Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Re-Examined

Ferris Bueller's Day OffI went to see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the theater the summer before I started ninth grade. We had just moved to Maryland Heights, MO, and I would be attending school at Parkway North High School in Crève Coeur in a few weeks. I didn’t know anyone. I remember feeling scared and stressed. How would I be expected to dress? How would I make friends? Why hadn’t my mother signed me up for band?

Obviously the larger message of the film was one calculated to appeal to people in my age group: the sort of carpe diem theme I would later visit in the poetry of Robert Herrick and Andrew Marvell (and they were writing in the seventeenth century—there truly is nothing new under the sun). But there was also this notion of defying authority, represented in the movie by the dean of students, Mr. Rooney. Authority wants Ferris in school instead of out and about in Chicago, where he will actually learn important stuff about life. Perhaps no scene embodies the uselessness of school as well as Ben Stein’s famous economics lecture:

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Despite the fact that this film turned 25 years old (yes! I checked Wikipedia!) this past summer, it still resonates. My students were talking about it, in fact, just this week. There is no doubt that it has become a pop culture icon, and it’s interesting to look at its critical reception. Richard Roeper is a big fan. His license plate even says “SVFRRIS.” He says the film is

[O]ne of my favorite movies of all time. It has one of the highest ‘repeatability’ factors of any film I’ve ever seen… I can watch it again and again. There’s also this, and I say it in all sincerity: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is something of a suicide prevention film, or at the very least a story about a young man trying to help his friend gain some measure of self-worth… Ferris has made it his mission to show Cameron that the whole world in front of him is passing him by, and that life can be pretty sweet if you wake up and embrace it. That’s the lasting message of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (Wikipedia)

Steve Almond says, it is “the most sophisticated teen movie [he has] ever seen” and added that it is “one film [he] would consider true art, [the] only one that reaches toward the ecstatic power of teendom and, at the same time, exposes the true, piercing woe of that age” (Wikipedia). National Review writer Mike Hemmingway says, “If there’s a better celluloid expression of ordinary American freedom than Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I have yet to see it. If you could take one day and do absolutely anything, piling into a convertible with your best girl and your best friend and taking in a baseball game, an art museum, and a fine meal seems about as good as it gets” (Wikipedia). One of the film’s stars, Ben Stein, describes it as “the most life-affirming movie possibly of the entire post-war period” (Wikipedia). I found it interesting that such a diverse group as Wolf Blitzer, Dan Quayle, Michael Bublé, Simon Cowell, and Justin Timberlake call it their favorite film.

I remember the film resonating quite strongly with me and other members of my generation. It remains a cultural touchstone. We have all felt like taking a day off without permission, playing hookey, and getting away with it. But I was thinking quite a lot about the film’s message about school, particularly in light of Steve Jobs’s recent death. In his commencement address to Stanford in 2005, Jobs admits to dropping out of college after a semester and auditing classes he found interesting: famously, he credits one class he took in calligraphy for awakening an awareness of and interest in typefaces that would inform development of fonts on Apple computers. Neither Jobs or his sometime friend and rival Bill Gates graduated from college. I have heard them cited in arguments that college is unnecessary, and the message that school isn’t really necessary and actually can impede your real learning is a big part of Ferris Bueller. I’ve not necessarily heard either Jobs or Gates make that argument, but the fact is that both of them learned by taking a risk and jumping in, failing, then trying again. I’m not sure school could have taught them what they needed to know to do that, beyond the basic skills. Frankly, I have never heard anyone advance the argument that Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane would have spent their day better in school.

I don’t think it hurts us to examine whether what we’re teaching students—and the way we’re teaching them—is relevant to their lives, both in the present and the future. Sometimes I think we do a poor job of communicating the relevance of what we teach to our students. I overheard a disagreement about this issue the other day between a colleague and student, and the colleague walked away, while the student remained unconvinced. Listen, I am not sure I would have won that argument either, but I cringed a little when the “I’m the adult with the experience” card was played. Students will use math, science, art, literature, social studies, and all of the other subjects we teach. They might not know it, but they will. We can take this lesson from Ferris Bueller: we have a long way to go help students see school as compelling, and it starts with relevance. A student can’t give me a higher compliment than to tell me something I taught them was “relevant.”

