24 September 2009


periodically a film is released which purports to show what it is like to be a teacher, usually with troubled or rebellious teenage students. most such movies range from mundane to grossly saccharine, hopelessly idealized or just plain misinformed. examples of films which are profoundly WORTH seeing are Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, Finding Forrester, Lean on Me, and (somewhat marginally) Mr. Holland's Opus.

enter The Class, winner of the palme d'or at the cannes film festival, based on the memoir "Entre les Murs" ("Between the Walls") by francois begaudeau, who played himself as the teacher in the film. mirroring life, in which lesson plans are often derailed by classroom crises or opportunities for spontaneous learning moments, the film's actors used the script only as a guide, a starting point for inspired improvisation. the result: layers of energy, subplot, nuance and expression which lent astounding credibility to the film.

i spent five years as a teacher (math, algebra, biology, environmental studies) and counselor at a private residential school for students diagnosed as SED -- severely emotionally disturbed. classes were relatively small, 12-15 students; and coed, with a ratio of 2 girls to 1 boy. i rarely bothered with detailed lesson plans, since any given class was guaranteed to be interrupted by heated debate, a fight, a thrown desk, a personal crisis, a runaway, and/or raging hormones, all compounded by most of my students being on psychotropic drugs -- a result of their having been physically, emotionally or sexually abused in their homes before being remanded by the courts to our care.

in such an atmosphere, i found it useful to maintain a loose mental outline of material to be covered, but mostly to teach off the top of my head. i had the material down cold, and thus was free to sieze opportunities to use a chance remark or question to take the class in a direction they would find both interesting and informative.

it is precisely this freedom to improvise which the film portrays so effectively. The Class was nominated for best foreign film at the u.s. academy awards, and should have won. very rarely do i rate a film with five stars -- for this one, my highest recommendation.

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