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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Is Snape a Bad Teacher?

Trust SnapeSeverus Snape can be a nasty piece of work, can’t he? He happens to be my favorite character in the Harry Potter series, but I admit much of my affection for him may be down to Alan Rickman’s portrayal. As J. K. Rowling herself has said of Snape, he’s not a nice guy. My daughter Maggie and I are reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and we just finished the chapter in which Snape finds the Marauders’ Map and is subsequently insulted by it. Each time I re-read this series, I pick up on nuances I missed before. This time, I noticed Snape seems to know exactly who Messrs. Moony, Padfoot, Wormtail, and Prongs are, though Lupin plays dumb as though he assumes Snape couldn’t have known the nicknames he and his friends used in school. Lupin also seems to be using Occlumency on Snape—Harry notices Lupin’s face goes blank and guesses he must be doing some “quick thinking.” Of course, none of this is exactly the point of my post. With all the hubub surrounding the release of the final Harry Potter movie, and Snape’s vindication (as well as Alan Rickman’s performance) making news for those who hadn’t read the final book, I thought it might be interesting to examine his skills as a teacher.

Most people will read the title and wonder how it’s even in question. After all, Snape is sarcastic and bullies students who are afraid of him (Neville). He is disrespectful to his colleagues (Lupin) in front of their students. He favors students in his own house, Slytherin. He takes away points and gives detentions, sometimes for hardly any reason. Is there anything good about him?

As we learn in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Snape has been protecting Harry out of love for Harry’s mother, and he has taken on the seriously dangerous role of double agent in defiance of the most dangerous dark wizard in recent memory. But what about his teaching? Does he do anything right?

Harry inherits Snape’s old Potions text in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It quickly becomes clear that the notes in the text teach Harry more than he has learned from Professor Slughorn, and he quickly becomes a star in Potions class. It occurred to me that though Harry buys a reference text for Snape’s class (1,001 Magical Herbs and Fungi), any time students are brewing potions, he puts instructions on a chalkboard rather than having students read out of a text, as Professor Slughorn does. One can assume he is sharing his recipe refinements with the class, and perhaps if he didn’t scare them so badly as they worked, they might produce the same quality work as Harry does using Snape’s text in sixth year. Dolores Umbridge questions whether he might not be challenging his students too much—she mentions the Strengthening Solution students are preparing when she observes his lesson as being inappropriate for the students. Snape is also capable of brewing immensely complex potions, such as the Wolfsbane Potion he brews for Lupin during his tenure at Hogwarts. He also is able to brew some concoction that extends Dumbledore’s life after he tangles with the Horcrux made from the Resurrection Stone/Peverell ring belonging to Marvolo Gaunt. Sirius Black reports that Snape arrived at Hogwarts knowing more curses than many seventh-year students, and it is clear from his Potions text that even as a student, he was inventing spells and curses.

Hermione compares Snape’s teaching of Defense Against the Dark Arts to Harry’s teaching of the DA. She mentions they both speak about the Dark Arts with reverence for the sort of power and harm it can cause in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Snape is the only Death Eater described as using a Patronus charm. In addition, as Snape is escaping Hogwarts after killing Dumbledore (by agreement with Dumbledore), and Harry is chasing him, Snape easily deflects all the curses Harry attempts to hit him with and leaves him with what I feel is extremely important advice: that Harry needs to work on nonverbal spells so that he will have an advantage as he gears up to face Voldemort. I don’t think Harry recognized it as such at the time—he wasn’t in any situation to take instruction from Snape at that moment—but it does become important later. In addition to attempting to teach Harry nonverbal spells, Snape also attempts to teach Harry Occlumency so that he can close his mind against Voldemort, one of the most accomplished Legilimens. Though Harry doesn’t master either nonverbal spells or Occlumency under Snape’s tutelage, he does learn the disarming spell, Expelliarmus, at the dueling club meeting run by Professors Lockhart and Snape. Harry uses this spell in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when Voldemort rises again and attacks Harry in the Little Hangleton graveyard. It later becomes his signature. Later, he uses it to defeat Voldemort utterly. A spell to disarm rather than attack—I’ve always found it interesting that Snape chose to demonstrate that particular spell at the dueling club. You can say what you like about his personality, but you can’t deny he knows his subject matter—both Potions and Defense Against the Dark Arts. Knowing one’s subject matter does not necessarily make one a great teacher, however.

Snape has several faults that prevent him from being a good teacher. But it could be argued that he is certainly one of Harry’s most important and effective teachers, and perhaps one of the teachers Harry learns most from.

Image credit: You the doormat, then?

