surpass you with their skills and learning to accept that. You can still imbue them with passion and direction.

Michael Carmody, co-owner of The Donut Whole in Wichita

The movie: “Rock ’n’ Roll High School” (1979): A group of rock fans take over their school to combat its recently installed domineering administration, with the help of the Ramones.

A+ scene: One of the cleverest bits is an inventive sequence in which a thrown paper airplane travels an insane distance through the halls, classrooms and extended campus of the school, dodging obstacles and setting up a series of sight gags before flying directly into the ear of its intended recipient, the music teacher, played by veteran cult comedy actor Paul Bartel.

General assessment: I love this movie because it is silly, surreal, irreverent and plain fun. Plus it features “acting” performances by the Ramones, as well as the triumph of youthful, joyous chaos over the stern, regimented gloom of a fascistic school administration.

Lessons learned: I am afraid I didn’t learn much of anything from this film, but that’s OK, as I didn’t really learn much worth knowing in school, either.

Cindy Cisneros McGilvrey, teacher at Chester Lewis Academic Learning Center in Wichita

The movie: “Mr. Holland’s Opus” (1995): A disillusioned music composer (Richard Dreyfuss) finds a fulfilling career as a high school music teacher.

A+ scene: The most meaningful and memorable piece is the compass given to Mr. Opus by his principal, Mrs. Jacobs. She challenges him to not just impart knowledge but to guide his students and even accuses him of having a “stuck compass.” It is the rare administrator who knows her staff members as well as Mrs. Jacobs knew Mr. Opus and understood his growing pains.

General assessment: The predictable warm fuzzies teacher makes breakthrough with challenging students, hundreds of former students reunite to honor the chronically unappreciated music teacher, neglectful father finally has an epiphany and reaches his own son – those are all part of what makes “Mr. Holland’s Opus” a feel-good teacher movie.

Lessons learned: Mentoring skills matter. Mrs. Jacobs’ “passing of the compass” make “Mr. Holland’s Opus” a masterpiece.

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