kitchen table math, the sequel: Entre les murs

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Entre les murs

photo: 'Every day I was playing a role'
by Stuart Jeffries
The Guardian, Friday 20 February 2009

I saw the beginning and the end of Entre les Murs ("The Class") on our flight home; will have to buy the DVD to watch the rest. Since the DVD isn't out, looks like I'm ordering the book.

From The Guardian:
The Class ... depicts a convincingly multicultural bunch of schoolkids. The film is refreshing, too, in that the teacher isn't overlord but hobbled prey, brought down or at least humbled by the wit and cunning of his (perhaps rather fancifully) articulate students. They subvert his lessons, for instance, arguing (with some justice) that no one in modern France needs to know the imperfect subjunctive, and use his classes to fight out ethnic rivalries.

But there are delightful moments. In one, a student teasingly asks the teacher if he's gay. "That really happened to me," says Bégaudeau, "and I was so pleased when it did, so I could turn the presumed insult back on the student. So I said: 'No, I'm not gay, but what's it to you?' I wanted to nail his homophobic perspective," Bégaudeau giggles. "That said, when you're 15 you use anything you can to mock someone else, so to call a fellow student a homo or a teacher a paedo isn't really a big problem. It's aimed at getting a reaction, so the teacher must try not to give the student what they want."

Ironically, the film's pivotal moment1 comes when Bégaudeau himself uses abusive language to his students. He calls two girls who have challenged his authority "petasses" (translated in the subtitles as "skanks"). It's a shocking moment: the teacher has lost it so badly that he resorts to offensively adolescent abuse. Never are we further in the film from the Robin Williams model of celluloid pedagogy; never has an authority figure in the classroom been so painfully exposed.

"That really happened to me, too. I called some girls that word. I regretted it immediately, but I felt so betrayed by them." In life, as in the film, the two girls were class representatives at a disciplinary hearing for a boy who risked expulsion for his unruly behaviour in class. What angered Bégaudeau was that they blabbed the hearing's findings to the boy, when their role as class representatives demanded their discretion.
For anyone who has even a glancing acquaintance with learning theory, Direct Instruction, precision teaching, Vicki Snider,2 Karen Pryor, John Taylor Gatto, or KIPP, the film is as appalling as it is riveting.

First of all, the students, age 13 to 15, are fantastically under-educated through no obvious fault of their own. From what I could see, M. Marin's teaching is atrocious.

And second, although it's not right to characterize the teacher as "hobbled prey" -- he gives as good as he gets, which is part of the problem -- no one in the school has the faintest concept of what effective classroom management is or what achieving it entails. At one point the teachers assemble for a staff meeting at which a new idea is presented for consideration: because discipline problems have increased, some teachers have come up with a plan to give students 6 points at the beginning of the school year and then progressively take points away after each infraction.

Astonishingly, a parent representative - a mother - is present for this discussion. Even more astonishingly, she is no baker of cupcakes. Frowning darkly, she tells the assembled staff that the 6-point scheme is typical of the school: you set the children up for failure and then you punish them.

Her observation sinks like a stone, and the 6-point idea is eventually abandoned after a protracted argument between two of the teachers over whether it is or is not a good thing to exercise flexibility when enforcing the rules. Which is better: judicial discretion or mandated sentencing? That is the question that lights their fire. Talk about a thoughtworld.

Unfortunately for the kids, the parent rep has nailed it. One of the film's many virtues is that it makes the connection between bad teaching and bad behavior 3 somewhat transparent, although that is not the intent. Given what we see of classroom instruction (we see quite a lot), the school seems almost designed to produce maximum failure, and a number of the students appear -- to me, at least -- to be living in a state of something close to open revolt, as well they might: it is a hopeless situation. Virtually no member of the staff appears to give any thought to whether students are ready to learn the material being taught in class, or to whether, after the material has been taught, students have actually learned it. Nor is the central character troubled by his inability to answer student questions. Toward the end of the protracted contest between teacher and class over the imperfect subjunctive & whether anyone uses it in real life (teacher's answer: "snobs" do), one of the quiet students (there are a lot of quiet students) asks how they can know when to use formal language in written communication and when to use informal.

The teacher's answer: it's hard to say. Students will have to develop "intuition" re: formal vs informal language, and their intuition will tell them when to use what. This is not a short answer, by the way. It is quite a long answer. Which makes the follow-up all the more exasperating for you, the helpless viewer: when the teacher finally wraps it up, a second student (another of the quiet ones) asks, "What is intuition?"

I guess the teacher couldn't have seen that one coming since, as I recall, his explanation of intuition is equally useless.

More from The Guardian:

The Class ends on the last day of the school year. All the students but one have left the classroom. Then a girl who viewers have scarcely seen before approaches M Bégaudeau's desk and says: "Sir, I didn't learn anything from your class." "It is a heartbreaking scene. We got her to do it again and again and on each take it got sadder and sadder. Everyone on the shoot was miserable by the final take.

"I think, to be honest, that scene shows how schoolchildren know how to get under your skin, how to say the words that shatter your world. She probably did learn something, but she wanted to hurt me, for whatever reasons.

My memory of this scene as it appears in the film is different:4 I think what the girl actually says is that she hasn't learned anything from any of her teachers, and she is afraid -- terribly afraid -- she will have to go to vocational school, which she doesn't want to do. She is insistent on both points, and, yes, the scene is sad.

The teacher greets this revelation as another challenge to his authority and, as is his way, attempts to argue the point: the girl can't possibly have learned nothing in an entire year of school, he says.

