Despite all the buzz, movie offers little sting

By Bill Resnick

Spellbound , the critically praised documentary on the 1999 National Spelling Bee, is a deceptively engaging film. The filmmakers followed predominately working class and immigrant children, exploiting this bright and charming group to create a compelling but misleading rags-to-riches story.

But the film promotes the myth of upward mobility. Even though it portrays affluent kids’ considerable advantages in academic competitions, the working-class kids in the film are plucky and determined, and their parents and teachers dedicated and hardworking. If only one child wins, all are winners. As the viewer pulls for them and shares in their triumph, the film makes almost believable that hoary motivational mantra — grown tired from endless repetition to working class children — that you can succeed, so work hard in school; but if you fail, it’s your fault.

The characterizations are loving and tender, like an updated Frank Capra movie. The kids display a capacity to understand their lives against the social background, to empathize with one another without racial and gender barriers. They are wise but resigned while facing an unpredictable contest where, no matter how well prepared, you can be eliminated for some inscrutable word with a Greek-French root that doesn’t obey the rules.

The film celebrates spelling and its mental exercise, as if the kids were building mental muscle. But even if so, what combination of exercises — like spelling, arithmetic, memorization, pronunciation, games — and critical reading, writing, and discussion builds in-depth knowledge and thinking skills? Will kids trained to feel satisfaction and progress in individually mastering small bits and committing these to memory have patience and disposition to build their vocabulary of ideas and concepts? Will they be able to struggle with complexity to make sense of things in discussion with others? Will they be comfortable with ambivalence and contradiction and try out conflicting theories to master bodies of material? Wouldn’t it be better to have mental exercises with real content, including critical discussion?

The film lacks any prompts that would raise these as significant issues. For example, the classrooms shown resemble the spelling bee, with a teacher asking a question and a bright student answering. There’s little indication that the filmmakers asked anyone, including teachers, for a thoughtful account of learning.

Avoiding complexity, the camera loves and celebrates the kids. The filmmakers present the students’ capacity to store correctly spelled words as a demonstration of capability and a tool to educational success. Many scenes reinforce the assumptions behind the testing mania: that education amounts to acquiring and storing knowledge understood as bits and facts; that the best and brightest are those who master the most facts with the most efficient recall; that the competition brought out the best in them.

A Filmgoing Strategy

While touching and heartening, the film is also lazy and predictable, and its underlying messages are banal and conservative: that the United States is still the land of opportunity where dreams come true, but only through hard work and education, which requires dutiful mastering of multiple facts that will eventually be rewarded with great test scores.

Since these ideas are central to right-wing attempts to undermine critical education and public schools, critiquing them is vital. And spelling bees and other bees offer an increasing opportunity to make the critique. Indeed, the live ESPN broadcast of the 2003 finals drew a substantial audience; with Spellbound ‘s success, the bee will undoubtedly be featured more in upcoming years. And the entrepreneurs of geography, math, and science bees have seen the formula and are busily promoting. But don’t rely on Spell-bound for much in the way of material to discuss the deeper issues the film raises. You’ll have to bring those critical ideas yourself. n

Bill Resnick ( is a writer and radio producer/interviewer in Portland, Ore.


That’s a Family!

Talking about families to teach about difference

By Loret Peterson

Anyone who has spent time on a playground knows that teasing, name-calling and bullying are everyday fare, and that kids can turn differences of all kinds into the substance of ridicule. So I welcome materials that I can use to counteract stereotypes in my elementary classrooms.

To introduce lessons about family diversity into my classroom, I’ve used a video and curriculum called That’s a Family! , produced by the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization Women’s Educational Media, which also produced It’s Elementary.

The video and curriculum guide are full of strategies that invite discussion and honor children’s natural curiosity. They are a gentle starting point to reach elementary age children with a message of respect for all differences before biases become entrenched and the pressures of middle school set in.

The video contains six segments that feature different kinds of families: parents of mixed races, divorced parents, single parents, gay and lesbian parents, grandparents who are the guardians of grandchildren, and families with adopted children. Each segment features real kids speaking candidly about their family lives. Animated graphics introduce vocabulary words such as guardian mixed race, and adoption .

The childrens’ feelings, insights, and advice drive the narrative of That’s a Family! For example, Montana explains how she felt when her parents decided to divorce. Breauna, who is being raised by her gay father and his partner, wishes there was more understanding and less fear of gay people. Brittany tells how she and her siblings came to live with their grandmother after their mom got involved with drugs.

Much of the film consists of scenes where children such as Montana, Breauna, and Brittany are engaged in activities familiar to every child such as baking a birthday cake, playing soccer, or buying groceries. Differences between families are presented matter-of-factly and children are shown within their home environments surrounded by loving families.

I felt it was important to prepare my students for the conversations That’s a Family! might inspire. I was especially concerned that they might react to some of the issues or vocabulary with silliness or derogatory comments. I wanted to minimize this possibility and avoid giggles.

So, first we discussed our own families. I asked students to draw portraits of their families. Many live with grandparents as well as parents, so we talked about extended families. Immigration has affected many of my students’ families, so some wrestled with ways to portray the influence of geography. As an extension of the portrait exercise, I asked them to take photographs at home that would help the class understand something about their families. They returned with carefully composed shots of goldfish, stuffed animals, dinners they had helped prepare, and treasured items from China. Then they wrote text to explain the photographs. These snapshots added intimacy and context to our exploration of family life, and affirmed that every family is different and special.

Talking About Gay and Lesbian Parents

That’s a Family! has sparked controversy in some communities. Fundamentalist Christians have tried to prevent some schools from showing the video. Some educators might shy away from teaching about gay and lesbian families for fear that the discussion will lead to questions about sex. In my experience, talking about gay parents does not mean talking about sex any more than talking about heterosexual parents does. Questions may arise, but I have found it easier to focus on the concept of families. Talking about trust and mutual support between grown-ups and the children they love makes it easier for children to grasp concepts of sexual identity.

Through much of their school careers, my students will consistently be exposed to stereotypes. We have the opportunity to take an active, moral approach to deflating the power of stereotypes by addressing them in the classroom.

The silliness and giggles I had feared never erupted in my classroom. My fourth- and fifth-graders have taught me that they are ready and able to reject stereotypes in favor of a more complex understanding of real people. That’s a Family! helped them move in that direction.

Loret Peterson ( teaches fourth and fifth grade at Jefferson Elementary School in San Francisco.

To order a copy of That’s a Family!, visit