Too often, teachers close their doors and teach. This is not just a lonely approach to teaching; it reinforces bad pedagogy. For years, I invented lessons, practiced, praised, and criticized my teaching all alone. Of course, there were students present, and even when I didn’t formally ask for feedback and critique, they gave it — sometimes ruthlessly. Sure, an administrator wandered in once every other year, but that’s hardly an ongoing discussion about the practice of teaching.
So when teachers flock to see movies like Dangerous Minds or Stand and Deliver, I understand the pull. We want to peer in other teachers’ rooms and see why they are being applauded. What accounts for these teachers’ supposed brilliance in the classroom? What can we steal? What can we learn?
Dangerous Minds is a summer movie based on LouAnne Johnson’s book, My Posse Don’t Do Homework. The book jacket reads, “They were called the class from Hell — thirty-four inner-city sophomores she inherited from a teacher who’d been ‘pushed over the edge.’ She was told ‘those kids have tasted blood. They’re dangerous.’” The movie condenses the book’s timeline into one year and sets the high school in Palo Alto, where Michelle Pfeiffer, playing LouAnne, teaches a class of mostly Black and Latino kids. Johnson is “an ex-marine with an attitude” who, of course, believes in her students and dazzles and succeeds, where others have failed.
Although I liked Stand and Deliver better, Dangerous Minds does portray a growing reality that Stand and Deliver doesn’t — a white middle-class teacher in a community of color. For that reason, it’s worth examining and critiquing the teaching represented in the film.
As a white teacher in a school with a student population that is largely Latino and African American, LouAnne’s first obligation is to study the community, roam the streets, shop in neighborhood stores, attend services at local churches, read the community newspapers, eat in restaurants owned by her students’ families, find the writers, historians, artists, and activists who live among her students. She should talk with teachers, parents, students, and building administrators who could tell her about the school, the students, the world she has entered. In the best of situations, the school would provide this as a service to in-coming teachers; in the real world, first-year teachers must do this on their own.
But LouAnne doesn’t. Instead she imposes a white middle-class curriculum on her students. Certainly, she does this without malice, because she apparently doesn’t know about the cultural heritages her students bring to class or that flourish in their neighborhoods. In fact, I think she believes they need her curriculum in order to “make it,” and to a certain extent they do. But because of her racial and cultural blindness, her lack of acknowledgment implicitly tells students that their lives, their cultures are second class, unworthy of study.
After a fight between three students, Emilio, Raul, and Gusmaro, LouAnne’s class is angry with her. They believe she “snitched” on the students and caused their suspensions. It wasn’t true, but it made for a tense class session. During this exchange one young student tells LouAnne, “You don’t come from where we live. You come into my neighborhood and see what’s going on before you try to tell us how to live.”
LouAnne quickly responds that unlike the students in her class who choose to finish school, there are people in their neighborhood who don’t choose to get on the school bus. They choose to sell drugs. Now, LouAnne needs a reality check. Her student is right. What does she know about the neighborhood? Is she making assumptions about these students and their families? Does she assume that because the neighborhood is poor and diverse that everyone is selling drugs? More fundamentally, is she assuming poverty is a choice that her students’ parents made?
During this discussion, she proclaims, “There are no victims in this classroom.” What is that supposed to mean? Their families aren’t the victims of a profit-first economy? Who is most likely to lose jobs these days? Who is least likely to be hired? Who is most likely to be picked up or harassed by the police? Are LouAnne’s students in full control of their lives? While I understand the point LouAnne wants to make — that students can choose to make their lives different — LouAnne’s white, middleclass appraisal suggests that students and their parents are solely responsible for the conditions in which they live. This “I’m in control, you’re in control” stance infects her whole curriculum, and prevents LouAnne from encouraging her students to reflect on real social inequities that impact their life opportunities.
Now don’t get me wrong, LouAnne loves her students. And in many ways, she is a good teacher. She values the young people in her room as individuals, and she cares deeply about what happens to them. When her student Emilio’s life is threatened, LouAnne brings him home, fixes him dinner, and convinces him to speak with the principal instead of killing the young man who is out to get him. In another incident, she gives Raul $200 to pay for a coat he bought on credit off the street because she doesn’t want him to miss school or get harmed by the thief who sold it to him. She also goes out of her way to fight for pregnant Callie’s right to stay in school. It’s obvious that she thinks a lot about her lesson plans and tries to capture students’ attention. Because she cares so much about her students, they are willing to work for her. Unfortunately, her approach is Eurocentric and elitist, because she doesn’t acknowledge the cultural heritage of her students.
