Breakout #4: Schools Hit the Big Screen: Influencing the Public Mindset

May 12, 2010

Participants at NewSchools Summit got a sneak preview today of  three new documentary films that highlight both the failure of public schools to serve minority students and the efforts of visionary entrepreneurs to provide underserved children with a first rate education. Waiting for Superman, Teached and The Lottery are set to hit the big screen later this year and catapult public education into the public spotlight.  Today’s NewSchools Summit panel – including John Schreiber, who produced Superman, (as well as An Inconvenient Truth and Food, Inc) for Participant Media Co., Kelly Amis, a teacher turned film maker who has directed  the new documentary Teached, and Eric Alter  from SEED Charter Schools in Baltimore and Washington  DC, whose students and teachers appear in Superman,  discussed how documentaries can be leveraged to build momentum for education reform.

Moderator Kira Orange- Jones who now runs Teach for America in New Orleans spoke about her own experience with film: “I started using documentary film as a medium to give my students a voice, she recalled, “my students and their families were not being heard or represented in the media they were  watching every night at home.”   She invited the panel and the audience to explore the unique power of film to capture the experiences of children, families and school innovators and inspire the public to demand great teaching and great schools for all kids.

Schreiber gave us a mini preview of Waiting for Superman, the new documentary by Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim that won the Audience Award for documentary film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.  Participant Media, says Schreiber, tries to “make films with meaning and use them to harness the power of the audience to make change.” “ Our goal,” he said “is to make education top of mind for a lot more people and hopefully, to motivate millions of people to take action based on the film,” as they did in the case of Inconvenient Truth.

Amis spoke about her motivation for making “Teached,” a documentary meant to focus attention on the poor quality of teaching to be found in far too many inner city schools. “It was hard for me to make an emotional connection with all the statistics we use to demonstrate the need for education reform,” said Amis. “Even educated people can’t fathom that there are teachers who aren’t teaching or teachers telling kids they’re stupid.  I wanted to tell those stories and I think film is the best way to do it.”

Eric Alter also talked about the emotional power of film in response to Orange-Jones’ question about what motivated him to participate in the production of Superman.  “There are many reasons we participated,” said Alter, “but the main reason is that people are going to see this film and they are going to fall in love with these kids and they are going to want good things happen to them—very very much. No one is going to walk out of theater who does not CARE and I think that will motivate them to do something.”

Film maker Madeleine Sackler whose film The Lottery will be released on June 8th, made a surprise appearance at the session.  Her film, too, focuses on 4 inner city families and their efforts to overcome the obstacles to enrolling their children in top-rated charter schools.  Sackler made an eloquent plea to the audience to make sure the films are seen.  Echoing her words, John Schreiber summed up the film makers’ hopes that “if we can get these films in the market and get them seen,  then we’ll be able to create a national conversation about education reform that will take on a life of its own and last long after the films have left the theaters.”