With students gearing up for a return to school later this month, Professor Mike Yawn set out to explore local teachers’ favorite “educational” films—movies that either take place in an educational setting or that can be used for educational purposes. Yawn interviewed Lisa Cording Burns (Mance Park Middle School), Dr. Bernadette Pruitt (SHSU History Department), Nancy Davidhizar (Alpha Omega), and Dr. Ralph Pease (SHSU English Department), shining a light on their methods for reaching students in the classroom.
Lisa Cording Burns grew up in Huntsville, graduated from Sam Houston State University with a degree in Education in 1988, and has been teaching at HISD for the past twenty-five years.
Mike Yawn: What’s your favorite “educational” film?
Lisa Burns: I’m going with the 1983 film by Francis Ford Coppola “The Outsiders.”
MY: That was one of several films from the early eighties with a coming-of-age theme and lots of up-and-coming actors.
LB: Right. I personally connected with it as a young person when it came out, but as a teacher I’ve also seen how it changes how my students think of one another and their awareness of different cultures in the high-school community. One of the lines that sticks with my students is, “things are rough all over.” The students see that despite superficial differences, people have basic commonalities, and we all want and should expect kindness from others. I think that’s a powerful part of the movie that gets overlooked.
MY: Do the students see beyond differences in era and understand the basic message?
LB: Yes, the film prompts them to analyze themselves and others. Maybe they didn’t realize the person sitting next to them doesn’t have food to eat or proper clothes to wear. Or that another person in the class, while from a wealthier family, may still have a horrible home life. That awareness spurs a profound change in the classroom. I’ve had Huntsville High football players cry in class when Johnny dies in the movie. I’ve had college students write to me years later, saying that the film stayed with them. They relate to these characters.
MY: Speaking of characters, it’s notable for starting many careers. Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Rob Lowe, and Diane Lane were all in it. Do they recognize any of these people in movies today?
LB: Yes. Diane Lane, for example, was on a magazine cover recently, and a student brought it to show me. The students look up the actors to see how they’ve changed over the years. It was the breakout movie for a lot of these “brat pack” actors.
MY: Now, do you have the students read the novel, “The Outsiders,” by S. E. Hinton?
LB: Yes, and it works with students of all levels. I’ve had students in the Gifted and Talented program as well as from lower levels really respond to the book. It may not be as literarily acclaimed as some other options, but it’s a good start to get my students hooked on literature and to analyze film actively. I expose students to a great deal of literature, including some modern works such as “The Hunger Games” or “The Fault in Our Stars.” But at the end of the year when the students do the evaluation, they tell me their favorite was “The Outsiders.”
Dr. Bernadette Pruitt received her Bachelors and Masters degrees from Texas Southern University and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Houston. She has been teaching at SHSU since 1996.
Mike Yawn: What’s your favorite film that involves the educational system?
Bernadette Pruitt: Probably the “Roots” series, particularly “Roots: The Next Generation” because it pays homage to the sacrifices African-descent Americans made following the transition from slavery to freedom. Certain episodes in particular do a fine job of showing the roles that African-Americans played in establishing public education in the South—African-American elected officials pushing for public education not just for blacks, but for all southerners.
“The Next Generation” tracks the relevance of building strong communities from within, a message that is oftentimes lost today. We are reminded of the negative, and we sometimes fail to remember that even amidst many challenges, people had hope. A lot of that hope was centered around education.
MY: Ruby Dee was in “Roots: The Next Generation,” and she inspired many people with her career on television, film, and stage. In the latter, I think she was in everything from “Arsenic and Old Lace” to Shakespearean plays.
BP: Exactly, she and her husband, Ossie Davis, were a part of the early African-American actors groups that were doing interesting things. Oscar Micheaux and others were producing movies that didn’t relegate African-Americans to stereotypical figures. They show that, despite challenges, black people are inspired to be creative.
MY: Are there any less lofty films, of the “high-school” fun variety, that you enjoy?
BP: I enjoyed the television series, “A Different World,” which highlighted the African-American experience on a historical black college campus in th
e 1980s and 1990s. There were kids who got in trouble, horsing around or not studying, but there were also geniuses, the people who went on to graduate schools, to become engineers, businessmen, and businesswomen.
MY: Bill Cosby was the first African-American to have a starring role on television in a dramatic role, in “I Spy” in the 1960s.
BP: Yes, Dr. William Cosby opened a lot of doors and helped show the world that there are African Americans who are educated, talented and multi-faceted. They are into art, they are creative, they inspire people, and most important, they pass these qualities on to their kids, who go on and excel and do well. Everyone loves Cosby.
MY: What about some of your non-educational favorites?
BP: I’m really into the nostalgic horror films, the Universal Horror films of the 1930s and 1940s. Probably my favorite film is Boris Karloff’s “Frankenstein.”
