I’ve gotten my first parent objection, you guys!
It came in the form of this email, which I’ve doctored a bit to obscure the identity of the student in question:
Hi Ms. Chili,
As a parent and high school English teacher, I’m wondering what the thinking is behind having Daniel watch two movies within the first month of school (Last Samari & The Sixth Sense)–and how they relate to the reading curriculum? The usual protocol is that the showing of films–which are valuable–is pretty much a rarity. Dan is having a lot of anxiety about getting caught up/ “failing” (his word) English b/c of the 6th Sense assignment. He missed that while he was in the hospital, which I’m assuming was an excused absence. Is it possible that he be given time in school to watch the film–or that this particular assignment be waived? I’m sure, that if he had been given the choice, he would have much rather been in school to watch the movie instead of in the hospital undergoing a pretty invasive procedure.
What I WANTED to say was that, as an English teacher herself, shouldn’t this mom have been more aware of the work that her son was missing while he was in the hospital? This wasn’t an unexpected visit, either, but I never heard a word from either of them about what we could have done together to prevent him from getting so far behind in the first place. Additionally, I’m wondering exactly what the objection to watching a FILM would be. I know that film watching is MY favorite activity when I’m recuperating from something. I would think that watching and thinking about films would be easier to do from the couch than reading and writing essays, but maybe I’m wrong….
But I didn’t say any of those things, of course. Here’s what I DID say – after clearing it with my boss first, of course…
Dear Dan’s Mom:
I started the semester with a unit about personal growth and self-identification. I asked all of the students to watch The Sixth Sense at home because I wasn’t able to budget the class time for it (though believe me, if I’d had the time, I would have much preferred that we watch it together). I like that the film is accessible to students – the plot is interesting and engaging – and many of the elements of the film echoed quite nicely our discussions about self-discovery and coming into one’s own. The students remarked that communication with others was a crucial component in the film; indeed, in addition to it’s being integral to the plot of the story – the ghosts are just trying to communicate, after all – it’s also something that both of the main characters struggle mightily with as they make their own individual journeys. The students were also intrigued by the idea that while we often think of “self-discovery” as being a very solitary exercise, The Sixth Sense insists that our personal paths cannot be walked in isolation; we need the “other” in order to learn about ourselves.
We watched The Last Samurai in class as a group because I think that, of all the films I have in my personal library, this one is the most complex. I wanted to be available to them to talk through some of the more challenging and subtle references. My other reason for choosing this film is that it is also an extremely well-crafted example of a personal narrative, which was the main writing exercise for the unit. The main character is self-aware (a necessary component to self-discovery) and is keenly observant of not only the “other,” but also his relationship to that other. I was delighted by some of the connections the students were able to make to the chapter of “The Things They Carried” that we were able to read together in class, as well as their insights about how culture, faith, and political climates can influence how people think and behave. They were also keenly aware of what I would call racial distinctions – one or two students made the surprising assertion that Katsumoto’s vision of the white tiger in the opening of the film equated to the idea that Algren, a white man and clearly an outsider, could be just as much a samurai as a Japanese. It was a very, very fruitful exercise.
I absolutely believe that film can – and should – be viewed with the same critical eye that we try to teach students to use to see literature. I was hired at CHS with a mandate to teach critical thinking. I know that, for many of my students – and indeed for many young people today – most of the information they get about the world comes through visual sources. The internet, television, and movies are where students go to get their entertainment, information, and cultural references. While I don’t for a second discount the importance of the written word, I do recognize that, for the most part, my students would be more comfortable getting “into” English class if I gave them materials that they felt they had some mastery over. I’m asking them to do a lot of intellectual heavy-lifting, and I wanted to ease them into the work with materials – films, in particular – that wouldn’t feel threatening or overwhelming. Additionally, I recognize that utilizing a variety of media is crucial to reaching students with different learning styles. Visual and auditory learners in particular respond well to film, and it is important to me that all of my student feel they can access the material to the degree that the feel confident not only in accessing and applying the messages of these works, but in being able to speak and write intelligently about them, as well. I am painting this course with as broad a brush as I can, and film is a vital tool in my curriculum.
Now, that being said, I DO NOT want Dan to feel overwhelmed; if he would feel better watching the film on a laptop at school during his free period, that can certainly be arranged. I am not at all insensitive to his situation and I’d be happy to work with you and Dan, in conjunction with Ms. H and Ms. S, to get him to a point where he is not only caught up, but is also confident that he can do well in our class. At this point, however, he is technically “failing,” but only because he hasn’t offered me enough work to assess his capacity in the class (as of tonight, he is missing 10 of 18 graded assignments). I have no doubt that, once he’s established and hitting his proverbial stride, he’ll have no trouble with the work I’m asking the students to do.
If there’s anything else I can do for you, please don’t hesitate to contact me.