brucekluger.com

    USA Today, March 24, 2005

    'Greatness' in the classroom
    One film and one educator can teach us all a lesson or two about
    reforming our education system

    By Bruce Kluger


    If I were Secretary of Education, I'd get creative.
    Instead of attempting to kick-start the president's
    underfunded, overwrought No Child Left Behind
    program, or sink more money into researching yet
    another standardized test, or latch onto the latest
    evangelical mission to target "homosexual"
    cartoons in educational TV, I'd simply log onto
    Amazon.com, order 3.5 million copies of the new
    documentary A Touch of Greatness, and send
    them to every teacher, principal and PTA president
    in United States.

    If that didn't do the trick, I don't know what would.

    First broadcast in January on PBS' Independent
    Lens programand available on video and DVD
    this monthGreatness chronicles the career of
    author-educator Albert Cullum, zooming in on his stint as an elementary school
    teacher in the leafy suburbs of New York City from 1956 through 1966.

    Intercutting archival footage from his teaching days with glowing testimonials from
    his now-grown charges, Greatness paints a vivid portrait of the magic that
    transpires when kids are lucky enough to land a teacher who understands the
    limitlessness of the young mind.

    Engaged, enthusiastic and wickedly creative, Cullum learned early on in his career
    that "if I'm not having fun in class, no one is having fun." As a result, his students
    were treated to a decidedly unconventional approach to academia, routinely
    engaging in such imaginative activities as swimming up a giant paper facsimile of
    the Mississippi River; re-enacting the Lincoln assassination and the Cuban missile
    crisis; operating on "bleeding" nouns in a "grammar hospital"; and, most
    impressively, reading and performing a raft of classic literaturefrom the Greeks to
    Shakespearein off-site settings as exotic as an actual forest.

    "Children understand the heroic aspect of Shakespeare's characters," Cullum
    explains in the film, "the feathered cap and the wooden sword that we as adults
    have lost."

    More than just a fly-on-the-classroom-wall peek at an exceptional educator,
    however, Greatness serves as a cautionary tale about our nation's current
    education system, and the way in which policymakers' ongoing efforts to tinker with
    the process may be, at best, heavy-handed or, at worst, wrongheaded.

    For instance, in the past year, the debate over social promotion reached high
    decibels in school districts across the nation, most notably in New York, where
    Mayor Michael Bloomberg instituted rigid policies to hold back third-graders who
    aren't keeping up with their classmates. But it wasn't until I watched Greatness that I
    truly understood how counterproductive such a policy can be. After all, classrooms
    are simply microcosms of families, and no family I know of jettisons its lesser
    members.

    "I see (the classroom) as a wagon," Cullum explains early on in the film. "Your
    thoroughbreds of the class are going to pull the wagonthey're the leaders. But
    everyone is on that wagon, and everyone reaches the goal. No one is left out."

    Granted, Cullum called roll in his classroom more than a generation before slashed
    budgets, plummeting scores and hallway metal detectors would become the stuff of
    modern education. But building a child's mind is inarguably as daunting a task as
    building a new system, and in this regard, Cullum made the grade.

    The film also offers a decent argument about the potential myopia of modern-day
    standardized testing, which customarily cleaves to math and grammar as the true
    litmus of our kids' smarts. Though Cullum certainly didn't abandon these areas of
    study, he devoted an extraordinary amount of energy to the artsand it paid off.

    To witness Mr. C's boys and girls articulately defend their choice of history's "best
    writer"Shakespeare, Sophocles or Shawis a reminder of kids' impressive ability
    to grasp the intangible and elusive, and how the path to success needn't always
    wind through the times-tables.

    Curiously, I couldn't help but notice how little an impact religion had on Cullum's
    curriculum, a concept that seems refreshingly quaint in today's socially charged
    climate. Despite a recent Zogby poll in which 80% of those interviewed said they
    believe religion should not dictate what goes on in school, just the opposite is
    gaining steam in today's classrooms, as textbooks, classic literature and long-held
    scientific theories are suddenly under siege by an army of hand-wringing advocacy
    groups.

    Conversely, when it came to personal beliefs, Cullum seemed more devoted to
    "giving each child the gift of believing in him or herself"whether by challenging
    them to collect hundreds of new vocabulary words over the course of the year, or
    casting them in theatrical roles that promised a kind of field-trip to the unknown.

    Indeed, the only allusion to religion in Greatness is a comment from Cullum
    himselfwho died at the age of 80, shortly after the film was completedas he
    discusses one student's performance in a class production of Joan of Arc.

    "Every public schoolgirl should have the chance to play the part of Saint Joan
    before the age of 12," he explains with a smile. "Because the older you get, the
    more difficult it is to hear the voices of Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine calling
    you."