Perhaps if Ferris’s teachers had thought about that issue, he and his friends wouldn’t have had to take the day off to learn.

Another lesson we can draw from Jobs is to remember our “time is limited” and we shouldn’t “waste it living someone else’s life.” One can hear echoes of Ferris Bueller’s statement that “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

I think it’s important that our students don’t feel time spent learning from us is time wasted. I hope instead that they feel it is preparing them for what they want to do and awakening their curiosity.

And we should feel it’s important and relevant work to spend our days teaching them.

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Evaluating Materials

49/365 - summer reading.I have been lying in bed all weekend, trying to get over a bout of the flu. I decided to preview a video I asked our media specialist to buy for our library: Great Books: Wuthering Heights. If you are unfamiliar with the Great Books series, they are actually fairly good documentaries about books produced by Discovery Schools. Back in the day when TLC used to be an acronym for “The Learning Channel,” and as such, actually produced educational content, the Great Books series could sometimes be caught on broadcast on that channel.

I disagree with a few conclusions drawn in the Great Books episode on Wuthering Heights. Emily Brontë is known to have been an intensely private person. She was furious when her sister Charlotte read poetry Emily had written. When Anne and Charlotte went to London to reveal their identities to their publishers, Emily refused to go and insisted upon remaining anonymous. She was again angry with Charlotte when Charlotte revealed that “Ellis Bell” was her sister. However, the DVD conflates this desire for privacy or perhaps even shyness (although I admit I don’t know enough about Emily to determine if she was shy) with “madness.” At one point, the video points out, rather boldly and without explanation or foundation, that because Emily enjoyed writing about her fantasy world of Gondal, she was “in danger of losing her mind.” Later, the video concludes that she based her character Heathcliff on herself, again without presenting evidence or explanation.

My first thought was that if I were a student watching this video, which seemed authoritative and informative, I might take these statements at face value rather than question them. After all, they are produced by Discovery School, so one can infer they are accurate, reliable, and educationally sound. I suppose if I’m going anywhere with this thinking-aloud exercise, it is here: it’s critical for teachers to evaluate materials they are thinking of presenting to their students, but more importantly, it’s critical to do your own research as well. If I had seen this video ten years ago as a relatively new teacher, I might not have questioned some of the conclusions drawn by the video’s producers because I myself didn’t have the slightest knowledge about Emily Brontë’s life, and while I’m far from an expert now, I have at least learned enough both in content and as a critical thinker to discern the accuracy of materials I’m previewing. Instead, I came away from the video feeling that the producers had not given Emily Brontë much credit for possessing an imagination that allowed her to write fantasy stories without necessarily living in a fantasy world or to create a character purely out of a talented gift as a writer. Of course, not wanting to give Emily Brontë much credit for her imagination is not new, but one would hope educational materials produced in 2005 would be more enlightened in their view. If I were to use this video with my students, I would challenge them to locate evidence regarding the conclusions drawn in the video. It might be a good critical thinking exercise for them. However, my instinct says not to show it. With no abundance of time and no shortage of materials, it is not the best course of action, in my mind, to use class time for materials I find misleading at best, erroneous at worst.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Elemeno_Pea

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An Experience with Wuthering Heights

OK, I didn’t plan very well, and I ran out of time at the end of the school year. I really wanted my students to experience Wuthering Heights, but I knew there was no way we had a enough time to read this layered, complex, richly woven tapestry of a novel. So I kind of cheated. We watched what many fans and critics believe to be the film version that most resembles the book, a 1998 Masterpiece Theater production (purchase here) that stars Robert Cavanah and Orla Brady as Heathcliff and Catherine. I have to say after watching it that I agree. The story of Linton, Cathy, and Hareton is intact—the most famous film version ends shortly after Catherine’s death.

My students certainly didn’t complain about viewing the film. I am not sure they necessarily expected to like it, but as we continued to watch, I noticed that many of the students were slowly becoming transfixed by the story. They were making interesting connections (Heathcliff to Frankenstein’s monster—one student said she wanted to feel empathy for both characters, but then they would do something horrible to an innocent person, and she couldn’t feel bad for them anymore). Every once in a while, I saw them pull their genealogy charts out of their notebooks to consult. Three students said they really want to read the book now. When Heathcliff began digging up Catherine, some of my students said, “Mrs. Huff! What is he doing?” I replied, “Exactly what it looks like.” They were horrified. They were rapt. When it ended, two girls in the back applauded.

