Independent Lens: Season 6, Episode 10

A Touch of Greatness (11 Jan. 2005)

TV Episode  -   -  Documentary
8.4
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The remarkable teacher Albert Cullum broke the mold for the boring, uninspiring public school teachers in the 1950s and 60s. This film depicts how he inspired his students of all ages ... See full summary »

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Cast

Episode credited cast:
Albert Cullum ...
Himself
Laurie Heineman ...
Herself
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Himself - Host
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Storyline

The remarkable teacher Albert Cullum broke the mold for the boring, uninspiring public school teachers in the 1950s and 60s. This film depicts how he inspired his students of all ages through movement and imagination, and how he challenged them to want to learn more through acting in theatrical productions of the classics. The productions were unconventional by every school standard, but gained recognition throughout the state for being groundbreaking and inspiring. Written by Zen Bones

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teacher | innovation

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Documentary

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Not Rated
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11 January 2005 (USA)  »

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User Reviews

Yearning for a Story
14 June 2006 | by (Virginia Beach) – See all my reviews

I have a writer friend who was appalled at how her fifthgrader was taught history. Rote memorization of facts, mostly dates. She believed, as do I, that the social contract each of us has with the rest of the world demands that we understand enough history to be lucid citizens.

She resolved to fix this and wrote a series of history texts for fifth graders. They have turned out to be popular and she is thus celebrated. She turns history into a series of stories, nearly all about famous people and writes these stories as a good storyteller would. She would say as a good journalist would.

Kids do love these stories. And they actually think they are learning history. But retaining something isn't the same as understanding the dynamics behind it. Many history educators think this storifying of history is worse than what we had before. Before, either you got it or you didn't and knew when you didn't.

Now you learn a story about Johnny Tremain and fool yourself into thinking you understand the American revolution and by extension the enlightenment and the emergence of rights. When I ask this "teacher" she says the hard part is getting kids motivated, engaged. If they are excited about history and reading, they will be drawn to read "deeper." The statistics show otherwise. You can hardly trust kid's enthusiasm as a measure for what works and what is worthwhile.

That as background to this. It is a film about a certain fifth grade teacher fifty years ago. We all know American education, then and now in its industrialized approach is profoundly broken. And that it breaks and ruins kids, and fails to save others that it might. And that it is provincial in how it evolves. All this we know, and most of us through direct experience.

Ostensibly this is a story about one warrior in the classroom, someone with insight, exuberance and commitment. Someone who made a difference and might have spawned many others like him were it not for the gangs of lemonfaced hatchetwomen who presumably drove him out of the schoolhouse.

We see some footage from his class, from his copious plays with kids, a "reunion" with the adult extensions of some of the kids we see earlier. And then this segues to interviews with a few of those adults who we see as successful beings.

The philosophy has lots of buzzwords that mean nothing without context. The context is everything. Though we see some play with a huge map on playground concrete, the thing centers on the plays.

These, by the way were the core of an earlier movie of the same name by Robert Downey Sr. Kids and Shakespeare. By having them do bits of Shakespeare (and Shaw), they feel empowered and other good things. And the implication is that they actually get some of the magic of the art within. I'll leave it to the viewer to judge whether this is true, or even possible.

Viewers who appreciate folding will be amazed at the levels of stories here.

There's the story that our teacher weaves with his kids, about fun and discovery. There's the story that groups of these kids present in their plays, against the richer grand stories that Shakespeare wrote. Two stories from the teacher, one of blossoming souls through this process, the other with he of weaver of a metastory.

These latter two are invested in a movie he planned and directed with Downey. We actually see Downey talk about how difficult it was to create a story that worked with the pieces that our teacher provided.

Then we have the grander story that is the delimiter of this documentary, all those stories together. Included therein are stories the adults tell to us and separately to their aging mentor.

They are inexpertly woven. In fact this is a dreadful documentary. It even starts for the first half hour with that horrible perky honking you get with cheap training films. Only because we impress the whole enterprise with our own yearning for some story that fights the mundane, a story that is superimposed on this mess, does it all seem clear and wonderful and endearing.

(No mention of course of his outward gayness, which might have played a role in parent's unease fifty years ago.)

Ted's Evaluation -- 2 of 3: Has some interesting elements.


2 of 8 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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