All American High Revisted

Cameron Crowe’s experiences of a year spent attending classes, undercover, at Clairemont High School in San Diego was documented in his 1981 book Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story. Crowe’s account spawned the 1982 comedy film Fast Times at Ridgemont High while the 1980’s saw the production of several other films, representing teenage life in U.S high schools including The Breakfast Club. Earning a place amongst Teachers TV’s top ten school movies (The Guardian, 2008) The Breakfast Club, directed by John Hughes invites a critique of the school as a location of disciplinary power (Fisher et al., 2008). In recognition of the contribution of the film to an understanding of the socio-politics of schooling, along with its continued relevance, it was inducted into the U.S National Film Registry in 2016.

Amongst these coming-of age dramas All American High, a 1985 film directed by Keva Rosenfield stands out, not because it deviates dramatically from the coming of age theme, but because it is a documentary. Thirty years on, All American High Revisted is a re-released, remastered version which includes revisting some of the students who featured in the 1985 film.

Keva Rosenfield’s documentary follows the class of 84 at Torrance High School in California. Unlike Wiseman’s High School which focuses on power relations within the institution, All American High Revisited explores the social lives of students as they are mediated via the school.   In All American High Revisited Finnish exchange student Riikkamari (Rikki) Rauhala provides a narration which serves to make the space of the U.S high school, made familiar through drama, strange. Contrasting Torrance High with her experience in a Finnish school, where teenagers are keen to get away from school as quickly as possible, she observes

High School is the teenagers own world where they live and all the teenager’s life is around the High School

There are numerous opportunities available at Torrance High, and Rikki summarises these well:

I think High School prepares more for social life than work life

It isn’t had to see why she thinks this. Located in Los Angeles, near the coast, Torrance High School has a surf team to this day and the surf teacher in the film acknowledges he has chosen this job so he doesn’t need to take a vacation.  Other opportunities open to Rikki include cheerleading and preparing for several dances and parties.

Towards the end of the scenes from the original film Rikki reflects on her time at Torrance, satisfied that she has achieved high grades, whilst doing very little work.  She concludes

I’ve learnt to be lazy

In ‘where are they now’ style Rosenfield tracks down some of the students from the Year of 84.  Cesar, an anti-establishment bass player is working in law enforcement in Highway Patrol.  Michelle, who defended nuclear weapons is no longer a Republican.  Robert, who hoped to go to Police Academy became a Policy Chief in Texas.

As she prepares to return to Finland, Rikki promises to return for a reunion in five or maybe ten years.  She doesn’t. Thirty years later we see watching All American High with her family, and the children are predictably embarrassed, although her teenage daughter is impressed that she has friends made through real contact and not just the internet.

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Scotland Street School

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School architecture forms part of the visual culture of education.  Buildings that are built as schools, whether they still operate as such, form part of a readily accessible public archive of the history of education. Yet, as they weave themselves in to evolving landscapes, schools become hidden in plain sight.  If not demolished, they may be abandoned or transformed and repurposed.  Nevertheless, as Burke and Grosvenor (2008) observe school buildings remain recognisable as schools and, as Harwood states “Victorian schools have a visual interest as local landmarks” (2010: 1). Today, as reference point for nostalgia it might be easy to forget that they once represented beacons of civilisation as this conversation between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson shows:

Look at those big, isolated clumps of buildings rising up above the slates, like brick islands in a lead-coloured sea.

The Board schools.

Lighthouses, my boy! Beacons of the future! Capsules with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wiser, better England, of the future

Doyle (1955:215)

Such beacons were lighting up the Scottish landscape too.  Scotland Street School on Glasgow’s Southside was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh with building completed in 1906.  Opening at the start of the school year in August 1906 with a capacity of 1250 pupils it ceased to function as a school in 1979 by which time the school roll had dropped to below 100.   Today, with an absence of housing surrounding the school it is difficult to picture the community it served. Many buildings in the vicinity, whilst still standing, are empty and derelict although there are signs suggesting regeneration and the promise of something better.