I am not so foolish as to believe every student in the class liked it, but we did have an excellent discussion about it. I discussed the ingenious structure of the novel and the doubled characters. The students genuinely seemed to enjoy the film, and the only complaint any of them lodged was that the actors seemed a bit too old for their parts (true, but they also agreed that perhaps younger actors might not have had the range to deliver the performances, either).

Showing the film before (or instead of) reading the novel was something of an accident on my part this year, but I am wondering if it might not be a bad idea to show the film before reading the book next year. Students can learn the story through film, and enjoy the technique and craft of the novel perhaps more for knowing and understanding what’s happening. I certainly teach Shakespeare in that way sometimes. I’m just glad my students have had a good experience with Wuthering Heights. At the end of class today, I mentioned to some straggling students that I was glad they’d enjoyed it because I found at least two Facebook groups organized around hatred for Wuthering Heights. One student responded, a completely puzzled look on his face. “Really?  Why?” His tone seemed to say he just couldn’t imagine why anyone would hate that story. YES!

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Week in Reflection, April 28-May 2

Our Spring Break was last week, so I didn’t post a reflection.  As this was the week of our return to school, and we have also entered that final stretch of the year, I’m not sure either I or the students were as plugged in as usual.

My seniors basically have two weeks left because our school allows them to finish early.  Next week and the week after, they will be working on a final paper for me.  This week, we finished watching A Streetcar Named Desire, and I was struck again by Brando’s performance.  You probably know this bit of trivia, but Brando was the sole member of the core cast not to receive an Academy Award, though he was nominated.  Vivian Leigh won Best Actress for her portrayal of Blanche; Kim Hunter won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Stella; and Karl Malden won Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Mitch.  The Best Actor award that year, however, went to Humphrey Bogart for his performance in The African Queen.

My ninth grade students are working through grammar.  One class finished up phrases and started on clauses.  The other class learned about active and passive voice and began discussion of Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye.

The tenth grade writing class I teach presented Power Point presentations.  So often our kids add animations, busy backgrounds, and too much text, then read the text rather than use it as a guide for the audience.  Despite my instructing students on the perils of Death by Power Point, a few of their presentations included some of the problems I’ve mentioned, and I am frustrated that I somehow was not able to communicate how to avoid these issues to my students.  Also, I am frustrated by the fact that in order to be successful, they had to unlearn bad Power Point habits, which may explain why all of them weren’t successful.  We need to teach kids how to use Power Point correctly from the start.  I think too many teachers are a little too impressed by all the bells and whistles and actually reward students for making cluttered, busy, and ultimately unreadable presentations because they themselves don’t know how to do some of the things the students do, thus the teachers assume it’s hard and took a lot of time and effort.  Let’s face it, our students have become accustomed to being rewarded for style over substance.

The last two days of the week, my writing class began a unit on SAT preparation and practice.  I have evaluated SAT essays in the past, and as I haven’t done so for quite some time, I suppose it’s safe to disclose this fact.  Students generally find this unit to be very helpful.  I have been using Sadlier-Oxford’s helpful Grammar and Writing for Standardized Tests as a guide; I highly recommend this book, as it focuses on the SAT’s writing section (error correction, sentence and paragraph correction, and essay).

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Week in Reflection, April 14-17

This time of year, I find that I’m not blogging as much as I would like because I’m so exhausted.  You know, people talk about what a perk it is for teachers to have breaks in the winter and spring and a longer one in the summer — usually people who don’t teach, by the way.  These breaks are absolutely necessary to rejuvenate.  I think teachers put a lot of themselves into their work.  Having to be “on” so much of the time wears me out, and I don’t think I’m the only one.  Every time I take any sort of Myers-Briggs test, I always come out INFP.  If you aren’t up on the parlance, that basically means I am introverted, and I find social situations tiring.  People suck the energy right out of me, and you can’t get more people-oriented than teaching.  This article in The Atlantic actually did a lot in terms of helping me understand why I’m so tired at the end of a school day, and as the end of the school year ends, it seems to get worse.  As a result  of this exhaustion, blogging is one of those things that tends to go by the wayside.

