Friday, January 28, 2011

having climbed the first mountain...

When I started writing this blog I couldn't even really imagine a day when we would sit in a theater and see the film we were formulating in our mind's eye. I wasn't even sure we were on the path to a finished product that might play in a theater. Now that day has come and gone, and we are both basking in the wonder of it all! I don't have to know where the film will take us and the educators who are walking with us. I just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other. We are on the right path.

The Rafael Theater's main auditorium seats 339, and just about every seat was taken. I wish I had a list of all the people who were with us last night..and of the ones who waited too long to get tickets but had intended to be with us (we sold out the day before the event, though a few folks squeezed in at the last minute). There were people from the earliest days of Tom's career as a film maker, film makers he has worked with more recently, people who were pivotal to creating our school in the late 60's and early 70's, parents whose children went to school with our children, students who are now in their 40's and even 50's, 2/3rds of the students who were in the class from the film and many of their extended families, my teaching colleagues from all the periods I taught, current parents and students, people who have been following our Facebook page, San Geronimo Valley friends, and of course people who read the articles in the local papers and came with no connection to us.

A delicious dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant (arranged by former school board member Brian Dodd) started us off on the right foot, greeting friends associated with the school's early days. The past was very present. The idealism of those pioneers has been rewarded by seeing the school prosper, their children grow into creative and productive adults. I heard later that in restaurants all over San Rafael people were meeting for a bite before the movie, sometimes renewing friendships with others who had coincidentally chosen the same spot!

We stood in the lobby as people arrived, and the flood of familiar faces was overwhelming! CFI Education's John Morrison, our master of ceremonies, wisely suggested we move away from the door so as not to create a roadblock as people greeted us (and asked if we had an extra ticket for someone waiting outside without one!). People were in such good spirits, moving around the theater greeting old friends, and chatting that I wondered if we would be able to get them settled down for the film; but as soon as the curtains closed the mood became so attentive that John remarked on it when he got onstage. He mentioned that this was the first time CFI Education had taken the step of sponsoring a film in their 12 year history! That was the first time we realized what a big step John had taken when he told us he would bring AUGUST TO JUNE to the Rafael.

The curtain opened, the kids' evocative portraits that start the movie were there on the big screen, and Tom and I both melted into our seats with pleasure. This was the first time we had seen a Digi-beta tape projection of the film, and the richness of the colors, the sharpness of the image and most of all the clarity of the sound was truly a treat. I heard things I had never caught before! Whether it was because of how responsive the audience was or the sumptuousness of the Digibeta projection, both of us were caught up by the film completely--even though we have probably seen some scenes in it hundreds of times now.

When the ending credits came on we were whisked from the back of the theater and seated in comfortable easy chairs onstage with John. As the students' names came down the credits, the applause was deafening. I could see them glowing in the front rows. Truly a moment for them to realize the importance of having allowed Tom access to so much. We thanked them, thanked our community, thanked thanked thanked. Can never thank enough!

It looks to me like this won't be our last Question and Answer session, so one of the jobs still ahead of us is further honing our responses. We felt much better about how we handled this q&a compared to the one on KPIX TV news the other morning, but we warm up slowly. The first question: "What inspired you to make this film?" can be answered so many different ways, but we tend to talk about it being a golden opportunity to film my last year of teaching. As we reviewed our answers afterward we realized that is the moment to talk about our frustration with NCLB and how it had started twisting education out of shape. Wanting to "catch that golden opportunity" is because we were concerned about the direction schools were going.

This was not an audience that asked hard questions. They were there to celebrate and be inspired. Even so there were thoughtful questions sprinkled in with the praise. A Montessori trained teacher wanted to understand what the influence of Montessori was on what I was doing which gave me the opportunity to talk about the different strands of whole child education, and a bit of its history. A person involved with a public Waldorf wanted to know how we handled electronic media. Sweet words of praise came from parents and former students. One suggested we should be sending copies of the DVD to legislators, another suggested we develop a page where alumni could comment on the effect of this kind of education on their lives. Kyla spoke magnificently about how she loves to learn, and how that surprises many of her friends coming from conventional classrooms. The mike moved around the audience and in no time it was over. The kids came on stage for some photos and we made our way outside.

