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Book and Film Reviews, Education in the Media, Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

Decanting Superman

Earlier this week I watched Waiting for Superman in a mostly empty theater.

While it would have been great if the movie took a broader view of the diverse efforts and theories of reformers past and present, I did not leave upset at Guggenheim or any of the reformers in the film. I was crying a bit. The movie is meant to be affecting. The kids’ experiences are cut into specific sequences for specific purposes. However, regardless of the film’s craft, those kids exist; they have their hopes and disappointments; we teach them; we teach kids who are worse off; a few tears are in order for way too many kids caught inside and outside the film.

I do think the film has problems, but I think we educators can own those problems and use platforms like this blog to help solve them.

For example, I think it’s our problem that a filmmaker can portray teaching as the decanting of knowledge without much objection from the general public. Who are we waiting for to educate the public otherwise? Who are we waiting for to tell us to teach otherwise? Who are we waiting for to insist that great teaching can exist apart from test scores? Those folks aren’t coming, either.

I also think it’s our problem to address the schism between charter schools and traditional public schools. To be frank, there really isn’t a schism. First, our best selves all want the same things for students – safety and success. Moreover, while public schools have to take everyone, it’s not like we’ve done away with tracking or the other implicit practices we use to let kids who struggle know that they don’t belong in the same place – KIPP school or honors classroom – with the kids who, according to our perceptions and expectations and definitions, “care about getting an education.” If the lottery tells us anything it’s that there are not enough places, period, that families perceive to be serving their kids with the right mix of compassion, expectation, and support. There are not enough places that re-engage the disenfranchised with hope. That pop #edreform wants to scale up its efforts represents a good faith effort to make a difference, even though their means and ends are identical to effective test prep wherever it is. Every single one of our classrooms could be the site of more meaningful reform if we risked it. While that sounds easier said than done, it’s easier to do than to go through a whole career of lockstep compliance and daily frustration. We need to concern ourselves with the type of curriculum, assessment, and instruction our system values rather than with which types of school push those values.

When I say problem, I don’t mean to blame us educators for anything. I want to be clear: each problem is a systems problem that is ours to help solve. It would be great if our leaders didn’t sit us at the kids’ table while they’re talking; then again, there’s no better place to change public education than alongside the kids in our classrooms.

Let’s ask our kids what they wish Superman would help them learn, and then let’s help them accomplish it for themselves.


About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


4 thoughts on “Decanting Superman

  1. Huzzah. Yes, exactly right. I’m seated right there at the kid’s table with you man.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 5, 2010, 10:18 pm
  2. Nice post, Chad. I like the “decanting” metaphor, mainly because I’m currently sipping on a glass of California red Zin.

    I saw the film twice here in Toronto and I have to admit that I was moved as well. One of my viewings was at the Toronto International Film Festival and the power of the film was enhanced by the presence on stage of Bill Gates, Geoff Canada, Guggenheim, Leslie Chilcott (Producer) and John Legend. To add more punch, they actually paraded the kids from the film out on stage. You didn’t have to like the film to be moved by that!

    There is a raw emotion connected with the film…part of it derives from the manipulative function of cinema, itself. (Did anyone else find it curious that we meet most of these children in their bedrooms?)

    Another part of the emotion comes from the fact that Waiting for Superman wouldn’t have raised the ire of so many if (a) the message weren’t important and (b) there weren’t some bits of truth in it.

    A couple of notes on the charter school issue. We only have one province here in Canada that grants charters for its public school system. In a recent report on charters in that jurisdiction, we were reminded that one of the intentions of allowing schools to operate outside the bounds (and short-term reach) of the traditional system was to foster conversation with the mainstream public schools around what is working. This is clearly a conversation that has not happened.

    Instead, charters here operate in isolated contexts…a set of publicly-funded silos.

    But to an important point that you made: the kids are real! The producer of the film, Leslie Chilcott, admitted to finding the kids in the film by hanging out at the charter school information sessions. What struck me when I heard that connects with your point in that, for every child that has a motivated parent who completes the applications, attends the information sessions and wears their hearts on their sleeves during the entire process, there are thousands of others who are not even in the race.

    Being marginalized by any system sucks. But, when it’s the system that represents your chance to move away from the margins…well, that sucks even more. And if that’s not a call to action, I don’t know what is!

    Chad, thanks for the wake-up call that, despite our reaction to the film (and there will be others) there is important work to do, on behalf of the important lives that we affect in the work that we do!

    Posted by Stephen Hurley | November 5, 2010, 10:43 pm
    • I’ll blame the poor writing in the last sentence on the California red!

      Posted by Stephen Hurley | November 5, 2010, 10:46 pm
    • Thank you for your very thoughtful response, Stephen.

      I also hate that a kid can learn a ton in a year, but still feel marginalized by the status of his or her school and by his or her test scores.

      Ira Socol (@irasocol) shared a story with me this week about two educators discussing the measurement of learning. I beg his forgiveness if I tell the story incorrectly.

      Essentially, there are these two educators debating how to measure learning. The first asks the second one how he can tell if kids are learning without standardized tests; the second one says, “By walking into the room.”

      I think that in our pursuit of standards and scores, we’ve created classrooms that don’t demonstrate learning clearly. We’ve created classrooms where learning is inferred from worksheets instead of demonstrated by speech, performance, and products. If we get past our fears – of what?, I might add non-rhetorically – in an effort to provide a practical, provocative alternative to learning-by-numbers, maybe we can scale up classrooms in which learning, doing, making, and speaking are no longer divorced from one another.

      Best regards,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | November 6, 2010, 8:59 pm

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