Engaging the Bright Boys and Bright Girls

In his review of Laurent Contet’s award-winning film The Class, Roger Ebert writes “A school year begins with the teacher as top dog. Whether it ends that way is the test of a good teacher. Do you stay on top with strict discipline? With humor? By becoming the students’ friend? Will they sense your strategy?”

One of the challenges any teacher faces comes from the brightest students in class. Teachers must ensure that most students understand the material, which often leaves the brightest bored. They will often express their boredom by challenging the teacher’s intellectual authority. How does the teacher respond?

The movie Stand and Deliver presents an instance where the teacher, math instructor Jaime Escalante, responds successfully. Escalante quickly spots the class leader, Angel (played by Lou Diamond Phillips), demonstrates that math is worth knowing and that he knows more of it, and then cuts a deal with him. Escalante gives Angel an extra text book to keep at home, so that he will never be seen to be so uncool as to carry a text book, in exchange for which Angel will do the work and thus lead by example.

In The Class, the main challenge to teacher Francois Marin’s authority comes from Esmerelda (played by Esmerelda Ouertani). Esmerelda knows her grammar well and is bored by the readings Marin assigns. Marin is unnecessarily provocative, for example when Esmerelda says that she often goes to Galleries Lafayette, he expresses surprise that she ever ventures outside her own neighborhood, the definitely unchic 20th arrondissement.

Esmerelda’s most threatening moment comes when she participates as student rep in a faculty meeting to assess the students’ progress, and then promptly reports all Marin’s critical comments to the students. In response, he criticizes her – in the classroom – for behaving like a skank. This accusation got under her skin. In the last session of class, when Marin asked the students what they had learned during the year, Esmerelda answered that she learned nothing from the books he assigned, but that she had read The Republic. After demonstrating – in response to his questions – that she really had read it, she proudly announced that it wasn’t a skank’s book.

Clearly, the relationship between Marin and Esmerelda was a troubled one, with each pushing the other’s buttons. How should a teacher respond to an Esmerelda?

The standard response would be some sort of enriched curriculum. Some public school systems have magnet schools or enriched programs for their Esmereldas (e.g. Bronx Science in New York or Claude Watson School for the Arts in Toronto). If they had the means, the parents of an Esmerelda might send her to an academically enriched private school such as University of Toronto Schools. In The Class, these options don’t seem to have been available, so Marin would have had to take it upon himself to do the extra work of designing a personalized curriculum for Esmerelda and monitoring her progress.

The additional material on the DVD tells us that the students participated in an acting workshop. Furthermore, the student who played Esmerelda – Esmerelda Ouertani – used her own name and told us that she really wasn’t acting because the character Esmerelda was exactly the person she is. So we have a paradox here. The real Esmerelda Oeuertani found enrichment in her education by portraying an Esmerelda Ouertani who was bored by the curriculum.

I close on a personal note. Looking back at myself during high school, I see quite a bit of Esmerelda in me. I recall that in Grade 12 I got 73 out of 75 on a history exam and, when the teacher was discussing the exam, I was reading a newspaper. The teacher kicked me out of class for a week. This penalty made it clear that he was offended, but it certainly didn’t engage me. To this day, I remember the penalty, but I don’t at all remember the teacher.

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