Notes on this post:

  1. I am kind of proud to say I didn’t look up anything except whether it was 1,000 or 1,001 Magical Herbs and Fungi as I wrote this post. I have apparently read this series rather closely. I also Googled some links I share in note 4.
  2. I keep a Severus Snape action figure on my desk and have a Lego Snape keychain. I’m a big fan.
  3. I hope I didn’t annoy readers too much with this bit of Harry Potter indulgence.
  4. The chemistry teacher J. K. Rowling based Snape on died a few months ago of cancer. He had a good sense of humor about his influence on Snape.

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Teaching Literature

remember to thank all the books you haven't read over the past three years

I love teaching literature. I’m not second-guessing my decision to move into technology. I really love working with technology, and I am excited that I’ll be able to do more of it. I’m also excited to be able to help my colleagues integrate technology or learn about technology. I will also still be teaching a British literature course and a writing course. However, as I teach British Romanticism, I have been thinking about how much I enjoy the material, and one thing I fear is that down the road, my school will decide not to let me teach it anymore. Frankly, I’m not sure I could let it go. I’m certainly not ready to let it go yet. I think it would be good for me to remain in the classroom, even in a diminished capacity, because it will keep me fresh for some of the ideas I want to help my colleagues implement. I am also happy at my school. I know that I can possibly team-teach some material with English teachers, but I must admit that if they remove me entirely from the English classroom, I will not know what to do with myself. At my core, I am a British literature teacher. It feeds my soul. Time will tell how it will work out, but I know I am not done teaching English.
Creative Commons License photo credit: ailatan

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Shutting Down Class Discussion

Dana Huff Teaching

I know I said I would talk about tools on Wednesdays, but something came up. A student left a comment on my book blog post “Do You Hate Holden Caulfield?” It seems he had a rather negative (or I should say perceived it was negative) experience. If I understand his comment correctly, he felt silenced in the class discussion because he did not agree with his teacher’s opinion, and he had previously seen his teacher shut one of his peers down for voicing a contrary opinion.

Obviously I was not a member of the class, and I don’t know what was said. I told the student that what I thought had happened was the teacher really enjoys this book and wants students to enjoy it, too. It can be hard when students don’t love the books we love. But we shouldn’t dismiss opinions because they are different from our own. Students do not have the learning and the background with our subjects that we have, and they can make judgments based on much less information than we have. I think it’s our job to challenge students to explain why they make those judgments rather than attacking them for being “wrong.” I think they learn better from us if they feel listened to. I want to emphasize that I don’t know what happened in that classroom, but it sounded to me as if the student was describing a classroom in which he didn’t feel free to share his own conclusions. What he asked me was whether it was OK or right to hate Holden. I gave him my permission, for whatever it’s worth, and I shared my own journey with that character.

I will never forget sharing in an English Education assignment that I didn’t particularly like T.S. Eliot. I guess I hit a nerve because my professor treated me to an embarrassing public lecture on why I was wrong. I still don’t particularly like Eliot, but I understand his importance, and when he comes up in my curriculum, I teach my students to appreciate his work. But all that lecture did is make me dislike Eliot more, and it’s not poor Eliot’s fault.

So how can we share books we love with students and give them permission NOT to love them? How can we challenge them to justify their judgments? I think you should start by being honest with your students about your feelings for a book. They are surprisingly gentle (or at least, my own students have been—your mileage may vary considerably). I think the last message we want to send our students, however uninformed or incorrect we feel they may be, is that their opinions really don’t matter.

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Your Favorite Teacher

Timken Roller Bearing Co., calendar, September 1950, teacher at deskTell me about your favorite teacher.

What role did your favorite teacher have in your own decision to become a teacher? In choosing the grade level or subject matter you teach?

What made your favorite teacher special? Why was he/she your favorite?

In what ways are you like or do you try to be like your favorite teacher?

Creative Commons License photo credit: George Eastman House

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New Year’s Day

Flowers / 花(はな)It’s New Year’s Day for me—the first day of pre-planning. I am teaching two sections of British Literature and Comp., one section of American Literature and Comp., the Hero with a Thousand Faces elective, and Journalism/Newspaper. Newspaper is new for me. I have sponsored a newspaper before, but it has been a few years. I think it’s going to be a good year. Of course, a new year is always exciting for teachers, or at least it is for me.

In addition to the wiki I have created, I decided to use BuddyPress for forums, blogs, and class groups. Jeff Utecht discussed BuddyPress the other day, and though I’d seen it mentioned other places, I finally checked it out after reading Jeff’s tweet, and I have to say I think it’s going to be a really powerful extension of my classroom. Plus, I have my own domain, so why not?

