Interview: Davis Guggenheim of ‘Waiting for Superman’

Posted on October 17, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Waiting for Superman” is the stunning new documentary from Davis Guggenheim about the failures of our public school system and our failure as a society to support outstanding teachers. You can help by pledging to see the movie — if you buy tickets online you will get a free download of “Shine” from John Legend and the Roots album “Wake Up,” and the film-makers will donate five books to kids in need. Guggenheim is the son of pioneering documentarian Charles Guggenheim and the husband of Oscar-nominated actress Elisabeth Shue. I spoke to him about the public schools, what he recommends, and his own favorite teacher.

Did you have a favorite teacher?

My 10th grade history teacher, Harvey LeJure. There’s an animated film where I talk about how he changed my life. I was a terrible student, a C- student, and there were a couple of teachers who pulled me out of my funk and taught me that I had something to say. I would not be a film-maker without them.

A Conversation with Davis Guggenheim from TakePart on Vimeo.

Why is it that most of us have just one or two great teachers in our lives?

All it takes is a couple. That magic won’t happen with every teacher. But the movie is about how we have to have really great teachers in every classroom.

Do we put too many administrative burdens on teachers that interfere with their ability to teach?

What we need is a pipeline of great teachers. We need to recruit the very best, train them really well, develop the good ones, reward them really well, and the few that are ineffective, we have to find them another job. We don’t do any of those steps very well. We tend to treat teachers like widgets, just plug them in like they are all the same. Countries like Finland who are kicking our butts, number one in every category, they have a great program for great teachers. And that’s the exciting thing. It’s not some magic; it’s about having a commitment to making great teachers in this country.

What can we do to make teaching a more prestigious job?

We do have a prestige deficit. In Finland, teachers are held in the highest regard. We need to start treating teachers like a profession, holding them to the highest standard, rewarding the really good ones, we can make a difference. Teachers will feel better about themselves and we will feel better about them. Unfortunately now we have a factory mentality; anyone who wants to get a credential can. We have to hold them to a higher standard and then they will get more respect, more money, and more prestige.

Your film features Geoffrey Canada, whose extraordinary success is in part based on his ability to get the support of the parents. How important is that?

A big piece of the puzzle is parent involvement, and teachers will tell you they need parents to be good partners. But this new generation of reformers says, “We can no longer use parents as an excuse.” Yes, it’s a problem and we should give schools and neighborhoods more support. What you can see in these schools is that even in the toughest neighborhoods we can go in and send 90 percent of those kids to college. The exciting thing is that it is possible.

Do we ask too much of teachers by giving them students with such widely different levels of achievement and learning styles?

The problem of our system is that it is designed to educate a few. Even in the white suburban neighborhoods where you buy a million dollar house to get into the good school district, those schools are built for the top 10-15 percent. We now are in an economy where everyone needs the education and skills to be a good worker. The big truth is that our skills are built for a 1950’s model where you’re only going to educate a few.

How do you create a system with enough flexibility to be performance based in evaluating teachers but not too much to allow for abuse and favoritism?

We tend to swing from one extreme to the other. We’re in the extreme now where we don’t evaluate our teachers very well at all. The other extreme is just looking at scores and blind to the nuance and art of great teaching. But there is a big, thoughtful discussion on how to do that. Maybe 50 percent on test scores and another chunk of how the other teachers see you and another from a principal visit. But the other alternative is no evaluation at all and keeping everyone in the job. We have to have a thoughtful way of assessing our teachers with scores a piece of it but other observations another piece.

Your film features DC school head Michelle Rhee, who announced her resignation this week.

I’m worried about the kids in D.C. Just because the mayor and chancellor change doesn’t mean the kids change. I hope whoever replaces her continues to make the tough choices that put kids first.

Why are documentaries having such a flowering? There are several this year on education alone and many others that are attracting a lot of attention.

The other genres of movie-making seems to be stuck in a rut, but documentaries are exploding. They’re growing, they’re blossoming, many different types. People are turning to documentaries because they are not getting answers elsewhere. They’re frustrated with the mainstream press. They’re frustrated that these stories are not being told. These movies speak to them. They are inspired by the stories of the families in the movie, and by buying a ticket to become part of a movement that is changing our schools. They can disagree with some of what we say, but it is a catalyst for real change.

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Directors Documentary Interview

Protecting Kids and Teens from Bullies

Posted on October 11, 2010 at 9:51 am

A tragic series of suicides has put the spotlight on bullying and other forms of peer abuse of kids and teenagers. It has also prompted the It Gets Better project on YouTube from columnist Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller, who have posted a video telling LGBT teens who are getting picked on that it will get better for them and that support and resources are available. They have invited others to participate and the videos from celebrities like Tim Gunn and Ellen DeGeneres as well as individuals who just want to share their stories and their support are extraordinarily generous, touching, inspiring, and meaningful. The Trevor Project is a hotline for LGBT kids who need someone to talk to. On its website are messages of help and hope from “Glee’s” Chris Colfer and “Harry Potter’s” Daniel Radcliffe.

Today is National Coming Out Day and everyone can participate by coming out for dignity, equality, and rejoicing in the diversity of ideas, perspectives, talents, and beliefs that unite us as humans as much as our shared commitments and experiences.

