Propaganda Films

I don’t normally waste much time in class. Kids come in, I kick off the lesson, it’s all go until the bell rings–maybe twice a month kids finish early and I let them quietly chat for 5 minutes at the end of class. I’m never sick, so the kids don’t lose a day of instruction with a sub. I don’t do warmups (buzzword: “do nows”) since it kills about 20 minutes of classtime to no avail. I don’t spend time on class-long come to Jesus meetings about behavior or student objectives. I don’t do posters (past Algebra I, anyway). Winged porcine creatures will look down upon the Common Core standards frozen solid in the Styx before I’ll spend a nanosecond teaching non-fiction in math class. My kids come in day after day and do math—or, as my evaluator wrote recently, “This is a business-like classroom where not a lot of student or teacher energy is spent doing tasks not related to the objectives for the day.”

So if I set aside maybe 6 hours a year for the class to watch movies, I figure I’m entitled to the time.

I feel no obligation to propagandize math, literature, or history to my classes. I’m fine if my kids hyperventilate at the mere thought of math, think Dickens and Shakespeare are tedious torture, or see no value in understanding the economic factors that led to the Civil War. (That goes triple for science, an opinion which could possibly have something to do with the fact that it’s the one subject I don’t teach.)

I am not fine with the fact that kids today automatically sneer at black and white movies, or indeed any “old” movie—and these are kids who think the first Die Hard is “old”. Consequently, I have for many years committed myself to increasing awareness of the great, near-great, or merely awesome movies of previous generations, making up for my students’ parents’ shocking neglect. In other words, I show movies in class for propaganda purposes: I want them to like “old” movies.

Long before I became a public school teacher, I was showing movies in my enrichment classes, a polite and entirely Asian group of 6-10 kids. I get more leeway and more patience from them, so was able to experiment with a broad range of movies:

Showing movies in public school means a tougher crowd; Rear Window was the only one that made the first cut. This movie’s golden; I can show it to any population and practically guarantee an enthralled and appreciative audience. I always start off by telling the kids that movies in earlier eras felt comfortable building a narrative first, that they should watch to see how the characters are established, where the narrative shifts happen (the scream, the dead dog), and how they will be covering their eyes in the last 20 minutes in a movie that doesn’t spill a drop of blood onscreen. It’s always a big hit.

My first year in teaching, I taught a great elective, Fifties Science Fiction Films—Lord, was that fun. Them! and Invasion of the Body Snatchers got a huge response, so I tentatively introduced them to my math classes. Them! has gotten a mixed response overall, though —some kids love the flame throwers and the ants, some go eh. But Invasion is another can’t fail hit, everyone loves it every time I show it.

Older films, alas, don’t have a lot of “color”, and for several years I’d been looking for an outstanding movie with significant non-white characters—and I mean genuinely outstanding, not a movie we pretend is great simply because it has non-white characters or a noble goal (e.g., I am unmoved by To Kill a Mockingbird, book and movie both, and think Gandhi is pretentious tripe). I found one last February, when I came across In The Heat of The Night. I’ve loved the movie since I was 13, but hadn’t seen it in a decade or more. It fits the ticket perfectly: a great movie with no significant sex, violence or language problems that far exceeds its makers’ simplistic vision. Listen to director Norman Jewison and star Sidney Poitier in the commentary and you’d think they’d made a tedious liberal tract about those meeeeeean, bigoted white folks in subhuman Mississippi. But in fact, the film is far more nuanced, with great perception about the Southern class system in its entirety—not just black and white, but poor white, working class white, and oligarchy white.

I usually give a little talk up front about the impact of the automated cotton picker on the Southern economy, the importance of bringing industry and jobs to the South, and the class system. I tell them that the star of the movie, Sidney Poitier, was the top box office star of that year, and was in three of the biggest movies that year—that when he makes his first appearance onscreen, the contemporary audiences knew exactly who he was, and that the star had shown up. I’ve shown it to 7 classes now, and they’ve all loved it.

So this year, my kids being so much easier than those of previous years, and having also thoroughly enjoyed Heat of the Night, I decided to take a chance at Christmas.

