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What We Can Learn About Teacher Accountability and Motif from Man on Fire and the Child Savior
December 5, 2011 by | Posted in English, Movies

The other day I read a headline across the front page of the L.A. Times, something about the public demanding teachers be held accountable for the progress of their students. As if. As if most of us do not hold ourselves accountable for every assignment and every young person in our classrooms. As if we do not hold ourselves accountable for the condition of the desks and the trash left on the floor and the interest level of the posters that line the walls. As if we do not hold ourselves accountable for factoring into our perception of each student the various life experiences each brings into the room at the ring of the tardy bell.

Accountability is in the mind of every teacher at all times.

So I ran a test on myself in terms of my alleged accountability. Here’s what I discovered:

Over the years, I have tried to get the kids to open their minds to the ideas of Joseph Campbell, the myths that inform our thoughts and actually underlie even physical reality. I want them to know that idea, thoughts, are everything; they lie at the heart, not only of literature, science and history, but daily reality and I can best do this with a 20 minute snippet of a film they already know and love. That’s big. I will hold myself accountable for that.

The snippet I show comes from a fine film, too violent to use in its entirety, but perfect to hold the kids attention: Man on Fire. In this film Denzel Washington plays a disillusioned, guilt ridden man who regains self respect and a sense of peace through a relationship with a child, played by Dakota Fanning. The first 20 minutes of this film clearly illustrates what may be called the Child Savior Myth, best defined as the idea that children offer adults a return to the innocence that is the source of beauty and love in life. Or something like that.

After I recently showed the snippet to a scrappy group of students who have had a history of failing their English classes, I had reason to see that, in terms of accountability, that my lesson was a huge success. I felt accountable for the fact that Lupe sauntered into the classroom and bragged about how she pointed out the Child Savior in a television show her parents were watching. Edward asked, during class, if politicians kiss babies to show they have been saved. Lindsay said she explained the whole thing to her mother as together they unwrapped the ornaments used to display a Christmas scene, the center of which is the baby Jesus.

The lesson I wanted my students to learn, that a myth is an idea that shapes perception of reality, was hammered into the minds of these students in a snippet of a film far more dramatically than through a short story or a novel. Since they love movie-time and are inclined to pay attention, I can teach the entire lesson in one class period and I don’t have to spend time struggling against hidden cell phones and iPods. Then when I do assign reading, I can ask them to ignore type size and how many pages they will (grudgingly) read; I tell them to simply look for how a child’s innocence will save the day.

Once in a while, I assign the more interested students to follow up this lesson with an extra credit assignment: See the film Harold and Maude and write an essay in which you illustrate the reversal of the child savior myth. Maude, the old woman, restores through her childlike innocence, Harold who, although still a child, has become embittered, cynical and sad. Very good film.

I admit, this is not exactly Joseph Campbell, but it’s a good start. And in terms of accountability, I’m hot. Take that, L.A. Times.

The snippet lesson for the film Man on Fire is available. Click here.



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7 Responses to “What We Can Learn About Teacher Accountability and Motif from Man on Fire and the Child Savior”

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