Vince Vaughn has just agreed to take a gay joke out of the trailer of his new film, “Dilemma.” It is not clear whether it will remain in the film. What’s interesting is that even the the brief clip, the joke is explicitly not related to any person’s sexuality — it is a reference to an electric car. Vaughn’s character makes it clear that he is using “gay” not to mean homosexual but to mean overly careful and concerned about one’s impact on the rest of the world — while in this movie as in others the “bromance” element is more likely to read as gay to the audience. While publications like The Globe and Mail decry Vaughn’s backing down (they might say it is “so gay” to worry about the sensitivity of the audience in making a crude, dumb joke), it seems to me that this is on the contrary a triumph of freedom of speech. After Anderson Cooper and others responded to the trailer with their objections, Vaughn made the decision that the joke was creating more problems than it was worth. I am hoping Vaughn’s experience will help make it clear to impressionable teens that “that’s so gay” and “no homo” references cannot be separated from their bigoted foundation.

I was also very encouraged by the wonderful “no makeup Tuesday” program at a Texas high school, a powerful message of acceptance and the recognition of true beauty. I’d love to see it go nationwide.

I’d love to hear your ideas and experiences to prevent bullying and harassment and build support in your community.

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Commentary Teenagers

Interview: ‘The Lottery’s’ Madeleine Sackler

Posted on June 27, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Too many children and too few spots — that is the story of The Lottery, a heart-wrenching documentary from Madeleine Sackler, the story of four children hoping to be the among the fortunate few chosen for admission to New York City’s best-performing public schools. The consequences of a random selection can be life-changing for the better or worse and can affect the entire family. Will the child become an active, engaged learner open to opportunity? Or will the child be condemned to a school system weighed down by bureaucracy and a structure that puts the interests of teachers over those of students? And it is a poignant contrast to Nursery University, the documentary about the scramble for New York City’s most sought-after preschools.

I spoke to director Madeleine Sackler about making the film and what she learned.

How did this film come together?

There were really two reasons I decided to make the film. The first was a statistic I read a few years ago out of New Haven that 17% of kids were at grade level. And there’s a school downtown serving the same kids that had 71%. And then several years later I saw footage of the lottery that we ended up featuring in the film and I realized that there were so many parents trying to get their kids into a better school and I became interested in telling that story.

How do you describe your style as a documentarian?

I really like cinema verite films. The director of photography I was fortunate enough to work with had shot some of my favorite verite films like “Children Underground.” The way that the stories are told without narration poses unique challenges for the filmmaker. Initially that was what the whole film was going to be, a portrait of four families. We encountered all of this political controversy surrounding the school that they wanted and I couldn’t ignore that but that meant we had to include more narration than we originally planned.

I was happy to see Geoffrey Canada in the film because I am interested in his work.

He’s an amazing guy and his schools are phenomenal. The three school leaders, Geoffrey Canada, Eva Moskowitz, and Dacia Toll, that are featured in the film have almost 30 schools between them. There are good charter schools and bad charter schools but these leaders show that their schools can be replicated. The point is not whether the school is charter or not, but that some people have demonstrated that they can make it work. Some people point to charter schools that aren’t as successful as a reason we should not have charters as an option but I do not understand that. No one wants to replicate bad schools. There are some school leaders that are willing and ready to open more schools that have a very successful track record.

What works?

There’s a few things that are consistent among higher-performing schools. The first is the use of data to drive both instruction and teacher and student evaluation. It’s exciting to watch because every few weeks kids can be moved around according to their achievement level. So the students are always achieving at the highest possible level. They’re not in groups with kids that are significantly behind. They often end up reading at one or two or more grade levels ahead which I think is exciting. And then school culture is something you cannot quantify but it is very noticeable at these schools. They are all very focused on high achievement, from working to get the parents on board to the teachers and students and administrators.

They do things like naming the classrooms after the university that the teacher went to and naming the grades the year that the kids will graduate from college. Instead of being in kindergarten, the student will be something like “Wesleyan 2024.” So they’re constantly working toward that goal.

It’s also the flexibility to hire and let go teachers, to lengthen the school day and the school year and to adjust the curriculum and instruction methods really at the drop of a hat if they see it isn’t working today they can fix it tomorrow.

What are the biggest obstacles to success in the regular school system?

There are some fantastic traditional public schools so it is possible, but the lack of flexibility makes it harder. Those rules have been shown not to lead to success. There are some fantastic traditional public schools, but those rules make it a lot harder and have not been shown to lead to success.

How can you address the problem of reaching parents to make education a priority for their children?

Involving the parents is something the high performing schools work very, very hard at. They don’t necessarily have a 100% success rate but that means they have to make up the difference. As a society it’s a moral obligation for us to give kids that opportunity. I talked to a lot of parents who were very frustrated with all of the rules and obligations, but then when their kids were reading before all of their friends’ kids, they were happy. People respond to results. But a study documented that it is the school that makes the biggest difference.

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Directors Documentary Interview

‘Humane’ Resource for Teachers

Posted on April 26, 2009 at 8:38 pm

The Institute for Humane Education is offering an online program for teachers
called Sowing Seeds Online. Humane education provides the knowledge, tools, and motivation to enable students to become engaged and fulfilled solutions for a peaceful and sustainable world. It is a month-long online course for secondary school teachers that begins on May 1, 2009.
Sowing Seeds Online provides teachers with an opportunity to dive into the issues of humane education, enliven their teaching, enrich their courses, and help their students become ever more engaged citizens.
* Teachers will develop new techniques and ideas to make their classes more rewarding, interesting, and meaningful.
* They will learn new strategies and develop tools and ideas for teaching about the most important issues of our time, while interacting online with other educators and the course advisors.
* Participants will receive a copy of The Power and Promise of Humane Education by Zoe Weil, President and Cofounder of the Institute for Humane Education.

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