LouAnne looks out at a sea of beautiful mostly brown faces and then brings Bob Dylan to class. And Dylan Thomas. Two white male poets. LouAnne is undoubtedly the victim of stunted education herself, but she needs to look outside of the traditional canon to find writers who honor and connect with her students. She asks Hal, her teaching buddy, who his favorite poet is, but she doesn’t ask Mr. Grandey, the African American principal, or the students themselves. Margaret Walker, Luis Rodriguez, Lawson Inada, Li-Young Lee, Sherman Alexie, June Jordan … The list of poets of color is endless. There are too many good, contemporary writers for LouAnne to ignore them. Because of the narrowness of LouAnne’s education, she might have come to believe that students must read only within the canon in order to be prepared for college or to be considered educated. While it’s true that some teachers err by eliminating the canon totally, it’s still more common to find teachers like LouAnn who seem oblivious to great writers from other racial/ cultural backgrounds. As my friend and fellow English teacher Bakari Chavanu wrote about the movie, “Isn’t it ironic that a school of mostly Black and Latino students would not even have developed a curriculum that addresses their history and culture?”
I like Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas, too. They have important things to say, but I think students would have actually discovered “poetry is its own reward,” as LouAnne sarcastically says to her principal, if LouAnne would have broadened the list of poets. Whether by design or good luck, she struck a “generative theme” — as Ira Shor and Paulo Freire call the mother lode that occurs when a teacher hits a topic that generates not only an interest with students, but which also connects the students’ lives with broader social issues. For LouAnne, the topics were death and choice. She might have included poems by Boston Globe writer and poet, Patricia Smith. Smith, who wrote the poem “Undertaker” after interviewing people in the African-American community about the annual statistics condemning young Black men to death or prison, speaks in plain English about death. Smith’s poem would have grabbed students’ attention without the candy bars and amusement ride bribes Ms. Johnson doles out as rewards for studying:
When a bullet enters the brain, the head explodes.
I can think of no softer warning for the mothers
who sit doubled before my desk,
knotting their smooth brown hands,
and begging, fix my boy, fix my boy.
Here’s his high school picture.
And the smiling, mildly mustachioed player
in the crinkled snapshot
looks nothing like the plastic bag of boy
stored and dated in the cold room downstairs …
No translation needed.
CURRICULUM AND STUDENTS
We watch LouAnne’s students decode published writers, but we never observe them writing or listening to their classmates’ writing. They are given vocabulary lists and taught grammar, but we never see them use their skills in real work — like writing poetry or even essays unraveling the meaning of difficult poetry. Her early exasperated comment that “these kids don’t even know what a verb is” is a clue to this omission. Perhaps LouAnne thinks that people need to know grammatical terms before they can write. This is simply untrue.
Students learn to write by writing, receiving feedback, and rewriting — and even by reading. Knowing grammatical terms might make it easier for students to talk with their teacher if they make an error, but it doesn’t make them better writers. My experience is that many students actually know the names of the most basic parts of speech, but withhold them as a kind of resistance. When LouAnne brings candy bars as “prizes” for learning, students quickly identify the correct part of speech. Granted students, especially students whose “home language” is not “Standard Edited Written English,” need to look at their own patterns of errors and learn how to “fix” those, but this should happen while they are writing their own pieces, not by correcting manufactured lessons on grammatical terms.
LouAnne’s students teem with poetry. We hear their raps before she walks in that first day. We hear them spontaneously spout poetry whenever she pauses for a moment, but she always hushes it up so she can push on with the lesson. Why not encourage them to write poetry about death? or life? or music? or education? Why not nurture and guide her students’ poetic impulses? Why not take their lives and their words as subjects of study?
LouAnne missed the opportunity to link the topic of death and choice with the students’ lives, but she also missed the link with the larger economic and political picture: Why were there so many deaths? What was happening in the community that created death as a by-product? What had happened to the community in recent years? Had family-wage jobs been replaced with unemployment as manufacturing plants migrated to Mexico or Thailand? Poet/ activist Luis Rodriguez points out that 300,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in California during the 1980s and early ‘90s. [Nation, Nov. 21, 1994] Did this job flight contribute to increased poverty and violence in the East Palo Alto community of LouAnne’s students?
