Saturday, September 7, 2013

Did you watch TEACH?

Friday night I watched the documentary TEACH with two other educators. Dad taught high school math and science for over three decades. My wife was an elementary teacher for 15 years. I taught middle school math and computers for seven-and-a-half years, making me the least experienced of the bunch, but we could all empathize with the stories being told.

And that seemed to be the point - to elicit emotions from the viewers. From the film's website:
Davis Guggenheim's award-winning documentary reveals the human side of the story: showing what it takes to survive the first year teaching in America's toughest schools. (emphasis mine)
Based on many of the Tweets posted to #TEACH, the movie accomplished its goal and touched many of those who watched.

It is important to recognize this as Mr. Guggenheim's vision for the film and understand that it must have influenced how he edited his footage. Just as a director who is adapting a book for a movie must consider what to keep and what to cut, Mr. Guggenheim could not hope to communicate the complexities of teaching in 35 minutes. Consequently, he presents a picture of teaching that diminishes the importance of certain aspects of the practice in order to focus on the teachers' stories.

I started this blog as a way to chronicle my teaching practice. In particular, I wanted to focus on the framework known as the Teaching-Learning Cycle. To Mr. Guggenheim's credit, his documentary acknowledges each of the Cycle's phases. However, it gives too much attention to assessment. Here are some examples:
  • Several scenes where teachers and administrators wait by Scantron machines for testing results;
  • A teacher expressing her concern about whether the test will "validate" her efforts; and
  • Another teacher sharing her frustration that students were bubbling in the wrong answers when they should have known better.
Given the current national obsession with test scores, it is understandable why assessment became the focus of the film. However, it is also important to see how the assessments added tension to the storytelling. We want to find out, "Will the students pass the big test?"

While this plot device was effective in driving the stories in TEACH (see also Stand and Deliver and Lean on Me), it is unnecessary. As Kathy said, then Tweeted, at the end of the film:
As I recall, these themes have been successful in many other stories.

Part of the problem is that the assessment storyline is also taking over the current education reform narrative. The intent again seems to be to create unnecessary tension to manipulate people's emotions. My concern is that we are being swept up in that emotion, thereby, attending solely to teaching and testing while diminishing what's really important - learning.

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