I’m going to have trouble getting used to this back-to-school schedule. I am NOT looking forward to school-supply shopping. Poor Maggie has been bugging me to do it for weeks. She wants a new, more grown-up backpack. I’m just glad I don’t need to get anything for my own classroom—for a change. My own children don’t go back to school until the 23rd. Almost all the other school systems around here started today. I think their system just decided to shorten the year by starting later—systems all over the state are doing it to save money. Sad they have to.

More soon!

Creative Commons License photo credit: TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋)

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Teaching Schedule

Material escolarI received my teaching schedule for next year. I am stepping back into some comfortable areas as well as taking on some new challenges.

I will be teaching two sections (two levels) of British Literature and Composition, same as I did this year, and I will also be teaching my Hero with a Thousand Faces elective first semester and Writing Seminar II second semester. I have taught Writing Seminar II for at least second semester, if not for the whole year, ever since the course was created. The reason for that is the academic research paper is assigned for all tenth graders, including those in that Writing Seminar class, during second semester. Teaching the research paper is one of my areas of expertise, which sounds really self-congratulatory, and I’m not usually like that, but I do understand why I am consistently given the task by my principal.

I am returning to American Literature and Composition, which I haven’t taught for a few years. I already used this word, but that curriculum feels comfortable to me. It will be good to get back into again. I really did kind of miss it.

I am taking on the new challenge of teaching Journalism and running our school paper. I have taught a Journalism course before in middle school, and I feel the course was great considering the lack of support I received by the administration and the lack of materials I received. Aside from getting a local car dealership to underwrite a two-day a week subscription to the newspaper, I had no teaching materials. In my new position, I will have computer access and software, a few seasoned newspaper veterans in the class, and I would wager I’ll have all the support I will need to make a go of it.

As I gave the teacher edition of one of the 9th grade literature anthologies to the teacher who will teach the class next year, I remarked to her that I had taught that course (Grammar, Composition, and Literature CP2) since its inception at our school. Wow. That has been for the last six years. I have taught ninth grade for every year of my high school teaching career. That means teaching Romeo and Juliet and The Odyssey every year for 10 years. It was wearing thin, and when I realized a couple of years ago that I was no longer enjoying teaching even these favorites, I knew I needed a break. Maybe I won’t mind coming back to it after a rest.

I think I have decided not to buy a Teacher’s Daybook this year. I find Jim Burke’s planner to be the best I’ve ever used. It’s flexible, but one struggle I’ve had is that I have a lot of preps and a strange alternating schedule, and in my search for a planner that works better for me, I found this: Planbook by Hellmansoft. The video demonstration gives you a good idea of all the planner can do, but here’s a great description from the site:

Planbook is a lesson planning application developed by Jeff Hellman, a high school science teacher. Planbook is designed to completely replace your paper plan book with an intuitive application that lets you harness the power of the computer to make your lesson planning time more productive. You can enter the schedule that you teach (rotating and A/B schedule are easily handled), quickly enter lesson information, attach files to lessons, track standards, print hard copies of your plans and publish your plans to the web for students, parents and other education professionals and more.

Planbook is simple enough to use that you’ll get going in no time, but robust enough to deal with schedule changes, days with abnormal schedules and just about anything else that comes at you.

Given the price, and given all the strangeness in my schedule, as well as all the features and the fact that its on the computer, it just makes sense. I can use iCal or Things to manage any reminders for non-instructional tasks (such as due dates for college letters or recommendation or meetings).

I’m looking forward to next year. I think it will be a good year.

Creative Commons License photo credit: sergis blog

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“Look What I’m Reading for Pleasure”

I have a student whom I just love (well, a lot of them, actually, but I’m going to focus on just the one today). I have taught her for three years. I teach in a small school, and sometimes that happens. When she was a ninth grader, she let me know she didn’t like to read. One day it dawned on me she might really like Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, so I told her she should check it out—I thought she’d like it. I don’t really remember for sure, but I think she was in tenth grade by that point. She devoured the book. And the next. And the next. She got the last one when it came out.

Yesterday she showed me that she’s reading The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George. She said, “Look what I’m reading, Ms. Huff. For pleasure! For pleasure!” She watches The Tudors and has developed a real interest in the historical personages depicted in the series. This book is nearly 1000 pages long. I know the Twilight books aren’t skinny, but I admit I was impressed. She is excited about next year and the opportunity to take a Shakespeare course. In short, whether she’s a voracious reader or not, I don’t know, but she is a reader now. So am I taking credit for that? Heck yes, I am (/Napoleon Dynamite voice). In all seriousness, I made a suggestion. It seemed casual at the time, but it did have an impact in that my student did read and love the book I suggested for her. But I didn’t do anything, really. The book did.

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Tom Discusses Teacher Shortcuts

I really enjoyed Tom Woodward’s recent post “There Are No Shortcuts at Bionic Teaching,” but I left a comment that really didn’t say all I was thinking.