As for me, I was thinking just the opposite. I was finding it miraculous that any of these kids had learned anything in 11 years of schooling.5

You can watch a clip here.

francophile on the film & on differences between French & English schools

1 the scene I missed...
2 education needs a "science of teaching"
3 "the heart of successful behavior management is good instruction" Mary Damer & Elaine McEwan
4 you can read the original on page 162 of the book
5 Children in France attend school by age 4.


Barry Garelick said...

Welcome back!

Speaking of movies about school, you might want to check out this five minute video at dy/dan's blog

In his talk about teaching math, he advocates that we should "Be less helpful". (It's around the 4 minute 30 sec mark or thereabouts.)

It seems to me that it sounds like he's saying "make the student struggle", "don't hand it to the student". Nah! I'm probably just imagining things as usual. I'm sure he couldn't possibly have meant it that way.

SteveH said...

A five minute speech is tough, but I guess his main idea as a teacher is "Be less helpful". (I don't know what on earth he was saying about citizenry. That was scary.)

Although I would agree that students need to work on less well-defined problems, what percentage of class time or problems are we talking about here? Most of K-12 math is about mastery of the basics. I can't imagine that he is proposing to be less helpful in that area. Most kids have enough struggle with typical homework sets.

Ben Calvin said...

Nice critique! I haven't seen it, but I've heard a couple of interviews and read some accounts of the film.

I think you're addressing it from a perspective that doesn't even occur to the film makers. And that's the problem in a nutshell, right?

Fer*Cambe said...

Yeah I watched the movie too Catherine and really loved it. I think that while I loved certain themes in the movie, certain stories, what I loved best is that it was a glimpse of the closed circuit-ness of a school year. The beginning, the middle, the end. Just a weird structure where problems is not solved are ended and transferred to the following year.

I really got that feeling from les murs, apart from everything else you wonderfully sum up here.

rocky said...

I thought the whole idea behind teaching (or progressive lifting) was to start at some level that can be done easily about 80-90% of the time, and then add a little more.

I couldn't just throw one of those tune-up problems to the kids without any warning. I would first make sure they could do the basic rate equation:

days = (miles/day) miles

and know how to make a table of first-of-the-month -> day-of-the-common-year:

(jan, 1), (feb, 32), (mar, 60), ...

and convert back and forth between dates and day-of-year, adjusting for leap years.

Once they have the pieces, they are ready for the challenge. Or am I being "too easy" on them? Sure I would like to see them break a big problem down and do it all, but I'm afraid they will get discouraged if they don't know where to start.

rocky said...

Aw, fooey. I did it wrong again.

days = (days/miles) miles

Maddy said...

Thank you. I thoroughly enjoyed that.

It makes me realise how long it's been since I went out and saw a decent film. Still there's always TIVO or we could rent it or I could just give myself a good kick into gear and leave the house!

Catherine Johnson said...

The film is fantastic -- amazing.

But SOOOOO frustrating!

My copy of the book came & it's about the same size & shape as the KIPP book (Work Hard. Be Nice.) I think I'm going to keep them on my desk side-by-side.

Entre les murs is the anti-KIPP!

Catherine Johnson said...

I think you're addressing it from a perspective that doesn't even occur to the film makers.

It's a little hard to say - which is one of the things that makes the film so effective, I think.

There's a bit of an "unreliable narrator" effect -- ?

Catherine Johnson said...

"be less helpful"


Catherine Johnson said...

There's a fabulous moment in the film where Esmeralda, the lippy, not-pretty, turns-out-to-be-smart girl, asks a question of the teacher who asks it right back at her.

She says, "I wouldn't have asked you if I knew the answer."

Barry Garelick said...

I haven't seen the film, but it sounds like the type of film where audiences (who don't know what they don't know) say "What a great teacher; I wish my kids had a teacher like that." Is this assessment correct?

It reminds me of the treatment of an alternative school in "For Jonah Who Will be 25 in the Year 2000" There are brief segments showing questions kids are asked to think about in the alternative school--pure fluff and philosophical nonsense, but the type of stuff audiences think is what education should be about. Like the thousands of students who read Summerhill in the 60's and thought this was the manifesto to follow. And unfortunately, many did.

Catherine Johnson said...

I've never seen "Jonah"!

I remember reading about it...

Anonymous said...

I just discovered the movie, sent by my daughter who, after spending 15 of her younger years in the US has decided to move back to France. I wonder what she thinks about that movie.

The movie kept me on my toes. I felt frustrated and angry all along. I found it extraordinarily ironic, toward the end, when the teacher asks Esmeralda about her readings and she said she read Plato's"Republic". For me, that detail is the key to the story. What a difference it would have made if the teacher had gone more than halfway trying to apply Socrates's teachings.
This movie, even if it may be unrealistic at times (I don't know), put the educational system under the magnifying glass and it is pretty frightening. How can we call our kids on respect if we don't even think it necessary to show them respect? The girls are absolutely right to be shocked by the teacher's comment about Souleymane being "limited" and I agreed with them that this should be discussed in class. But the teacher doesn't see what he is doing. He doesn't even see for one second that it may be appropriate for him to apologize. And it's not because he is a bad man, or stupid, but because he seems to be constantly trying to break out of his own conditioning and doesn't really know how to. He seems to be using his head a little more than the other teachers. He tries hard, very hard. But he fails big time. That this movie is so close to what really happens today. The last scene is even more poignant because it shows life as if nothing had happened, teachers and students playing soccer together as to show that we all get along after all, as long as we keep burying our heads into the sand while another human being's life is being thrown to the thrash. I am curious to read the book, I want to know what kind of transformation, if any, the teacher-become-acteur has undergone from the experience.