Friday, August 31, 2007

Chalk: grainy indie film on teaching in high school

Chalk (2006, directed by Mike Akel, Written with Chris Maas, distributed by Virgil, Hart Sharpe and Morgan Spurlock Presents, 85 min, PG-13) is making rounds at indie theaters as school starts. A comedy docudrama about four public school teachers and administrators, is starts out by telling us that 30% of all new teachers quit within the first three years. It proceeds to present teaching not as a job but as a wholly consuming life that forces teachers into confrontations with one another that make them seem like “The Kids,” a life that may watch The Outside World go by. It is filmed in Austin, TX and spread out over a school year, counting days to Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring Break and Summer.

The film is shot in digital video, seemingly with handheld cameras, in a style that looks like Dogme. I saw it at a Landmark Theater in Washington DC in a large auditorium, filled mostly with young teachers and some high school students, hopefully not the kind to get senioritis this year. The digital projection did not fill the normal screen, but cropped the 1.85 to 1 image on an area normally used just in 1.33 to 1.

The most important character is the first year history teacher, Andrew Lowrey (Troy Schremmer), a laid-off and recently divorced computer engineer, still youthful, thirtyish. He stammers and improvises in front of the class and staggers through the year with classroom management issues. Another history teacher Mr. Stroope (Maas) lives through the idea of becoming teacher of the year but is intimidated by a sassy student who knows more than he does. Soon Lowrey has that problem with a student who challenges him over cell phone discipline. Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer, presumably Troy’s wife) teaches co-ed PE and says that the idea that most PE teachers are gay (especially that most female PE teachers are lesbians) is a myth, distantly relevant, I think, to the gays in the military debate; Webb actually fantasies a heterosexual fling with Lowrey in alter-light.) Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan) has recently become ans AP – and we learn that doesn’t mean Advanced Placement, but Assistant Principal. Webb has a lot of people problems, and wanting to enforce IPR hall monitor rules is a real hangup.

This rondo-form film advances into some amusing episodes, such as the "spelling hornet" with teachers as contestants spelling kids' slang (Mr. Lowrey wins, as evidence of his socialization as a teacher), and then the home visit of Lowrey to one of the (female) parents, who gives him pointers on eye contact and personal charisma, a strangely humiliating encounter. There are some other telling scenes that really deal with school issues, such as a discussion about preparing and turning in lesson plans (that's what substitutes depend on) a week before they are taught, and even a discussion about teacher "integrity."

Then there are The Kids. They do not look appealing in this film. The film shows many of them as obese, unkempt, and indifferent at best. (Even the skateboarders don't look that good.) In fact, from my experience in schools, this seems to conform to overblown media stereotypes. Many, even most, kids in high school look and perform just fine, and recreate the same memorable experience of my own high school years. (High School Musical(s) actually come closer to reality; both Zac Efron and (Texan) Jared Padalecki (Supernatural) were good students in high school). In AP and honors classes, usually students are ready to go to work; they know what the stakes are. In regular classes, though—more like what Lowrey faces--students tend not to have a clue. Once, in a history class, students were supposed to write reports on current events, and they wound up cutting up Washington Post stories on Saudi Arabia and the oil supply and throwing paper airplanes. They hadn’t a clue to what was going on 8000 miles away and what it could mean for their lives in a few years.

As for the name of the film, most classrooms today have white boards with colored dry markers. But it’s easy to mistakenly use a non-erasable “wet marker” when subbing.

The film reinforces my impression as a sub, that the public school world is somewhat of a closed society, that does not fully pick up what is going on around it.

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