Ian Mitchell, in a blog post about the history of the school, puts it well:

It was once the local jewel in the crown, now it is more an oasis in a desert.

Located in Tradeston, the area around the Scotland Street School was once densely populated, hence the need for a school with such a capacity.   Following the Education (Scotland) Act of 1872 which made education compulsory for 5-13 year olds, the School Boards of Glasgow embarked on a building programme to accommodate children requiring schooling.  The Scotch Education department prescribed single storey schools, but multi-storey schools, such as the Scotland Street School were a practical response given the limited space and expense that this ruling would involve in a city like Glasgow (Hamilton, 2011).   Similarly, the practice of employing one architect was rejected on the grounds of expediency needed to complete the school building project across the different School Boards in Glasgow.

The result is a three-storey building with baronial inspired towered staircases with leaded glass, and glass bounded classrooms situated on either side of a corridor to make maximum use of natural light.  The Scottish thistle is integral to the fabric of the building, appearing on the railings, carved into the stone work, as well as appearing in the glasswork in the towers (see how the green triangles and blue circles on different storeys form the thistles).

Today, a category A listed building, Scotland Street School is museum.  The flyer alerting visitors to its existence recommends this as  “must see for fans of Charles Rennie Mackintosh”. It is equally a must if your interest lies in the history of education, but unless you are specifically looking for it, you are unlikely to find it on a brief trip to Glasgow.  Located across from Shields Road Subway is probably the quickest way to reach it. If like me you prefer to walk, head across Tradeston Bridge and walk long West Street where, en route, you can see the architectural remnants of long gone industries.

In one of the former classrooms, Alexander Shaw’s The Children’s Story a 1938 documentary celebrating Scotland’s education system plays on a loop. The opening statement reminds us that state schooling demonstrates civic pride and provides an imaginary for a better future:

In Scotland today, the first country in the world to have universal education, the focus of attention is the nation’s 800,000 children. In schools all over Scotland a revolution is taking place, teachers are discovering new ways to prepare their children for citizenship in the modern world.

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Kinder vom Napf (Children from the Napf)

Director Alice Schmid spent a year filming the children of Romoos, Entlebuchs (Entlebuch Valley) in Lucerne Canton in Switzerland.  The resultant film captures a year in the life of the children of mountain farmers. Reminiscent of Être et Avoir, Schmid conveys the passing of the year in the film’s hour and half duration by highlighting seasonal changes.  Starting in darkness, we hear children trudging through the snow, and see the flickers from the torches on their heads.  Calling out to each other as they assemble to travel to school together, they board a cable car, before embarking by minibus for the remainder of the journey, picking other children up along the way.  Very Être et Avoir.

There are numerous scenes of school life. Using Lego to visualise population changes in Romoos, the children are asked to consider the consequences of a falling population.  One consequence identified is that the bakery may have to close.  On a field trip, to the site of a charcoal pit, one boy warns his classmates about the dangers of falling in, the story he tells involves the recovery of a skeleton of someone who slipped into the pit. The boy then proceeds to walk around the edge of the pit as if to demonstrate the balancing skills that will, hopefully, prevent him from coming to a similar end.

At the school, in the Denkstube (Think Tank) the children speak direct to camera about their lives, offering knowledge, mainly about animals.  Although, sometimes this is not immediately apparent:

“There are some that are really not good-looking.  And others always turn into Miss, already when they’re little. ‘Miss’ is the best-looking.  For example: she has a strong pelvis, a straight back and the udder grows nicely on the belly.”

Outside of school, the almost idyllic scenes of children working on family farms is contrasted by reports of the wolf that haunts the Napf.  Along with the scenes of children and animals retreating from the impending lightning storm.  The seasons turn, we are in winter again, surrounded by snow and so the film ends where it started.

