01 March 2008

Grizzly Children of Men in America

All students assume that a teacher who shows a movie in class needs to have a break. In this case, students will respond predictably by ignoring the movie (that is, by sleeping or texting through it). Teachers who are wont to use movies as breaks from dealing with class expect this since their relaxation is the primary reason for the movie. They will show any movie they happen to have handy from The Lion King to Fried Green Tomatoes. This is especially common just before a vacation.

I will admit that I have spent the last three weeks showing three movies to my seniors. While I did not need a break from dealing with them as human beings, I did need a break from dealing with them as readers. For some reason, these seniors are some of the most reluctant readers I've dealt with in my 20 year career. So far this year we have painfully managed to complete Hamlet and Things Fall Apart (in addition to a research project in between). Aside from their seemingly random, too-rare flashes of interest, I come away from spending days, weeks dragging students through books frustrated, tired and depressed. Worse yet, I find it hard to remember why I liked the book so much in the first place. Therefore, I created a small film unit of three significant movies: Grizzly Man, Children of Men and In America. Each reinforces and elaborates on a very loose theme we've been following about how humans deal with their society.

When I began the unit, I had no real idea of how the kids would react to the movies. By nature a realist (pessimist??) I predicted they would tolerate the movies but not really like any of them. I thought they would find Grizzly Man too strange and slightly boring (it is a documentary, after all). I thought they would find Children of Men too difficult. I thought they would find In America too quiet and PG-13. Little did I know.

No book, no field trip, no classroom experience has achieved such consensus, and I have no idea why. While students had a favorite movie of the three, all students told me they liked each movie. No exceptions. They all liked each movie.

Even stranger to me is their response during certain parts of the movies. Some, I predicted. I knew, for instance, that In Grizzly Man, they would love the part where Timothy Treadwell, in his strangely high voice, curses the hat-stealing fox. That and where he curses out the National Park Service.

In Children of Men, I predicted they would enjoy the violence, as in the scene in the car towards the beginning. And they did. But the universal cries of despair at the seemingly unclear ending were a surprise.

I had no predictions for In America, however, except that I didn't think they'd like it. First, it's PG-13 whereas the other two are rated R. Second, it's a quiet movie, the most touching, two qualities my occasionally raucous 12th-graders usually seem to lack. Nevertheless, it was deemed the favorite movie of the three.

At various points during the movie, I could hear my otherwise tough, old-beyond-their-years students sniff and stifle their crying. Some actually went for the tissue box on my desk. They gasped in disbelief when the two little girls continued to pound on Mateo's door during their first Halloween experience. Most interesting to me, however, was the universal reaction during the arcade scene when Johnny bets the rent money in order to win an ET doll for his daughter. As if it were the most graphic, blood-spattered scene in a teen slasher movie, they sat, hands over their eyes, unable to watch the horror unfold. The whispers resonated in the room: "Oh, no, he's not going to do that!" "Stop! Just stop now!" "She don't care if you win the doll!" "Dang! No, no!"

They even appreciatively watched the bonus feature describing the making of the movie.

So where did this experience leave me? It left me dreading having to teach more books. It left me wondering why books can't elicit the same appreciation, the same satisfying feeling of an experience shared.

Nevertheless, reality kicked in yesterday during class discussions of the three movies, a debriefing of the experience, in preparation for writing about them. Despite my initial perception that all students liked all movies, the reality was that probably half of any class saw all of all three movies. But they liked the bits and pieces they saw, for sure. So it was sad, but no surprise, when I found myself overhearing small group discussions that attempted to fill in the lousy attendance gaps: "So, the guy in Children of Men, Timothy, right? He lived in New York City. He was in the junkie apartment and his son died. The woman in the boat named her baby after his son."


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