Program a Progressive Education Mini-Festival Courtesy Netflix Streaming

Until this weekend, I had never seen Mona Lisa Smile.

For most of you, this is neither news nor intriguing nor relevant.  Those who know me personally are at this moment either a) shocked b) appalled or c) neither intrigued nor related.

(Really Dan? Maggie Gyllenhaal, Kirsten Dunst, Ginnifer Goodwin, Julia Stiles & Julia Roberts in college, in the 1950s, in New England, and you’ve never seen it? McNulty from The Wire and you seriously have never seen it?)

I cried at the end.

And then Netflix suggested other films I might enjoy.  Through the salty tears I spied Freedom Writers, Good Will Hunting, Finding Forester, October Sky, and my personal favorite of the 1990s post-Dead Poets Society prep-school cinema-trend, School Ties.  And did I mention Friday Night Lights or Freaks & Geeks, two TV series worth your valuable prep time.

You can also stream Waiting for Superman if depressing, biased, controversial, documentaries are more your thing.

Most exciting, this raises the prospects of programming quite an exceptional in-house film festival around progressive ideas in education through the lens of Hollywood.  You can leave off the “through the lens of Hollywood” part and still have a remarkable and powerful series of conversations around change, student voice, teacher autonomy, values-based education, canon, and tradition.

Here are two I recommend right off the top because they have fallen a bit out of vogue and deserve a call back.

The aforementioned Mona Lisa Smile.

Julia Roberts (Mystic Pizza, Flatliners) arrives at 1953 Wellesley with good intentions, wonderful intentions, masterful intentions.  And then comes to realize that there are realities at play and even the most progressive and gorgeous of us face difficulties in affecting change.

Full of marvelous performances, what I enjoy most about the film isn’t the tear jerker of an ending, but rather a poignant series of moments where the objects of Roberts’ sympathy, empathy, and at times, pity, look her square in the eye and challenge her.  We progressive types may think we know best because we know tradition has not worked for everyone, has perpetuated a status quo deemed unfair by some and disequal by others.  But for some folks, it is just what they need and what they want.  And isn’t that what we should provide students?  Opportunities to achieve their individual goals and fulfill their personal potentials on their own terms rather than those of the people around them.

The aforelauded School Ties.

Brendan Fraser (Encino Man, George of the Jungle) comes from a rough, working class Pennsylvanian neighborhood and ends up with a football scholarship to the WASP-iest of prep schools, all but guaranteeing him a shot at Harvard.

Only problem?  Fraser’s David Green is Jewish.

Now, this wouldn’t be such a big problem if this weren’t a school full of self-entitled anti-Semites bitter about losing their playing time.  (I’m looking at you, young Matt Damon, and sitting-in-the-background, Ben Affleck.)

The rest of the film is good, but perhaps its most shining moment comes as their most revered history teacher discovers a cheat sheet and calls upon the student leadership to resolve the conflict or face dire consequences.  While the teacher is clearly in the position of power, it seemed to me when I first watched it as a pie-eyed fifteen-year-old and now as a bald-headed thirty-six-year-old, that it put the focus and onus on the students, empowering them to hold themselves accountable.

There’s also a pretty amazing yelling in the rain moment.

Well beyond watching movie adaptations of novels and historical recreations, film affords the opportunity to open up some conversations with students and colleagues about the role of progress and teaching in the classroom.  I’m a long standing advocate of teaching students the “how” and “why” behind their learning.  These two films, and others like them, may well provide thoughtful, entertaining vehicles for those understandings to begin.


About Dan Ryder

Dan Ryder & Jeff Bailey, co-founders of Wicked Decent Learning, a blog, podcast, Twitter feed and who-knows-what-all-else devoted to teaching and learning in Vacationland and beyond. Teachers, dads, actors, writers, geeks, buds.

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