In early December, I told them that they’d get a test on Wednesday (the 19th), and then watch a movie on Thursday and Friday. In both classes (my math support class has a different routine),the conversation went like this:

“Is it a good movie, or black and white?”

“It’s not a good movie, but a great movie, and it’s black and white.”

“Awwww, that sucks.”

“Okay, we won’t do a movie then. Two more days of math! Cool!”


“Yeah, you know how it works. Watch the movies I want you to watch, or do math. Is the worst movie in the world worse than math?” I am not big on democracy, have I mentioned?

“Movie. Please? Please show us this apparently awesome black and white movie!”

“Okay. This is a famous movie, so even if you hate it—and you probably won’t—it’s the movie equivalent of reading To Kill a Mockingbird, except way better because TKAM is like vegetables.”

So by the time yesterday came around, they were primed. It was a movie, better than math, but not anything they’d otherwise see. Probably it would suck, but then, they thought that about the Heat movie, and it was good. So they were open to having their minds changed.


And glory be, they enjoyed it thoroughly. They laughed in all the right places, got deadly still during the family tension scene, and clapped at the end. I noticed more than one girl wiping away tears as the lights came back on, and more than one boy ostentatiously jostling around for his backpack, keeping his face down, while he recovered.

Yet another step. One day soon, I’ll risk Casablanca. Roger Ebert, I’m doing God’s Work.

About educationrealist

24 responses to “Propaganda Films

  • Roger Sweeny

    “I’m not convinced science as it’s taught today has any value at all in the classroom.”

    I’m curious why you say that. I teach science and have my own, um, views on the subject. What I’m really curious to know is why you think it has any less value that all other subjects “as they are taught today”–or to flip the question, why you think other subjects have value (and how much).

    Hmm. I’m not sure that can be done in 10,000 words or less.

    • educationrealist

      Well, I was kind of kidding. But if it were up to me, science courses would be converted to more content, more reading, less lab. Colleges say that lab science in high school is largely wasted, and most students neither enjoy it nor understand it. I’d like students to have far more choices in both science and history than they do now, and be required to take far fewer years of foreign language.

      • Roger Sweeny

        I find most of my students prefer labs to worksheets or problems or lectures. This may simply be because labs are different from what they get in other classes and it might no longer be true if the course was mostly lab–but right now they are disappointed if I answer “No” to the question, “Are we having a lab today?”

        Of course, that says nothing about how much they actually learn from the labs.

      • educationrealist

        Yeah. They aren’t learning much. And it’s half-assed anyway.

  • Bill

    It’s not black and white, but “The African Queen” is an all time great. I made my wife watch it and she loved it. I’m waiting for a poorly done remake with Harrison Ford.

  • Sharon Down

    For some reason, the embedded content didn’t come through on my machine and I couldn’t click on it to see what it was. What’s the name of the movie?

  • Hattie

    “I am not fine with the fact that kids today automatically sneer at black and white movies, or indeed any “old” movie—and these are kids who think the first Die Hard is “old”.”

    This is disturbingly close to my attitude. I personally torpedoed the older generation’s idea of watching Die Hard en famille on Christmas Day, because it was old. Perhaps not coincidentally, I can read long books but completely lack the attention span for any films. So maybe walking away from the current crap Hollywood is producing (and I *know* it’s crap) might be an idea.

  • 2013: Taking Stock and Looking Forward | educationrealist

    […] when I was a tutor, hour to hour. I’m not trying to win converts to any subject other than classic films. No hedgehog as a teacher, certainly. Teaching has given my writing focus and purpose; I have […]

  • Tony

    The Gary Cooper Beau Geste. The opening scene will have them hooked right away. Also, The Man Who Knew Too Much, I love what you’re doing.

  • malcolmthecynic

    Sometimes I stumble over old posts of yours and I feel like I have to comment!

    “It’s a Wonderful Life” is brilliant, easily the best holiday movie ever (speaking as a fan of the original “Miracle on 34th Street”).

    “Rear Window” was fantastic…right up until the disappointing ending, but everybody knows that by now, I guess. Still, certainly my favorite mystery movie.