I read the blogs of other teachers and feel inspired by what they are doing — especially descriptions of lessons and ideas for teaching –and I want to contribute, too.  Maybe this week will afford me some time to do so, as I am (finally) on spring break!  Why so late?  Passover falls late this year in the Jewish calendar, and my school, as a Jewish school, follows the Jewish calendar.  Our break starts tomorrow.

Teaching the week before spring break is always difficult.  I came home today and took a nap. This week, my seniors finished reading A Streetcar Named Desire, and we began watching the excellent Elia Kazan production.  One forgets how attractive Marlon Brando was.  Every time I watch that movie, I am amazed all over again by his embodiment of the role of Stanley Kowalski.  One of my students pronounced the play her favorite piece of the year, and another quickly agreed.  I really enjoy teaching the play, too, if for no other reason than the opportunity to see the excellent movie again at the end.

My writing class was creating Power Point presentations.  I have seen a lot of death by Power Point lately, and we can’t very well blame the presenters if they are never effectively taught how to create a Power Point presentation that works.  A cursory glance at my students’ works in progress tells me that most of them understood not to cram too much information on a slide or use busy backgrounds, but I’m not sure all of them heard this message, and I am puzzled — I thought I really emphasized that part.

I have been teaching verbals, clauses, and misplaced modifiers.  I struggle with this part of our curriculum every year — not because I don’t understand it or because I don’t impart it with some success.  I struggle with its usefulness.  If a student is using gerunds correctly when he or she writes, is it imperative that they be able to label them as subjects, direct objects, indirect objects, predicate nominatives, and objects of prepositions?  Yet, it is part of the curriculum, and therefore, part of my teaching.  I find it much more useful to spend time on the nuts and bolts of writing that students struggle with — commas, for instance.  I thought I created a fairly effective unit for teaching commas, but I find over the course of the year that students are still not consistently applying rules for using commas.  Marking comma errors hasn’t done much to help my students learn to use commas.  Suggestions are welcome.

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Week in Reflection: March 10-14, 2008

This week, one of my ninth grade classes finished The Catcher and the Rye, and we began discussing it in class.  We also studied adjective and adverb phrases.  The students really enjoyed the discussion of the novel, and I think they liked the book a great deal.  That novel always seems to be popular, especially with boys.  It brings up a good point.  A lot of what we read in school isn’t necessarily appealing to boys.  I think my male students enjoyed Romeo and Juliet and The Odyssey.  I really do try to think about how to draw boys in when we study literature.  The discussions this week went very well.

My tenth grade writing students watched The Freedom Writers.  I know a lot of people don’t like the movie, but I do, and the students were rapt.  We had a really good, insightful discussion about the movie on Friday.  One student in particular really seemed to be able to understand the motivations of Erin Gruwell’s department head.  He said he was playing “devil’s advocate,” but his points were all well taken — why shouldn’t the students move on to a new teacher?  Wouldn’t that be the ultimate test of how ready they were?  Is it really good to have the same teacher all four years?  He also wondered about the issue of seniority.  Was Gruwell getting a “promotion”?  The department head certainly considered it to be one.  Laying aside the assertion that she deserved one (I think she did great work), she had only been teaching two years.  Another issue that concerned the students was the practicality of what Gruwell did — in the movie, her marriage falls apart due to neglect on her part, and she has to take two extra jobs to pay for what her students need.  My students saw the good that resulted from these choices, but they were, I think, right to question the cost.  I thought the students had some really good insights into what they were seeing.

My seniors finished Death of a Salesman.  I wasn’t sure how they would like it, but I think discussing how it is the story of many people today really hooked them, which isn’t terribly easy to do with seniors at this time of year.  I am really excited about this unit, so it could be that my own enthusiasm showed.  I also spent a lot of time planning it — thinking of questions for discussion, assessments, etc. — and that always pays off.  It was remarked by someone who shall remain anonymous that I had put a lot of work into the unit, and I think the insinuation was that given the climate (seniors just ready to graduate and move on with the next stage of life), I probably wasted my time.  I don’t think so.  I think we have to work even harder as teachers to engage students when they are distracted by this future that’s just out of their reach.  They can’t help their feelings — and I had the same ones when I was a senior.  It’s a really exciting time.  I envy them getting to go off to college for the first time, learning so much, figuring out who they are.  I had a great college experience, and I wish I could do it again.

