Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"The Class", A Discourse On Education

I just finished watching the french movie 'The Class" ("Entre Les Murs"), my mind and emotions whirling. Fragments of thoughts and ideas, philosophies and beliefs, reason and presuppositions ricochet off one another, uncovering and charting new territories of thought and understanding. The movie's remnants echoing through the caverns of my consciousness.

I feel jittery and unsettled. Something is askew, an anchor has been dislodged from it's moorings. I can't explain what or why, as my own understanding appears to have lost it's footing.

Let me begin with a disclaimer: I am not a philosopher, nor am I an educator. I don't spend endless hours, nor minutes, contemplating or struggling with ideas or concepts. I am comfortable in superficiality of thought, or following the waywardness of streams of consciousness.

I am a daughter of an educator, a niece of one, cousin to some and a wife of one, but make no claims to being one myself. My father was a high school biology teacher and an administrator, whose love of education and educational philosophy and thought was prevalent throughout my life. Perhaps my childhood mind absorbed more than I thought of my father's discourses on this topic. Perhaps those thoughts or fragments of thoughts have wandered the chasms of my understanding, waiting upon the spark that would lift them out of obscurity into light. The spark, cloaked today in the guise of a french movie.

Let me also begin by revealing that in recent months I have listened to, and participated minimally in conversations centered around education; whether they be the crisis of education in the US, or on a molecular level, the educational dilemmas as seen by a friend, a teacher's aide, to a class of children with varied and diverse learning disabilities, or the concerns of parents such as myself, with the perceived peccadilloes of the educational system.

Having now put forth my disclaimers and small revelations, perhaps now we can return to the cause of this discourse in the first place, the movie "The Class", and all that it entails.

The movie, shot in the style of a documentary, is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Fran├žois Begaudeau, who plays the lead character, french language form tutor Mr. Marin, who teaches a class of 14 and 15 year olds from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds in inner city Paris. For a good part of the movie I thought perhaps I was watching a documentary, the acting too real to be fiction, and yet it was fiction. The actors were all non professionals, most taken from Mr. Begaudeau's actual class, who through the acting method of improvisation, give to us the viewers, a movie brimming with realism and compelling, funny, and thought provoking scenes. 

What is it about this movie that so drew me in that for the duration of it's two hours and ten minutes, I sat completely engrossed, my heart palpitating, my mind whirling?

Set completely on school grounds, with the majority of the scenes taking place in the classroom and faculty lounge, this movie confronts us with the challenges and complexities of modern day high school education, in multi-cultural and multi-lingual urban settings. It's truths echo throughout public education, the world over. 

Our world is changing. Populations have, or are transitioning from monocultural units into diverse demographic mixes. Nothing remains static, and change very often brings with it a paradigm shift, and what ensues is a battle of sorts, as lines realign, understandings change, and new paradigms are birthed. Public education faces its own paradigm shift. Fault lines erupt throughout every classroom as teachers are faced with not only teaching their subject matter, but taking on by necessity the mantle of diplomats, anthropologists and peacemakers, wading everyday through the cultural nuances that make up their students and classrooms. In urban settings where immigrant populations are dominant, and especially in the inner cities, these teachers when stepping onto school grounds, enter a foreign land, walking gingerly around land mines of teen angst amplified by cultural, social and religious barriers.  Traditional methods of teaching and relating need to adapt and broaden. Even the most understanding and culturally astute teachers run into roadblocks, as demonstrated throughout this movie, most especially climatically in the last scenes, when a normal classroom debate changes into a taut confrontation where geographic and cultural loyalties play a key part. the situation further unravels as tempers are lost and the demarcation between students and teacher, suddenly and without warning, becomes a moat of resentment and frustration, incivility and discord.  

What I love about this movie is the humanness of its characters. These aren't cardboard cutouts with one dimensional personalities, but are complex, multi-dimensional and multi-faceted individuals and collectives. The staff room becomes the center of a debate on philosophical differences on discipline. The classroom is a mixture of changing alliances, and edgy and often humorous discussions. The students challenge the material at hand and its relevance to their existence, as well as the cultural content of the material. There is no room for placidity in this classroom. The teacher is often left scrambling to answer a students challenge. Neither students nor teachers are portrayed as heroes or villains, none fit safe and "colored in the lines" categories. Labels fail to capture the fullness of their characters.

Without knowledge of their outside worlds, you are left to try and understand these characters through their discourses, debates, reactions and emotions. The only time the outside world makes its brief appearance, is during the interactions at parent-teacher conferences, and a student's expulsion hearing. That hearing, a pivotal part of the movie, is filled with awkwardness coupled with underlying frustration and resentment. When Souleymane, the student in question, is brought in accompanied by his mother to the disciplinary hearing, one can not help but feel an overwhelming sense of sadness, as the son acts as interpreter at his own hearing between his mother, whose understanding of french is very limited, and those who sit on the disciplinary committee. Empathy lies with both the teacher and the student at this moment as we recall the relationship that has brought them to this point. Moments where both met in mutual understanding, and moments ripe with tension and challenge.

Laurent Cantet brings the reality of the classroom experience to us through the thought provoking vehicle of this film. This is a film that should stimulate much discussion amongst educators, as well as students. It is a film where even a non educator like myself, has been given much food for thought. In contemplating this film, I have had to reevaluate my own perceptions on education, and even this happily shallow thinker, has quite willingly delved into the layers of this debate.

I highly recommend this film to everyone with an interest in education, and to those of you who don't, I truly believe that you will walk away from it with a new interest and insight on the subject. This is a five star movie. Watch it.