Theater Masks

Theater Masks

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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Why school curriculum needs to change

There's been a lot of chatter lately about the need for more science and math in schools these days. I don't disagree with that, but the way we teach kids English has also fallen behind. We're living in a time right now, in terms of culture, that is unlike any other in history. Schools have not adapted their curricula to the needs of students.

If you go back a hundred years, literature was the primary medium for telling stories. Go back sixty years to 1951, and yes, movies were coming out then, but think about this: The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, classics now, were a mere twelve years old. Casablanca, which came out in 1942, was less than a decade old. What movies came out in the equivalent time frame to us now? 1999 was the year Titanic won the Oscar. 2002 saw the release of Spiderman, the last Lord of the Rings movie, and the second Harry Potter film.

What books were read in high schools then? Dickens? Check. Twain? Check. Shakespeare? Check. Chaucer and Homer and Steinbeck?

Let's speed up to the 70s. Dickens, Twain, and Shakespeare? Chaucer? Of course. Fitzgerald? Orwell? Lee? Sure. All are still read today in school.

This is what makes up a typical high school curriculum, correct?

Let me make one thing clear here before I move on to my point. I am in NO WAY advocating removing books and great literature from school curricula. That would be a travesty beyond words.

However, literature is not what it was to popular culture a hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago when not everyone had a television in their living room, and when they did, it was turned on for specific programs at specific times. Old movies were only available at scheduled times or if they happened to be re-shown at the local theater. In 1961, fifty years ago, the Oscars were a mere thirty four years old.

Now, we're sixteen years from a hundred years of Oscars. That's less time than it will take for my two month old niece to graduate high school.

Movies are available now in the theater, but also on TV on five hundred channels, on demand, on Netflix in the mail, streaming through PS3s and Wiis, on the computer, on hand held devices. We are bordering on a hundred years of a medium that has infected every pore of our culture.

How often do you go a day without seeing or hearing a reference to The Wizard of Oz or Star Wars or The Godfather? Seriously, pay attention - you'll be shocked how they've infused our lives.

I recently did a lesson with my students about mythic journeys. I talked about Star Wars, and only half the kids had seen the movies. I had a slightly better hit rate on The Wizard of Oz, but there were still kids who didn't know what I was talking about.

So here's where I get to my point. Movies are a HUGE part of our culture. They are everywhere, they are so prevalent that they, for better or worse, influence the way we think. More importantly, the culture of ubiquitous media influences the way kids think. They imitate actors and singers, they quote lines, they're far more likely to read books that have movies attached than not. It's not going away.

Official school curricula, for the most part, completely ignores movies. In fact, our state "revised" curricula, has pulled even further away -- we used to have items for watching and analyzing that were replaced by non-fiction reading. Certainly there's a place for that, but are we denying our kids a cultural education by ignoring movies in school curricula?

With ever more movies being produced, the backlog of what kids need to know is greater now than it ever has been. Fifty years ago, there were a handful of "classics" - now the AFI has made MULTIPLE "hundred best" lists of films. Kids live and breathe new media - why are we ignoring it in school?

The answer is, society doesn't look on film as "culturally valuable." "You can't get the same thing from Star Wars as you can from The Odyssey!" Well, why not? As a colleague of mine said when we were discussing this issue, "All that's different is the mechanics - reading versus watching."

We are scraping at incorporating technology into schools (with shrinking budgets and increasing mandates, it's a little like Luke fighting the Empire single handedly), which is great, but we're ignoring CULTURE.

Yes, Shakespeare should be taught. And Dickens, and Twain, and Orwell. But wouldn't our kids be richer for knowing movie history? When someone says "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse," shouldn't they know what we're talking about? Movies have become as important a part of our culture as literature in the past hundred years, and the backlog of great stuff is only going to get bigger.

As I said at the start, I'm not advocating losing literature, but I think a little more movies (and music and theater, but one thing at a time) in our schools would help teach our kids QUALITY. When I ask my kids what their favorite movies are, they'll usually say last years action or comedy movie. I overheard a couple of kids saying how great they thought "Vampires Suck" was -- the movie that recently was nominated for a Razzie for worst movie of the year.

Kids have no basis to truly judge quality in media other than literature where they know the difference between a school book and a non-school book (though I also think that line needs to be blurred a hell of a lot more than it is - but that's also another issue). We need to teach kids what QUALITY movies are. We need to teach them how to analyze and evaluate movies, if for no other reason than to stop the anti-intellectual slide that is so prevalent in pop-culture. If we don't teach them, how will they know?

Do you agree with me? Am I way off? Let me know...


  1. While I don't disagree 100% I am not fully on your side either.

    But having said that I am also a person who has never seen a Star Wars movie and am damn proud of that fact.

    But last evening while watching tv's, "Who do you think you are?" There was a lot of very interesting history about the civil war, blacks being able to vote and when it was taken away and when the privilage was returned to them. I turned to my husband and said, "too bad this isn't shown in school. I think this history lesson would have reached more than a day of listening to their teacher tell the same story. Or at the very least start a dialogue in class" Back in the olden days when I was in school (70's) we had tv or movie day on Friday is some of my classes. Things that were relevant to what we were learning or what our teacher wanted us to learn. I loved those days. I also remember the lessons vividly. To Kill a Mocking Bird for example. And at the end of the year we got a fun movie that had nothing to do with anything but pure entertainment.

  2. Actually, if you look at the original AFI list of 100 greatest movies of all time, at least half them were made before 1961. That's more than a handful.

    The other issue here is that time is the test of what is and isn't great. This applies to books, movies, music, etc. Recent books, movies, music, etc. have not yet been tested by time. Go back and look at the 1990s. Some of those must-see movies have faded into obscurity.

    I'll give you a good example of a popular movie that hasn't stood the test of time: Mortal Kombat. It was released in 1995. It was a fun movie to watch. I'm sure if you had asked middle school kids at that time about it, they would have responded the same way as your students have. Would I tell a teenager today, "Oh! You've got to watch this movie! It's great!" No. But I would say that about Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars or Jaws.

    So, should we teach current culture? I think it depends on where you are teaching. If you're trying to teach inner-city kids who think school is a waste of time, then using as many cultural references as you can to make what you're teaching relevant to them is a sound strategy. I recommend the movie "Dangerous Minds" as an example. In that the teacher related music lyrics to poetry to get through to the kids.

    If your teaching middle class and up kids, then it's not so important. Their parents expect them to learn and do well in school. You could just point them in the direction of AFI's website and they'd go research it on their own or not.

    With the explosion of technology and a lot of the classics being videorecorded, you have a better tools at hand to teach Shakespeare than was available when I was in school. I did not understand Hamlet at all. I did not get what was going on until I saw the Mel Gibson version. And really a play was meant to be seen in a theatre not read from a book. In some form or fashion you can get the kids to see a videorecording of Shakespeare and give them a much better understanding of it than I ever got from reading and discussions.

    So you overhear the kids saying they think the movie "Vampires Suck" was great. And it was nominated for a Razzie. First, it's normal for teenagers to think like that. They usually grow out of it. And Second, I wouldn't put a whole lot of stock in the Oscars and Razzies as being the best judge of quality. The movies they're commenting on have not stood the test of time.

    When George Orwell's 1984 was released the critics panned it. They said it was the worst book ever written. And now it is taught in American Literature.