“Precious Knowledge” at the Fox

by David Safier

I attended the almost-premiere of "Precious Knowledge," the documentary about the Mexican American Studies program, at the Fox Theater Thursday night. It was shown at a film festival earlier, but this was the first showing for a non-festival crowd.

First, it was a good, moving film which made its point clearly and well. The point: Mexican American Studies is a valuable program with an impact on its students rarely found in schools. It's rarer still with Hispanic students who so often struggle to succeed in school.

Second, the crowd was amazing. I arrived at 6:30 for the 7:00 showing and found myself at the end of a line around the corner and halfway down the block. I was among the last people to find a seat. I was told later hundreds of people couldn't get in. That may have included the TUSD Board Chair Mark Stegeman and another board member not getting in, which, if true, is a shame. They really should have been there.

The audience looked to me to be mainly MAS students along with their families and community members, some dignitaries and the usual crowd of politicos (like me) who attend that kind of event. The reaction to the film by the audience, the enthusiastic, emotional response, truly moved this old high school teacher. It spoke volumes about the MAS program. You would expect that kind of response if the audience were watching, say, a documentary about their high school basketball team winning the state championship. But a film about some high school classes and teachers? How often are you going to get a standing-room-only house and a totally involved audience for something like that?

As passionate and partisan as the crowd was, it was gratifying to see them mainly listening to what Horne, Huppenthal and Pearce, all of whom had quite a bit of face time in the film, had to say rather than simply hooting them down. Naturally, there were boos when those folks first showed up in the film. After that, people mostly listened to what they had to say.

But every success and poignant moment was greeted with full throated cheering. I especially loved when a paragraph of text appeared on the screen describing a success for the program. There would be a moment of silence as everyone read through the text, followed by a roar from the crowd.

When the documentary was over and the credits rolled, the audience rose to its feet and gave the film a sustained standing ovation until the screen went black. There was a moment of silence, then someone began a slow clap and everyone joined in, clapping faster and faster until it turned into steady applause once again.

As a teacher, I could see the exceptional impact these teachers and these classes have on their students. There are some successful classrooms where a gifted teacher does a lot of lecturing, gets occasional comments from the same half dozen students and doesn't relinquish control for a second. The students in those classes are basically interchangeable parts in the teacher's pedagogical performance. Then there are the teachers I saw in the film who purposely swap some of their control for the sake of student spontaneity and involvement. Every class is different. You never know what goofy or funny or wise thing a student might say or where it will lead. Contributions can come from all corners of the classroom. The "quiet kid" can turn into the class leader. The teachers work themselves into a hyper-real mental/emotional state where a moment in the classroom can feel like the most important thing in the world, and at any given moment, any student in the class can seem like the most significant person in the teacher's life — and, for that shining moment, in other students' lives as well. Students walk into those classrooms with a sense of comfort or pride or urgency and sit in their seats like they are in a friend's home. As many of the students said, the MAS classrooms feel like second homes and their fellow students feel like a second family.

As a teacher, you have to be at least a little over the top to create classes like that. You have to be something other than the careful professor who works from a set of notes and makes sure every statement is footnoted and verified. You have to lead from the gut and the heart as well as the head, and you have to allow yourself to be unscripted and goofy and wise and foolish, whatever the moment seems to call for. It's tough to pull off well, and it involves making mistakes and pratfalls now and then, which the students forgive you for and maybe even love you for, because it lets them know you're human.

If a teacher can pull that kind of thing off in the classroom and still make demands on the students — demands of excellence and personal commitment — you've really got something.

Tom Horne said a few times in the film, there have got to be other ways to motivate students than doing what the MAS classes do. Fine, Tom, show me all the programs you helped put in place as Superintendent of Education that motivate students as well as this one does. Until then, instead of trying to kill this program, you and Huppenthal and others should be trying to figure out how to duplicate the MAS successes and put them to work in other districts.

Learn more about "Precious Knowledge" here, here and here.

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