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Film: Dead Poets Society
The film “Dead Poets Society” (1989) contains a very powerful message about how society expects us to conform. It also demonstrated how we as teachers have such an impact on our students. The film was very forward thinking dealing with the theme of suicide and highlighting the enormous pressure that teenagers face from external factors.
Dead Poets Society (1989) is set in a fictional all boys boarding school in America in 1958 that is known for its traditional methods and high standards. Welton academy experiences the arrival of a new, innovative teacher, John Keating. He uses unorthodox methods to reach out to his students. The film focuses on the transformation of the two main characters Neil Perry and Todd Anderson and the effect Mr. Keating had on them.
The film captures American society right at the turning point of a decade of social unity and conformity (the 1950s) and a decade of social upheaval and revolution (the 1960s). The civil rights and women’s rights movements were starting to gain momentum. The film was set in a time where economy was strong and education was highly valued.
The film highlights male dominance in society during that time. The film portrays an all-white, male classroom with male teachers. Few women appear throughout the film and are generally in the presence of men. Boy’s education was more valued in the 1950’s and women were expected to stay at home and become homemakers. Poetry is described in the film as being used to ‘woo women’ and the film only discusses poetry written by men. Women were referred to as sexual objects in the film on numerous occasions for example when the boys produce a naked poster of a woman in the cave. The man as the dominant feature is reiterated at the end of the film where Neil’s dad lectures him about his disobedience in preforming in the play and his mother’s opinion takes not precedence.
Scheurman (1998) behaviouralist theory on teacher as transmitter is evident in the dominant-submissive classroom culture in Welton academy of teachers dictating, and students encouraged to sit and listen. School life is very structured they have a long list of rules to follow and they are beaten or expelled if they disobey. The opening scene illustrates the culture of the school and the ethos of the school which embodies the ‘four pillars’: discipline, excellence, tradition and honour.
- Approaches to teaching:
Fenstermacher and Soltis’s 2004 MAKER model of approaches to learning is a guide to analysing Keating’s Liberationist approach to teaching. Mr. Keating demonstrates many attributes of the liberationist approach that ‘views the teacher as one who frees and opens the mind of the learner.’ (Fenstermacher, G.D., & Soltis, J.F., 2004) This is evident when he encourages Todd to free his mind and gets him to recite a poem blindfolded. Mr. Keating teaching approach is based on the cognitive tradition.
Mr. Keating uses many different approaches and methods in his classroom to get the students to think beyond the classroom such as his first encounter with the students. He is challenging the boundaries of the traditional classroom. Many of his classes take place outside the classroom as he draws on cognitive strategies to create “interactive environments for knowledge construction and understanding.” (Conway 2002). He is also very passionate about what he teaches, “I stand upon my desk to remind myself we must constantly look at things in a different way.”
This depiction of active learning is based on the cognitive perspective (Conway, 2002), “learning is active, learning is about the construction of meaning.” Mr. Keating encouraged self-efficacy, the belief that they can write and enjoy poetry. He tries to push the students to look at learning from different perspectives and think for themselves as opposed to rote learning from their textbooks. Keating commands them to rip the introduction from their book. He encourages them to form their own opinions.
Mr. Keating is aware of the pressures from the boy’s parents as he himself attended Welton academy. The boy’s parents strive for their offspring to become high achievers and graduate into highly educated and well-paid jobs in order to maintain or improve their family’s social standing. He encourages independent thinking and to be individual instead of a follower and reminds them to make the most out of life, to take risks and not miss opportunities.
Mr. Keating inspires the students with his knowledge and tries to get them to change their preconceived notions about poetry. He recites poetry with a great sense of character and his passion for poetry filters through. He encourages his students to embrace poetry and he encourages them to be creative in their descriptions of poetry from textbooks as seen in their beating drums, donning lipstick war paint and reading poetry in caves. “Informal ways of learning are often ignored, unrecognised or even proscribed by main-stream formal learning.”(Subero et al, 2016). He arises their interests similar to (Subero et al, 2016) funds of knowledge approach “that learners learn because they are motivated to do so by their interests, needs, curiosity, and/or pleasure.”
Mr. Keating has a very close relationship with his students. He is an innovator and “He treats them as people who can think, who can have valid opinions and ideas. His students feel enabled.” (Fenstermacher and Soltis’s 2004). The students feel comfortable in his presence and come to him with issues for example Neil and his father. He has high expectations for his students and genuinely cares about their futures. Mr. Keating tells his students, “No matter what anybody tells you words and ideas can change the world.” The final scene reflects the respect the students have for Mr. Keating when they stand on the desks in honour of him.