Tom mentions using fun fonts to make boring content exciting (and has particular ire for Comic Sans).  I have been known to use fun fonts, but I hope I graduated from using them to disguise boring content many years ago.  One of the main issues I had with a recent word processing assignment I did for one of my grad school classes is that it was intended only to see if I could do a variety of different tasks in Word rather than make something attractive, interesting, and substantial in Word.  The resulting document looked like an aesthetic mess to me because I had to single space, double space, triple space; use three different fonts; prove I could bold, italicize, and underline text; and manipulate images for different effects.  I didn’t wind up with a document I could use for anything later.  In fact, I was embarrassed by how it looked (I was following the directions to the letter).  The content was not an important part of the assignment.  I wound up riffing on what I was currently doing with Beowulf in my classes and putting a bunch of Beowulf-related pictures in the document.  I suppose I proved I can use Word to manipulate images and text, but I don’t think the assignment proved I can use it well to create a document that has substantial content and an attractive design.

That said, I don’t use Comic Sans because I teach high school, and I consider it an elementary font, but I don’t have any particular hatred for it.  Still, I think Tom’s larger idea is that some of us create documents that are crammed full of proof that we can manipulate images and text, but that contain little substantial content.  In the interest of full disclosure, though I labored over this decision, you can download a PDF of the document I created here, but I removed my required heading because I think it’s the polite thing to do.  I also removed the file name from the footer because even though my files cannot be accessed except by my teachers and me, I don’t want to give folks who are interested the encouragement to try to break into my files.  By the way, inserting the file name in the footer of only the last page was the only new thing I learned in doing this assignment.  How useful a skill is it?  I don’t know.  We’ll have to see.

Tom also skewers using technology to make a boring assignment interesting.  Too many teachers fall prey to this trap with Power Point.  I have seen more Power Point presentations that make me want to tear my eyes out!  I would much rather listen to someone talk without visuals at all than view a poorly designed Power Point.  I think this guy captures Death by Power Point really well:

And this guy shows how you can use it effectively to enhance a presentation:

I liked what Tom said about “digital native/digital immigrant” terminology.  I have yet to meet more than a handful of students who know as much or more about technology than I do, and that’s not boasting — it’s an observation.  Granted, I think I know a bit more than the average teacher, but everything I know I taught myself by playing around with it.  I haven’t worked with too many students who are willing to play around with a bit of code or a piece of software to see what happens.  To my discredit, I admit sometimes (a lot of times), I take the easy way out of showing them instead of letting them struggle with it a bit.  How much better would they learn if I asked them to teach themselves a bit?  Likewise, teachers labeling themselves digital immigrants can be a way of giving themselves a pass on being ignorant about technology.  I’m not saying teachers all need to be Vicki Davis (though she’s wonderful and it would be great if more of us were on her level), but I think we’re past the point at which it’s OK to be a complete luddite.

As an addendum to Tom’s admonition about “faking it,” as he did, I can say only that when you genuinely like and understand something the students like, and connection is genuine, it’s wonderful.  I don’t pretend to be up on everything my students listen to, but the ones who like classic rock know I’m a pretty good resource, and if they have a question, they ask me.  That’s genuine interest.  I can talk about my passions, and Tom is right — that’s what students are interested in seeing — not that I like what they like or that I’ve latched on to the latest trend in education.  I can remember vividly the occasions when I saw my teachers’ passions shared and finding what they had to say intriguing even if I didn’t necessarily share that passion.  A good case in point was a recent class of my own that was derailed by a passionate discussion between a visiting teacher and me about why it is important that “Han shot first.”  Truly, the students couldn’t have cared less about the issue (we are going to study Star Wars in that class beginning next week — it’s my Hero elective class), and most of them haven’t even seen the movie (!!!), but they remarked later on how interesting the discussion was.  I felt like a failure after letting my class go off on such a long tangent (we discussed The Iliad very little that day), but perhaps it will be valuable in some other way down the road.  At any rate, they saw two individuals talk about an issue they both knew a lot about and felt really strongly about, and I think their interest in studying the movie is piqued.  And I suppose we were both certainly really ourselves in front of the students.

If you want to a see a teacher who is passionate about what he does and uses technology effectively not only to create handouts that are informative and attractive but also to have his students create thoughtful presentations with Power Point, you need to check out my friend Joe Scotese’s site.  He blows me away.  To me, Joe is a perfect of example of avoiding the shortcuts Tom discusses in his post.  At any rate, Tom’s post resonated with me so strongly that all I could really do was agree at the time.  After spending a couple of days thinking about it, I decided that for all the reasons I have discussed, Tom’s shortcuts shortchange our students, and they don’t make us good teachers or help our students learn.

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