MY: “Gods and Monsters”  was a particularly good movie about James Whale, who directed many of those films including “Frankenstein.”
BP: That’s a wonderful film. To me those horror films told the story of people who are downtrodden, people left behind by society, and I think that’s an important story to tell.
Nancy Davidhizar has been teaching for almost twenty-five years, with experience in private school, public school, and home-school students. She currently teaches at Alpha Omega in Huntsville, Texas.
MY: What’s your favorite film that relates to the educational process?
ND: Well, most recently I’ve been thinking about “Jane Eyre,” which of course came from a classical work of literature, one written by Charlotte Bronte. This is the 1997 version by A&E, starring Samantha Morton, and it captures the depth of the work. It not only has good character development and an excellent storyline, but it also has a main character struggling with life’s questions. It’s a part of what we call the “Great Conversation,” with questions such as: What is the purpose of man? Is there a God? What is my relationship to God? How should I respond to temptation?
MY: Can you elaborate on how you relate these questions to young people in the classroom?
ND: It’s a great book or movie for Junior High and High-School students. The main character has to struggle with her love for a man. She wanted to be appropriate in her actions, and be consistent with God’s Word. In a world with a lot of temptations and a culture that doesn’t necessarily encourage correct behavior, these questions are pertinent to young people.
MY: …If I recall, “Jane Eyre” gets even more complicated…
ND: Well, as the story progresses, the main character learns that the man she loves is married, and his insane wife is locked up in the estate. This produces another struggle. Jane still loves Mr. Rochester but knows she cannot marry a man who already has a wife. She literally cries out to God. She pleads for wisdom in how to reconcile her love for this man and what she thinks is right. For young people, the work illustrates that life is full of struggles, but also that there are answers to those struggles.
MY: On a larger level, why do you think it is important to address these questions with young people?
ND: It’s been in my heart, because even students of Christian schools and other private schools struggle with the same things everybody else struggles with. I think it’s important that we use the right tools to share the truth with them and help them through their teenage and college struggles. And I think a classical-themed education helps us reach out to them and teach them these things.
MY: I think that’s important for adults, too. You may have heard of the 1990s film “The Madness of King George.”
MY: It was about King George III and originally titled, “The Madness of King George III.” Unfortunately, audiences didn’t know who King George III was, and they erroneously assumed it was a sequel. They figured they hadn’t seen the first two movies, so they said they probably wouldn’t see this one, either. The studio had to change the movie title. So, I applaud your efforts to produce young people well versed with history, literature, and art.
ND: [laughing] Thank you.
Dr. Ralph Pease received his Ph.D. in English in 1972, and he has been teaching at SHSU for forty-one years.
Mike Yawn: What’s your favorite “educational” film?
Ralph Pease: One of them is “Teacher’s Pet,” starring Clark Gable, Doris Day, and Gig Young. It’s about a newspaper editor [Gable] and a journalism professor [Day] who fall in love while clashing over the relative importance of education and experience. It’s a funny and engaging film, but it illustrates the difference between education and wisdom. You and I, being in academia, know that one is not necessarily the same as the other. Of course, to excel in a profession, you need both, and that’s what the characters learn.
MY: Are you sure you didn’t pick it just because Mamie Van Doren is in it?
RP: [Chuckles] Despite the fact that Mamie Van Doren is in the film, I still enjoy it.
MY: What about other films?
RP: People like “Goodbye Mr. Chips” , and I do, too. Many people think that good teachers are born rather than developed. But Chips shows that these skills can be developed, and I think that’s true.
MY: What do you think about “Dazed and Confused” , a film by Richard Linklater, who grew up in Huntsville and reportedly based some of the film on events he witnessed?
RP: For my wife, Linda, and me, it was a lot of fun to see the movie because we had heard some of these stories living in Huntsville. The film is based in part on actual events in Huntsville. I also liked that Linklater depicted a lot of the parents as caring, cool, and doing their best to raise their kids. That’s probably because he has such a great mom [Diane Linklater], who did a great job raising Richard.
I think some of those high-school films are a lot of fun. Remember in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” when Sean Penn orders a pizza in the classroom? Not only was it funny, but it shows the professor handling things the right way. Rather than act heavy handed, he rolls with the punches, grabs a slice himself, and continues teaching. Sometimes that’s what you’ve got to do in the classroom.
One more thing—films are a lot of fun, and they can be provocative and great topics for conversation. As an example, back when I was doing film critiques for the Item, I got a letter from Peter Grivich, who disagreed with one of my columns. We got in a wonderful discussion about films, and he ended up taking my Literature and Film class. He’s smart, and a good writer, too. Films spur these kinds of discussions, allowing people to exchange ideas and uncover things about the films. But these discussions also uncover things ourselves and the society in which we live.