Saturday, February 6, 2010

Plot Structure and Teaching

There is a linguistics professor at Georgetown who specializes in the way that people unconsciously convert their lives into narratives. As we relate important events, over time what we tell begins to have a more and more story-like structure with the typical plot elements of rising action, climax, and resolution. We may even add in devices like foreshadowing for effect. It's not that we're lying, but we're trying to see the sense in our lives, and telling stories is the ways that humans construct pattern and meaning.

We're fixated on traditional plots, in fact. Maybe this is why every romantic comedy is staler and more clich├ęd than the last. It's become so bad that I only saw the poster for the latest Amy Adams movie and I could summarize the entire plot. And then when you do finally get a movie with a more innovative story, which maybe defies a convention or two, you get people complaining, "this movie has no plot!"

I do think our lives have meaning, or at least that they can be meaningful if we choose to live deliberately. But I also think that real life doesn't fit well into the traditional plot structure boxes, and maybe this is why so many movies on subjects I know and understand very well play a little false. Take "Stand and Deliver"--a great film, based on the very real and very inspirational teaching career of Jaime Escalante. Watching it again as a new teacher, I couldn't help but feel very discouraged: I had challenging students and background deficits to overcome, just as he did, but I never reached the triumphant turning point where the troubled student became inspired, cooperative, and suddenly blossomed into a star.

I had the same experience with "Freedom Writers." The opening scenes where she feels overwhelmed and discouraged are familiar; likewise I can absolutely relate to her determination and the way she is touched by her students’ daunting struggles. Again, though, I have never had a breakthrough with the toughest kid in the way the movie portrayed, and while I feel that students have learned well and been successful, I’ve never achieved anything approaching the soaring triumph of so many traditionally low-achieving students. What I have seen is the student who was failing come to a realization of his potential and convert F’s into C’s, or a child who claimed to hate reading realize that maybe reading could be okay if she could just find the right book.

Teaching, much like I imagine parenting, is powerful, but you cannot work all miracles. Reading up about “Stand and Deliver,” I learned that Jaime Escalante pointed out the discrepancies between the film and reality: the years that passed between beginning his teaching career and offering the advanced mathematics courses, and more notably the fact that students in remedial math could never have taken advanced calculus and been successful on the AP exam, particularly in the passage of one year. I am glad that the screenwriters and directors of these films chose to convey a positive message, but I can’t help thinking that the message could still be inspiring if it admitted the occasional failure, the outlier to the traditional plot. I recently saw “The Class”, a French film based on the memoirs of a middle school teacher working in a troubled, low-income school. There is a moment towards the beginning of the film where he has a bit of a breakthrough with one of his most reluctant students. You see the student beaming and can sense the teacher’s thrill. And then later, the same student has a violent outburst in class, at least partially caused by the teacher’s thoughtless and offensive comment regarding another student; the student is later expelled, and you hear no more about him. The moment is heartbreaking, depressing, but ultimately truthful.

I do believe there is purpose behind my work, and that keeps me motivated. But I also have a string of "stories" with no resolution--their names are Rosbin, Helton, Danny, Huma, Suju, Elber, Nelson. Perhaps a stronger teacher could have found a way to help these students succeed. Or perhaps their stories more accurately represent the truth of my profession—the kids whose unresolved failures fit so poorly into a traditional plot.

1 comment:

Merideth said...

Wow! I'm so touched by your insight and honesty!