School Swap – The Class Divide

School Swap, ITV’s quasi-documentary series concluded last night. Described as an ‘unique experiment’ (it was neither) the series saw pupils from a private and a state school swap places.  In the first episode three pupils from the private Warminster School in Wiltshire travel to Derby to spend a week attending lessons at The Bemrose School.  In the second episode three pupils from Bemrose spent a week boarding at Warminster.  The swap is designed to highlight the contrasts between the two types of schools and despite ITV claiming it to be ‘unique’ is actually a well rehearsed TV format (for example in the 1980’s the BBC’s Forty Minutes broadcast the feature Changing Places which saw pupils from Rugby School exchanging places with Ruffwood, a comprehensive in Kirkby near Liverpool) and one that endures, along with social class and educational inequalities.

By highlighting the apparent success of the private sector there was an implication that the state sector is deficient in comparison.  This framing of the problem of the ‘educational divide’ serves to set up the private sector as offering solutions to the challenges faced by  state schools, and in so doing diverts attention from the pervasive problems of an unequal society.  Analysis of the assumptions and ideas presented were thin on the ground.  For example, the identification of ‘white working class boys’ as underachieving is a gross oversimplification which is supported in some discourses by the conflation of ‘Free School Meals’ with ‘working class’. It also diverts attention from the underachievement of pupils from Black backgrounds.  In the interviews with the Bemrose pupils at Warminster a positive attitude to the school dress code was considered to be a worthy moral position, but this position can be problematised as being an example of how pupils are socialised into conformity or belonging to the group (a good start would be to read some Durkheim or Bowles and Gintis).

While the series was sub-titled The Class Divide, there was little analysis of the ways in which social class might shape educational experiences and outcomes, and this was revealed in some of the problematic statements from both headteachers, which one would have expected to have been challenged in a documentary. From the Head teacher of Warminster there was a denial that contacts helped to improve the life chances of its students, which is to ignore the powerful influences of different forms of social capital for educational outcomes and life chances.  From the headteacher of the Bemrose School there was an expression of the belief that “education is the key to unlocking the inequalities in society”, yet education systems have a social purpose, are shaped by the society in which they exist and thus may serve to reproduce social inequality, rather than challenge it.  At the end of the series we learn that Brett from Bemrose has been offered a funded place at Warminster, but there was no explanation of why Brett was singled out for the offer. Twitter users responded by offering congratulations.  If he chooses to accept, Brett may well benefit, but benevolent scholarships are not the answer to inequalities in education.

This was documentary lite.  It is more interesting to see how the debate is framed than for anything it reveals about social class and educational inequalities and solutions to this injustice.  Please, read some Bourdieu, some Durkheim, Ball…

İki Dil Bir Bavul

Translated into English as Two Languages, One Suitcase, otherwise known as On the Way to School this is a fly-on-the-wall documentary directed by Orhan Eskiköy and Ozgür Dogan.  Over the course of an academic year we follow teacher Emre Aydın in his  first teaching job in a school in a remote Kurdish village, Demirci, in South East Turkey.  On arrival Emre is shocked by the lack of running water, and we see him setting off to fetch supplies aided by a young boy who arrives on scene to help him with carrying the containers.   We soon find that a lack of ready water is only one of the challenges facing Emre.  While  the water issue is tackled by the locals drilling a hole, assisted by Emre who learns some Kurdish words in the process, we are presented with the other day to day challenges that this new teacher faces.

Poster from İki Dil Bir Bavul from http://www.perisanfilm.com

When the doors of the school open at the beginning of term we see a sequence of shots showing an empty classroom set against that of Emre looking out beyond the school grounds surveying the landscape for the classroom’s absent pupils.  Faced with such poor attendance we then follow Emre as he is guided through the village by young boy, who acts as a Kurdish – Turkish interpreter, in search of the elusive pupils.  Pupils recruited, they are then crammed, sometimes four or more to a desk, into the small classroom. Like the school in Être et Avoir this is a single class school and children of all ages are taught together.  However, the challenge faced by Emre is vast as most of youngest children speak only Kurdish, while lessons are taught in Turkish.  Thus the film contributes to an understanding of the marginalisation of the Kurdish people and their language.