I obtained permission from one of my ninth grade classes to post their writing at a blog I have admittedly only occasionally used for student writing.  The last posts are reflections of the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn done a year ago.  The writing I will be posting is collected from creative writing diaries from characters in Romeo and Juliet.  I plan to post one diary entry a day beginning on Tuesday.  If you are interested in reading them, you might want to pop over to the Room 303 Blog and subscribe to our RSS feed.  I don’t have e-mail subscription set up on that blog.

I have been approached to do a blogging project with a teacher in Hawaii, and I am really interested.  I would like my students to have their own blogs for written reflection, but sometimes I feel like I should have established that early on, and how do you do that?  I should think it would be great for interaction, discussion, exploration, and reflection.  Does anyone know if I can do that with Moodle?  I hesitate to put students in the position of public reflection if they feel uncomfortable about it, but if we can do it just within our community, I don’t think there would be a problem.

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The Freedom Writers

The Freedom WritersSoon after The Freedom Writers, a movie based on the book The Freedom Writer’s Diary by Erin Gruwell and her students, was released to theaters, I viewed the movie and posted a review here. I know some educators don’t like this kind of movie in general and didn’t like this movie in particular, but I enjoyed the movie and found value in using it in the classroom in order to teach the power of written expression and finding one’s voice. In addition, I think the movie is a great way for my students in particular to understand a broader spectrum of the American experience. Finally, as the movie centers around how Gruwell’s students were affected by a work of literature, I think the movie shows the profound connections we can make between literature and our own lives if we avail ourselves of the opportunity. I think the movie would work well in an English class, but I like to use it in writing courses as well.

The question is, what can you do with the movie? When my students viewed the movie last year, we used it as a springboard for discussion about several important issues, including racism, anti-Semitism, and abuse, and how these issues impacted the characters in the movie. We frankly discussed Erin Gruwell’s sacrifices and the fact that she did move on to working with the Freedom Writers Foundation and no longer teaches.

If you are interesting in using the film in your own classroom, there are many resources available to you:

Please share other resources you know about in the comments.

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Geoffrey Wright’s Macbeth

Geoffrey Wright's MacbethEnglish teachers looking for a good version of Macbeth to show their students in conjunction with a study of Shakespeare’s play should avoid Geoffrey Wright’s 2006 production. Like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet before it, this modern Macbeth seeks to lure in the younger set; however, unlike Luhrmann’s production, in the case of Macbeth, the update doesn’t work.

The play’s setting is moved from Scotland to modern-day Melbourne, Australia. The cast, starring Sam Worthington as Macbeth and Victoria Hill as Lady Macbeth, is Australian. The play opens as the three witches, who look more like deviant schoolgirls, are defacing a cemetery. Duncan is the leader of a gang, rather than King of Scotland, and when the witches predict that Macbeth can take over the gang, Macbeth murders Duncan and begins his inexorable march toward doom.

The director’s choice to turn the kingdom of Scotland into underworld Melbourne makes the story go awry. Romeo and Juliet makes sense as a gang story as it is essential a story of two warring families. I didn’t buy it with Macbeth, especially when Macbeth’s title of Thane of Cawdor is still applied. I didn’t like any of the characters, and I really didn’t care what happened to any of them.

Pluses:

  • This film might appeal to today’s youth. I read a review describing it as Macbeth for the Quentin Tarantino generation, but I think that’s an insult to Quentin Tarantino.
  • The characters sport cool leather jackets and artfully mussed hair.
  • The opening scene with the witches is truly scary, in my opinion, and the Ghost Banquo scene is superb.
  • The murder of the Macduffs is shocking; the director pulled no punches, though thankfully didn’t show us the poor child’s murder.

Minuses:

  • Nudity and sexual content — Macbeth has sex with all three witches in a bizarre rendition of the second witch scene (“Beware the Thane of Fife”).
  • Butchery of the “Out, out, brief candle” soliloquy.

Bottom line: I wouldn’t recommend showing this one to high school students. Though the film is not rated, the sexual content alone would have earned it at least an R-rating (never mind the violence). None of the actors is a standout, and the modern setting has only minimal appeal in light of the film’s flaws.

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