The Gift, a.k.a “Waiting for Superman”

This morning, I received an email from my dear friend Maya Soetoro-Ng, a lifelong educator and all-around deep thinker, who wrote to her friends and family after seeing Waiting for Superman. Please read it — her way of framing the opportunity provided by the film is exactly what we need to hear.

(Incidentally, plans are underway for the sort of outreach she calls for in early 2011. Email me — — if you want to learn more . . .)

Dear friend and caring community member,

I only have a few minutes right now, so my evaluation will be necessarily incomplete, but I want to share some thoughts about Guggenheim’s new documentary, “Waiting for Superman”, which I saw last night (I had only seen several discrete segments before).

At the point in the film when children were crying because they weren’t selected in school lotteries, many people around me couldn’t suppress tears and, as a mother of two girls, I too felt intense grief and empathy for the parents of the children.  After the film, I spoke with a wonderful longtime public school teacher and she was teary as well, for a different reason; she was shedding tears of frustration about the fact that the film ignored the enormous commitment and talent of many public DOE teachers and the great work taking place in the classrooms and schools where they throw in their hands and spend large parts of their days. I was one of Randi’s teachers myself in my first years of teaching in NYC. I was even the union rep. for a couple of years. I do understand the hurt, but I urged this teacher not to let the imbalanced nature of the documentary frustrate her, and instead to go talk with others in the community about what she knows, feels, remembers, and can use to help make schools even stronger.

Marveling at the emotion generated by both those who are critical of the film and those who wholly accept the film’s assessments, I’ve become increasingly glad that this imperfect but also compelling film has come along at this time.   Here’s what I hope doesn’t happen:  I hope that we don’t grow more embittered and angry with one another and expend huge amounts of energy in senseless shouting; I hope that public school teachers are not vilified by people who think that they know more than they know about what happens in classrooms.  I hope that the film’s emphasis on test scores doesn’t make us lose sight of the many other potent and meaningful forms of learning and assessment that exist like creative writing, projects of civic engagement, Socratic learning forums, and multifaceted portfolio presentations.

Here’s what I hope happens:  I hope that the film will increase the amount and caliber of dialogue between teachers, administrators, community members, and parents.  I hope that it will encourage teachers everywhere to share their craft and schools loudly and proudly, when pride is merited, and welcome the community’s assistance as well as new opportunities for collaboration.  I hope that the film will help people to see the importance of graceful negotiation when trying to change a system and recognize the true power of persuasion.  I hope that people will think of public schools as belonging to all of us, regardless of whether we have kids in the system, or have kids period.

I hope that we begin to view successful experiments, like good charter schools, as opportunities for evaluation and implementation of best practices.  Of course a larger percentage of charter schools are healthy learning environments, not because the teachers are all better but for the following reasons: charter schools are usually smaller and therefore more manageable; school charters require greater buy-in and contribution from parents; charter schools have the freedom to create cohesive school cultures surrounding issues of local interest and imperative (i.e. Hawaiian language and cultural immersion schools); the choice and freedom in charter schools often allow for a greater sense of ownership by teachers, students, and administrators; and whether conversion schools or new, charter schools are often built using innovations that have been tested and found effective in older, larger, and more overwhelmed regular DOE schools.

Now it is time to reverse the flow of innovation and use charter schools as laboratories for what might work in larger DOE schools.  Let leaders of schools, government, and community focus on building a strong sense of school family, or ohana, in every public school with less tracking, smaller class sizes, smaller learning groups within the classroom, and family-style attention to the whole child.  Let’s think about how to get the community more actively involved in public schools, find new ways for families to participate and share in the culture of the school, and bring the kids out into the community more.  Let’s work to offer free after school, extended year, and parent-enrichment programs, and have school event daycare options for single and overworked parents.  Let’s think of our public schools as the center—the beating heart—of our communities.   Go check out the film, by all means, but then let’s keep talking. With mighty love,


Categories: Democracy, Learning

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  1. Sue Franklin
    Posted October 21, 2010 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Publicly funded yet privately managed – Charter School fraud is an easy concept. Charters can be succesful it depends on the “agenda” of the the managing company. Accountability has not caught up to the growth of the Charter movement. In the USA we have an Islamic Imam – Fethullah Gulen (Gulen Movement) that manages over 130 US Charter schools they have taken over $1 billion in Educational monies in the last 10 years and are growing like rapid fire.
    The Gulen schools have a network of foundations and instutitions layered over the schools and much of our educational money is going to non-educational expenses such as: Turkish Olympiads, trips to Turkey for the students and local politicians, H1-b Visas of over 2,000 uncredentialed teachers from Turkey (while American teachers are handed pink slips) this money is to fuel the grand ambition of Fethullah Gulen who lives in exile (for a reason) in the Poconos, PA area with his $25 billion in wealth from inflitration in: education, media, police, poltics and military. Seems the same model works very nicely in the USA. Do your research!!!

  2. ajohan
    Posted October 30, 2010 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Why should innovative educational programs be incubated in small charter schools, (especially when charters essentially have been using innovative programs regular public schools originally incubated) and then regurgitated back to the public schools? This argument is not logical.

    Overall I agree with this beautifully articulated vision of education. But I had a problem with the rather circular argument for charter schools.

    (And I checked the above websites about charter schools recommended by Sue Franklin–WHOA! Her assertions are scary and true.)

    Thank you, Sam Chaltain, for your blog. Keep democracy alive!

  3. Posted November 2, 2010 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    My first problem with the movie is the title, which implies the solution to problems lies in waiting for a super being to fly in and solve our problems for us. This is a very undemocratic concept, implying that we as individuals, or as groups, are incapable of necessary action.

    This idea has been drummed into our heads since toddlerhood, and is the basis of the majority of plot lines for movies, TV, literature, cartoons, video games and so forth. The misterious lone stranger rides into town, beats up or shoots the local bully and his gang of ruffians, and rides off into the sunset. A super being emerges when needed, and solves the problem using force and violence, and we all cheer, leaving the theater feeling good that fairness and justice has been achieved.

    This is such a bad idea to grow up with. It proposes that thoughtful analysis, full discussion, wide participation and concerted action is for sissies and not a viable means of dealing with what issues confront us.

    It also presents a feeling that we as individuals are really unworthy to tackle such a big problem as education, for instance. Charter schools are placed in the role orf the officially anointed hero, because they don’t have to play by the same rules as ordinary schools (Do you get the lone gunman metaphor here?)

    The reality is that any school has the power to “rise above it” on their own, should they choose to do so. For example, every teacher is the emperor of his or her own classroom, and no one, except the kids and that teacher, know what goes on after the door is closed. (As a former principal, that was always one of my main frustrations). Policy and regulations are unevenly enforced, often ignored, by omission and comission every day.

    Now, suppose that all the teachers in a school decided to “do their own thing” as a school–and not tell anybody. They decide to operate as if all the doors were closed, and no one would be the wiser. I actually did that at a school where I was principal, and it took the central office nearly six months to find out. I expected that we would have to strenuously defend our program and actions, for we were in numerous violations of district policy. We liked what was happening for kids, and we were prepared to apologise and take our reprimands.

    However, we were suprized to learn that the District’s response was to send visitors to our school, touting it as an innovative example of good education practice.

    The message here is that we have more power to affect our own lives and those of those around us than we believe. We do not have to “Wait for Superman”, or anyone else. No one knows our own local situation as well as we do ourselves. We are the “Supermen and Superwomen” best qualified to do it. It is time to stop “waiting” and get on with it.

    Robert Frost put it so well in “Two Roads”– “I took the one less traveled by; and that has made all the difference.

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