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4 minutes reading time (800 words)

Questions and Answers: March/April 2017

Q: I've heard that you use films as source material for pedagogy classes. Would you share an example and discuss how and why you do this?

A: Great films capture human experience in a myriad of ways and can be very effective as teaching tools because they draw us into complex situations and provide an opportunity to grapple with problems, concepts, and theories. Since streaming and DVDs make just about any movie available today, it's easy and inexpensive to view and study them. My pedagogy students invariably love class when we go to the movies!

I've had many favorite movies over the years that involve teaching, learning, and inspirational educators. Among them are The Karate Kid (1982), Whiplash (2014), and of course, Mr. Holland's Opus (1995) for its heartwarming portrayal of the difference the life of a music teacher makes. But my favorite movie for the beginning of a new pedagogy class is Dead Poet's Society (1989). In this wonderful movie, the late Robin Williams delivers a brilliant performance as a passionate high school English teacher, John Keating, who, in an age of rigid conformity, seeks to inspire his students to live lives of daring, self-awareness, and creativity. How many of us as piano teachers wouldn't like to inspire our students do the same?

I invite the class to view the movie in its entirety before class. Then, in class I select clips that illustrate points the class will uncover as they watch. An anticipatory set focuses their attention and prepares them to derive relevant meaning from what they are about to watch. For example, here are some lessons one might find in Dead Poet's Society:

  • 1.Conformity stifles creativity.
  • 2.Find your passion and make your life extraordinary. Carpe Diem! (Seize the day!)
  • 3.Viewing situations from different perspectives allows you to see what others do not.
  • 4.All people are creative; we just have to unleash it.

In every scene, we ask which of these lessons are evident and look for others.

For each clip, I ask students to describe what they've seen precisely, to explore how it made them feel, and to appreciate the cinematographer's art. But, of course, for the purpose of this class, we're really looking for the pedagogy of John Keating. With each clip, I ask divergent questions (i.e., questions without a specific or correct answer, but which require thinking broadly and deeply—analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating what they've observed). Then I step back and hold my tongue, allowing the students to discover the magic for themselves. And, in the rest of this short article, I invite you to do the same.

Clip 1: opening credits to 9:50*

(The headmaster addresses the audience until the first bells of the semester and a flight of geese.)

  • Which of the lessons above may be evident?
  • What does the image of geese taking flight add to the narrative? How?
  • Does the environment engender or inhibit creative thinking? Why?
  • Do you see any connections between the rigid conformity of this preparatory school in the 1950s and today's youth on social media? Discuss that observation.

Clip 2: 9:50 to approximately 21:00

(Opening bells and flight of geese through Keating's first class, ending with the students discussing what they experienced.)

  • Which of the lessons above may be evident?
  • How does Keating introduce the students to his subject: poetry?
  • How is Keating different from the other teachers?
  • Many issues are introduced, but the emphasis is on _____________, _______________, creating a life of _______________, and carpe diem.

Clip 3: 21:00-26:00

(Keating instructs students to rip the preface from their poetry textbook and ends up asking, "what will your verse be?")

  • What is the students' initial reaction?
  • Why do you suppose Keating has the students do this?
  • Which of the lessons above may be evident?

Clip 4: 41:30-44:30

(Students stand on Keating's desk and proceed to jump off.)

  • Keating is encouraging students to view the situation from a different perspective.
  • How does this scene relate to music teaching or specifically to piano teaching?
  • How might you see the world from a different perspective?
  • How can you help your students see the world from a different perspective?

Clip 5: 53:45-58:04

(Students recite their original poems in class. One did not complete his assignment, but Keating helps him create an improvisational poem.)

  • This clip emphasizes how creativity may be unleashed.
  • How would you describe Todd before and after the poem?
  • What can we learn about creativity from this clip?
  • What role does creativity play in music education?
  • What are you doing to engender creativity in your students?

In conclusion, what can you learn from watching the character John Keating in Dead Poet's Society that you can transfer to your teaching today?

*n.b. The clip timings are approximate, based on the Touchstone DVD. The descriptions will help identify the entry and exit points. 

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