- Opportunities to learn in the context of learning:
The final scene demonstrates Todd’s change in thinking as a result of Mr. Keating’s teaching approach. Mr. Keating interrupts class to collect some personal belongings from his desk and before he leaves, Todd stands on his desk and salutes Keating with the words “Captain! My Captain!” This scene demonstrates the impact Mr. Keating had on Todd. Todd’s starting point was as a timid character that conforms to society and never voices his own opinion. Keating forces Todd to come out of his shell. In one of the first scenes, Mr. Keating forces Todd to deliver a barbaric YAWP and a poem to the class blindfolded. The end scenes demonstrate Todd’s drastic change where he confesses aloud in Mr. Nolan’s class that ‘they were forced to sign the letter’. Todd taking action to stand on the desk demonstrates his respect for Keating and ‘the change in thinking’ (Conway, 2002). Todd found his voice by proving he could stand up and express himself when it really mattered. The other characters Knox, Steven, Gerard and over half the class follows Todd’s lead and stand on their desks. Keating encouraged the boys to take risks, find their passions, and come to understand the importance of independent thinking. “Dewey argued for the importance of students’ active involvement in the learning process.” (Conway, 2002) Keating’s impact on his students has been immense from his enthusiasm and passion to his independent thinking. He is their leader and the person who has created a community of learners (Conway, 2002) that not only learns from textbooks but also are able to form their own opinions and ideas. The boys have succeeded in looking beyond the classroom and developed as human beings which makes you ponder on the idea that “Informal ways of learning are often ignored, unrecognised or even proscribed in informal settings” (Subero et al., 2016). Todd’s involvement in the dead poet’s society club and his encouragement from Mr. Keating to express himself boosted his confidence and helped him develop socially.
In conclusion, the film highlights the importance of our roles as teachers and our influence on students. Mr. Keating’s approach to teaching draws on cognitive learning theories and the idea of how we think. He strived to open the minds of his students and to avoid living a life of conformity shaped by family, social class and society.
Mr. Keating’s teaching methods also draws on sociocultural theories of how society contributes to individual development and how social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition (Conway, 2002). The film demonstrates how the boys learned from each other and Mr. Keating’s collaborative approach and how they developed not only intellectually but emotionally.
Mr. Keating created “contexts for making meaning through guided contexts” (Conway, 2002) based on the cognitive rationalist perspective. Mr. Keating strived to push the students to look beyond the textbooks and what they are being thought and to form their own opinions. However what Mr. Keating fails to do is fully explain the boundaries, and repercussions, of their impulsive behaviour. Keating is unable to completely recognise the fragile and influential nature of his students.
The assignment highlighted different perspectives on teaching and learning and their implications for teaching. Every approach as its attributes in terms of learning and the benefit for the learner but has to be considered in the context of you teaching environment. The assignment helped me reflect on my own teaching practice as a practical teacher in a DEIS secondary school and reflect on how the students respond to interactive environments and positive teacher student’s relationships. The DEIS school environment can be prevalent with a lack of support from their home environments and the school can be a forum for the students to develop socially and emotionally. The term ‘one good adult’ is imperative in the context of teaching in a DEIS school and we as teachers need to acknowledge the impact we have on our students.
- Conway, Paul F. (2002) ‘Learning in communities of practise: Rethinking teaching and learning in disadvantaged contexts’, Irish Educational Studies, 21:3,61-69.
- David Subero, Ellen, Vujasinovic & Moises Esteban-Guitart (2016): Mobilising funds of identity in and out of school, Cambridge Journal of Education, DOI: 10.1080/0305764X.2016.1148116.
- Dweck, Carol S. (2007): Educational Leadership, v65 n2 p34-39 Oct 2007.
- Fenstermacher, G. D., & Soltis, J. F. (2004). Approaches to teaching. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Scheurman, Geoffrey Social Education (1998), v62 n1 p6-9 Jan.
- Weir, P., Haft, S., Witt, P. J., Thomas, T., Schulman, T., Williams, R., Leonard, R. S., … Buena Vista Home Entertainment (Firm),. (1998). Dead Poets Society.
Knowledge of the content
Ends: purposes/aims of teaching and education
between teacher and
1. First encounter with the students where he walks into the room whistling and walks out of the room.
2. Classes take place outside on several occasions.
3. Involves the students in the lessons i.e. Reading the poetry out loud.
4. Unorthodox methods i.e. blindfolding Todd with his own hand, ripping out pages from their books, standing on their desks etc.
5. Charisma and humour used to keep the students interested and create a fun environment.
1. He is aware of the pressures from the student’s social backgrounds i.e. social class.
2.Attended Welton Academy so aware of the strict rules and punishments.
3.Reads the students for example Todd being nervous about having to read out loud.
4.He is also aware their hormonal teenagers and this is evident when he refers to poetry as a way to ‘woo women’.
1.He quotes many lines from poems.
2.Knowledge of the student’s book by J. Evans Pritchard and his mathematical approach.
3. Quote of “O Captain, my Captain” from a poem by Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln. He has knowledge about the poem and the context of which the poem was written.
4. He refers to his days in the dead poet’s society and how the group read material by Shelley, Thoreau and Whitman.
1.Wants the students to be able to think for themselves – independent thinking.
2. Be individual.
3. He wants them to pursue their passions.
4. Encourage the students to find their own voice.
5.Be creative with poetry and renew their interest in poetry.
2. High expectations i.e. pursue their dreams.
3. He encourages the students and helped Todd come out of himself and find his voice.
4. Involves the students in lessons and values their input.
5. Students feel comfortable in Mr. Keating’s presence and come to him with issues i.e. Neil.
6. Refer to him as their leader ‘Captain, my Captain’.
7. He cares about his students.
8. Final scene demonstrates their respect for him i.e. standing on the desks.
Appendix A, Fenstermacher and Solstis MAKER model
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