In 2006, an idealistic New York public school teacher named Kevin
Greer joined the faculty of an idealistic new high school, Brooklyn
Community Arts and Media. Mr. Greer had previously taught English
to 12th-grade honors students at Dewitt Clinton, a huge high school
in the Bronx.
At BCAM, which hoped to inspire students with an arts-driven
curriculum, he would be teaching ninth-graders. Most of the
students had not chosen BCAM but had simply been assigned to the
school. They weren't nearly as self-motivated as Mr. Greer's former
students. Many if not most of them read below grade level.
Mr. Greer's first approach to teaching these students was to
refuse to concede to their obvious difficulties. He taught Plato
and lectured about such things as "the rhetorical strategy of
repetition of a phrase at the beginning of clauses. We call it
anaphora." He seemed distant from the students, and they reacted in
kind, yawning or talking among themselves. Mr. Greer knew he was
not getting through to them. He was frustrated.
Three years later, when members of this first BCAM class were
seniors, Mr. Greer decided to teach a poetry class revolving around
William Blake's "Songs of Innocence and of Experience." This time,
his demeanor was completely different. He engaged the students by
asking them what their own definition of poetry was - and they
responded eagerly. He was more relaxed and more confident.
"I had to learn how to really break things down," he told me
recently. "I had to learn to work on several levels at a time."
Because, after all, he had students of various abilities in his
I know these details about Kevin Greer's classroom performance
because I recently saw a documentary about BCAM that has been
passed from teachers' group to teachers' group, from reformers to
union executives, like samizdat. The film, called "The New Public"
and produced and directed by a filmmaker named Jyllian Gunther,
tracks that first BCAM class in both the class' first and last
years at the school.
Once she finished the film, Ms. Gunther sent it around the
various film festivals. None of them bit. "The New Public" was
shown once on PBS, but aside from that, it has not been seen
widely. Instead, teachers - as well as those who teach teachers -
have slowly found out about it and have embraced it.
Partly this is because it is the rare film that sympathetically
conveys how hard it is to be a teacher in an inner-city school. …