    “Singing in the Rain” is very overrated. Some really, really great scenes, some really boring scenes (ugh, the love songs, kill me now…and the “gotta dance” sequence). “West side Story” isn’t black and white, but it’s an older movie and a better musical movie, if you get past yet another adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” that wildly misses the mark.

    Casablanca is, of course, amazing.

    You don’t like “To Kill a Mockingbird” at all?!?!?!? The movie is wildly overrated but the book is brilliant! For shame, and you call yourself an English teacher…

    • educationrealist

      The book is good, not brilliant, and the parts that are best are not the parts its celebrated for.

      Singin in the Rain, on the other hand, is brilliant and very funny. I just showed it ON REQUEST (I’m not making that up) to my recent pre-calc class, and they laughed greatly. I agree the Broadway Melody sequence is a bit much.

      Not sure what’s disappointing about the end of Rear Window.

      • malcolmthecynic

        We have this long mystery that’s resolved by the villain idiotically showing up at the end and dropping the main character out a window. What was clever about that?

        “To Kill a Mockingbird” has a slow first half but the second half is fantastic. Except the movie, which is just all overrated.

      • educationrealist

        He didn’t idiotically show up. He realized someone was watching him and called to see what house it was.

        Totally disagree. Opening is really the best part of the book. She does class far better than race.

      • malcolmthecynic

        Regardless, the ending was disappointing in that it wasn’t clever. It was abrupt and involved the villain doing something stupid (you have to admit that even if showing up wasn’t exactly dumb, dropping him out a window wasn’t the brightest thing in the world).

        The first half of the book was smart, it was just kind of boring, albeit with its moments. Yhe second half has more of those really smart moments

      • educationrealist

        Naw. In every case, the villain had acted quickly and decisively. He wasn’t particularly smart.

        And no, the entire book TKAM is designed to give English teachers a story they can use to preach and moralize simplistically about, and that’s exactly what Harper Lee wanted. The book’s best parts are despite her efforts, not because of them. Plus, I’ve always wondered if Capote actually wrote/edited the story, since his breakdown coincided with her never writing again.

      • malcolmthecynic

        Your theory about Capote is an interesting one…never really considered that idea.

      • educationrealist

        I can find no direct evidence for it, other than Capote himself strongly hinted at it (but he was a liar). But it’s a story that explains Lee’s failure to produce any other books.

  • surfer

    I think Casablanca and Singing in the Rain are both a little complex. I understand why the kids might get bored (me too). I’m not taking anything away from the movies or from your love of them, just don’t go A Bridge Too Far.

    Suggestions of accessible movies:
    *Bad Day at Black Rock (in color, slight racial angle; a lot like High Noon but simpler for a modern audience to engage with)
    *The Great Escape
    *(concur on West Side Story, a more accessible musical. A little hokey with the gang racial angle, but the kids will get it…and it is Romeo and Juliet)

  • surfer

    Lab science is overrated. Intuitively you would think it would drive understanding, but really it doesn’t. Chemical equations are pretty abstract concepts and so is kinematics. Even biology is more of an anatomy memory/classification game that benefits more from reading and essay tests.

    It’s just one of those things where the intuitive idea falls down (that practical teaches better than remote). I think it’s really because you are doing very different things, especially in chemistry. Lighting the Bunsen burner and connecting glassware is not practicing stoichiometry. Even titration is sort of a time sink, when you consider how many problems you could do versus the time in an experiment.

    Chemistry in particular is tough because it is so algebraic and because the things you are working with (elements) are less intuitive than cannonballs from physics or organs of the body from biology. Chemistry is word problems and logical arrangements from Hades.

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  • Abby

    As an English/math teacher, I love “It’s a Wonderful Life” (and read the short story “The Greatest Gift” on which it is based). Also for Sci-fi, we watch “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and the short story “Farewell to the Master” on which it is based.

    • educationrealist

      Hey, English and math! I might have a chance to teach English this year. Definitely teaching history. In addition to precalc, a2, and trig.

      You should read my post on Science Fiction Film festival. Search Mead (it starts an essay on Mead)

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