A COMMUNITY OF SUPPORT
LouAnne has contempt for the African-American principal. She thinks his rule about knocking before entering a closed office door is petty because she doesn’t understand his “hidden curriculum.” She lies when he tries to point out the rules regarding field trips. She sucks candy, slouches, and rolls her eyes while he tries to engage her in a conversation about her classroom techniques and content. Mr. Grandey does come off as a rigid rule maker and rule keeper. (In fact, both African-American adults in the movie are portrayed as obstacles in students’ education.) But she never tries to engage him in a discussion about why she sees the established curriculum as a waste of time. Again, she assumes she knows more than this African-American educator about what students at the school, many of whom are African-American, need. She needs a little humility; she needs to develop contacts with people who might help her understand the students, the community. She can’t afford to cut people off before the dialogue even starts. Her failure to develop ties with other teachers isolates her. She is always the one, the great white heroine coming in to save these kids from the ignorance of others. She might be more effective if she built relationships with other teachers and worked with them to change the rules of the school. For example, the administration pushes pregnant girls out of school because they think “pregnancy is contagious.” Ms. Johnson fights for Callie’s right to stay in school, but she battles the administration by herself. Certainly, other teachers might know and see how unfair the administration’s stance is. If she gathered allies before cussing out the administration in a public office, she might change the rule rather than just get Callie back. She might also confer with them about changing the curriculum which she deems unsuitable.
Similarly, LouAnne needs to build alliances with her students’ parents. She is stung when an African-American mother withdraws her two sons from school. I found the scene unconvincing. In 20 years, I’ve never encountered an African-American mother, or a mother of any race, who withdrew her children from school because they “don’t need it.” But let’s take it at face value. The mother says that her sons don’t need to learn poetry. The mother might be right. As far as we in the audience can tell, these kids discuss poetry every day. I love poetry. I teach poetry. But the mother has a point: how is this going to help her sons negotiate a highly inhospitable world? What real life skills is LouAnne teaching them? LouAnne again assumes she knows more than the parents about their children’s needs. Why didn’t she ask the mother what her children need to learn? Why doesn’t she tell the mother about her plans, how she sees poetry fitting into their lives?
MAKING THE IMPLICIT EXPLICIT
According to reviews I’ve read of Dangerous Minds, and according to LouAnne herself as she’s packing her crates to leave the school, LouAnne was teaching a college level curriculum. I don’t think so, but let’s pretend she was. Why did she wait until the very end of the year to tell students? And why did she tell just one student, Raul? Very early in their schooling, students learn their place. If LouAnne was attempting to teach students the discourse of the academy by asking them to read and decode difficult literary texts, she should have let the students in on the secret.
I teach in a school where many bright students have either been told or have learned that they are not “college material.” Students have to unlearn that lesson. One way of unlearning it is to be explicit about the curriculum, to let students know that they are deciphering college material. There’s no need to hide the fact. This helps them readjust their self concept, so they can see themselves as succeeding in college. But LouAnne also needs to unmask the process and name the skills they are learning — whether it’s scrutinizing SAT vocabulary, decoding difficult poetry, or writing essays documented with historical or literary references.
The more information first generation college-bound students have, the more likely they are to attempt the leap. The language and atmosphere of the “academy” is likely to be a barrier, so instead of taking students to fancy restaurants and teaching them to treat grown male waiters with disrespect as she does in the film, LouAnne should take students to a college and allow them to see themselves as part of that world.
BECOMING THE LIGHT
I loved the end of the movie when students used the language of the Dylan Thomas poem she taught them and declared they were raging against her leaving the school because she was their light. And I was also troubled. Teachers can be “lights” for their students; we can show the way, guide, find the beauty and dignity in students when students sometimes don’t see it themselves. Certainly, we can do what we’re paid to do — teach students to read, write, or conduct experiments. But we also need to teach them to find that light within themselves.
LouAnne needs to teach students to become their own lights. She must help them develop the skills to work in the world, but also the skills to critique the world so they can unlock, not only Dylan Thomas poems, but everything from political pronouncements to films about inspirational teachers. She needs to equip them to recognize and combat the racism, sexism, and homophobia that will follow them from their neighborhoods to their college classrooms and beyond. Instead of buying them candy and taking them to amusement parks, she must teach them how to listen and talk together so they can light the way and convince each other as Margaret Walker urges in her poem “For My People” :
Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a bloody
peace be written in the sky. Let a second generation full of
courage issue forth; let a people loving freedom come to
growth. Let a beauty full of healing and strength of final
clenching be the pulsing in our spirits and our blood. Let the
martial songs be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race
of men [and women] now rise and take control.