So, in this context Emre decides he must teach the pupils Turkish above anything else and as the youngest children learn to write by drawing zigzags the older children are set the tasks of memorising the Turkish oath.  Things don’t run smoothly however, and as some children persist with Kurdish, and struggle to comprehend Turkish, Emre manages his increasing frustration in the most productive way he can, by sending the children out to play.

The film shows us that Emre is isolated in a number of ways. The most obvious is through the representation of the language barrier, but in the the playground he is shown sitting on the wall, a distant figure while the children at play take the foreground of the scene.  His distance from his familiar world in the West of Turkey is also shown in the intimate scenes where he phones his mother to update and reassure her.

The film employs some conventions, along the lines of Être et Avoir  to indicate the passage of time.  For example the changing seasons and the transition from winter to spring are illustrated by the snow giving way to geese and goslings, the lack of coats on the children, and the appearance of greenery across the landscape.  But the coming of spring is also indicated by a more relaxed Emre and an improvement in the children’s reading of Turkish.

National Sovereignty and Children’s Day was celebrated on the 23rd April with a sack race and other collective expressions of Turkish identity.  It is worth noting that the establishment of a national Turkish education system, in turn designed to promote Turkish identity and citizenship, were influenced by French education as well as Durkheimian sociology (Gündüz 2009).

As with all fly-on-the-wall documentaries there is the question of whether İki Dil Bir Bavul is authentic (editing has necessarily taken place to condense the captured footage into  81 minutes). There is a narrative, a story being being told, about teacher Emre even though the context in which this story takes place is not staged (Çiçek, 2011). Though, as Çiçek (2011) discusses, this format is not popular form of documentary making in Turkey and that some critics may regard the film as ‘fiction’ in order not to not to have to address Kurdish marginalisation in Turkey.


References

Çiçek, Ã. (2011) ‘The fictive archive: Kurdish filmmaking in turkey’,  Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media, 1. [Online] Available at: http://cora.ucc.ie/handle/10468/659 [Accessed 15th February 2015]

Gündüz, M. (2009) ‘Sociocultural origins of Turkish educational reforms and ideological origins of late Ottoman intellectuals (1908–1930)’, History of Education, 38(2):191-216.

 

Être et avoir

This week’s screening on Film and Education was Être et Avoir, the 2002 award winning ‘fly on the  wall’ documentary directed by French film maker Nicolas Philibert.

Filmed across the course of a school year Être et Avoir tells a story (whose story it tells is a matter for discussion) of a single class, all-age primary school in the village of Saint-Étienne-sur-Usson, Puy-de-Dôme in the Auvergne region of France.   We witness the quiet dedication, concern and authority of Georges Lopez, the school’s teacher of twenty years as he approaches retirement.  We watch the children learning to write, sledging, flipping pancakes, supporting each other, pushing one another over, as well as falling out and making up.  At times the intrusion into this intimate space becomes uncomfortable when the camera focuses our attention on the emotional distress experienced by some of the children. The observation style briefly deviates when Lopez, tending the school’s garden (it is also his home), turns to the camera, and in an interview style tells the story of him becoming a teacher.

Être et Avoir is a distinctly French film, not only because it is French, but because, as Powrie (2005) discusses it reflects recent French cinema’s concern with the preadolescent child as potential victims of dysfunctional families and failing state institutions. Also, it would be difficult to take the nurturing, intimate, often tactile, yet clearly asexual relationship between the male Lopez and the children in his care and place it into an English primary school.  This taps into another idea discussed by Powrie; that of the theme of retrospection and heterospection as seen in the spaces we view the children inhabiting.  For example, the film presents a rural idyll, resonating with freedom, supporting a nostalgic and romantic vision of childhood (Aitken, 2007).   The outside shots show the cycle of seasons, suggesting, simultaneously, continuity and discontinuity.  The same seasonal cycle is reflected in the life of the school, the transition of the older children is a disruption, yet a new intake introduced towards the end of the film highlights continuity.  However, we are also shown contrasting spaces where children inhabit more of an adult world.  For example, we see Julien reversing a tractor on the family farm, and later cooking for his siblings. He is, as Lopez says ‘strong as an ox’, but this does not stop him assuming responsibility of caring for young members of his family.  The freedom associated with the open space is inverted, briefly, when we see the search for Alizée, seemingly lost in a field. We are reminded that open spaces are mysterious, disorientating, and that freedom is potentially risky.

Student responses to the screening included, amongst other comments, that it was ‘boring’,  and that ‘nothing happens’ but this is an effect which this example of cinematic ethnography has tried to achieve.  However, far from accurately representing the mundane reality of this small village school, être et avoir is a construction of reality, with ten weeks worth of filming condensed and packaged into a one-hundred minute DVD.  Lopez and the children may be ‘stars’ of the film, but the film may not represent their stories.

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La Educación Prohibida

La Educación Prohibida or Forbidden Education is a documentary film released earlier this year.

Independently produced by a group of young students and graduates, collectively funded via crowdfunding, La Educación Prohibida interviews over ninety professionals and specialists in the areas of education and human development across Latin America and Spain, exploring a range of pedagogical models.  The film is freely distributed under a creative commons license and is in Spanish/Castellano with subtitles available in several languages, including English.   It is available to download from www.educacionprohibida.com, as well as itunes. The film is also available on youtube with or without subtitles.

La Educación Prohibida begins by highlighting the importance of education as recognised by the media, philosophers, experts and governments.  With such an importance placed on education, the film sets out to consider the extent to which schooling helps us to develop both individually and collectively.

The film is divided into ten key themes in which the history of schooling is discussed, and the functions and limitations of typical schools are examined before moving on to an exploration of alternative curriculum models. Interspersed between interviews is a drama focusing on a student campaign to declare education in their school ‘forbidden’.  There are also some impressive animations and graphics to illustrate key points.

While La Educación Prohibida is focused on Latin America, the discussions apply to ongoing debates on the purposes of schooling and education in the UK. Optimism about the future of education is maintained, the film aims to “reunite schooling with education” with this presented as not only desirable, but entirely possible.

It is refreshing to see a non-English language film tackling issues that are as pertinent to the UK.  It is also good to see a well produced documentary that is a collective, non-profit endeavour.  At almost two and half hours this documentary is long,especially if you need to read the English subtitles.  A second viewing, at least, is needed to engage further with the discussion.

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Educating Essex

A new series, Educating Essex begins on Channel 4 this week.  It is the latest in a recent trend of ‘fly on the wall’ school documentaries, such as Jamie’s Dream School, or Gareth Malone’s Extraordinary School for Boys.    Some of these documentaries have been predicated on the belief that schools are failing at least some of their pupils, presenting dramatic, over simplified solutions.  In contrast, Passmores Academy, the subject of  Educating Essex has been judged outstanding by Ofsted.   According to Vic Goddard, the head teacher of Passmores, part of the reason he gives for allowing the cameras in, is to give people an insight into what really goes on in a “normal school”.

The series promises to capture some of the mundane reality of a comprehensive school, and Vic Goddard is no doubt correct in his prediction that some people will not like what he and his team are doing.  He appears to be genuinely committed to dealing with the everyday challenges his school faces, while aiming at positive outcomes for all Passmores’ pupils. This series should be a reminder we don’t need to look to celebrity endorsed quasi-experiments to find caring committed teachers who can make a difference.