Barbara Den Ouden and her sister Christine were selling our DVDs like hotcakes! They sold every one we brought with us! All the free postcards we brought went, and we sold a few posters too. But I hardly noticed as we joined the students who were still there on the lobby's spiral staircase for another round of photos. Our faithful photographer Cindy De Channes was having trouble getting from the auditorium to the lobby, so there we were on the stairs waiting. It occurred to me we might sing--everyone was in such good spirits that I took the chance of asking 15 teenagers if they would sing the song they sang in 3rd & 4th grade! We sang De Colores and the people milling in the lobby cheered!

Two teachers approached me to tell me how inspired they were by the film, particularly because they were finding it harder and harder to teach creatively in the current atmosphere. One told me tearfully how last year the principal of her school told her "You don't need art to get into college, so drop it from your curriculum." All her years of training at the Exploratorium were going to waste as she can no longer conduct project-based science. I want so to help teachers like that get back to doing what they know is right for kids.

So: the bear went over the mountain, and what do you think he saw? You guessed it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

back with those frequently asked questions

We just finished a long interview with a reporter from the Marin Independent Journal in anticipation of this Thursday's premiere of AUGUST TO JUNE at the Rafael Theater. He asked many good questions. I think we did a pretty good job of answering them, too! There are a couple of themes that come up just about every time: "If you don't use standardized tests to evaluate progress, how do you know that your students are learning?" and "Could what you show happen in other settings?"

To the first we answer that there are many excellent ways to assess student learning that don't involve high stakes standardized tests. Hopefully watching AUGUST TO JUNE a viewer will see that when teaching is individualized the teacher can constantly evaluate whether the child is gaining understanding.

One of the benefits of the research I did as we edited the film was being able to create a resource page for teachers and parents. Those resources often lead to sites that have developed effective assessment tools. Some help a teacher hone his or her skills of observation so she/he can note progress and make informed judgments about what areas to address next with a given child. Others allow parents and "outsiders" to understand what a child has accomplished.

Of course the film is meant to challenge the narrowing that high stakes testing has engendered. There is no question that many teachers now teach to the test, perhaps because they have been convinced it is positive for students, but often because they have been sternly told that their employment depends on sticking to the program whether they see it as benefiting their students or not.

To the second question we respond that public schools where a broad and meaningful education is both the goal and the reality exist in a wide range of communities across the US, such as the ones we show at the end of the film. While I was amazed at the similarities I found, there were also many differences. I want to compare it to friendships. Some are loud, full of joking around, others hardly involve words. The thing that counts is that the two people gain beyond measure from each others company. I say several times in the film that there is no one right way to teach, and the schools we highlight reflect that. People looking for meaningful education are not asked to emulate our techniques, or our philosophy. They are asked to find their own ways to engage not only a child's intellect, but to respectfully help him grow socially, emotionally and creatively. In one case it will be a quiet orderly classroom, in another a bustling one, and there are as many different ways as there are creative teachers!

Our point in showing a public school going a different direction is to raise the question: Have you considered what goals you have for your students and our society beyond test scores? Is what is happening in your child's classroom meeting those goals? If not, what are the ways that fit your community to change that? If parents and teachers unite to demand those changes, they will get them.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Reaching out

We will be at the Rafael Theater in San Rafael California in two weeks for the World Premiere. World Premiere sounds a bit grandiose, but it will be a milestone in any case, and a treat to see the film on the big screen. Of course there are all sorts of new things to learn in this process.

For one, I have a very awkward system for notifying people, and I need to find a way to make it more fluid. If I just want to notify Facebook people who live near where the film is being viewed, I have to go through my entire "friend" list and remember who lives where, or go to their page to find out. That may change as Facebook is coming up with a new format, but I think it will still require me becoming more organized. It is even worse with people who I contact through emails. Any suggestions about simple ways to sort my email lists are welcome!

Then there is publicity material. I went through one round of this as we submitted to festivals, but print media is different. We spent hours this week looking for better quality photos that would print well in a newspaper. Reuben Raffael came to our aide once more with a wonderful poster, but then I realized I had given him the wrong dimensions for the theater's big poster, so Tom and I put to use all the mentoring both Reuben and our son Jesse had provided and (in many times the amount of time it would have taken either of them) we re-sized it! We are biting into our publicity budget, and not at all sure how much of anything we should purchase at this point, so are probably underestimating some things and overestimating others!

We have now conducted four formal phone interviews. They have not gotten easier yet! After each one we have a reflection time on what we said and what we might have said, but in the heat of the moment I tend to get very worked up and wordy about the false promise of assessing growth through standardized testing. Passion is supposed to be good--not so much proselytizing.

I got some important practice standing in front of audiences at the Lark Theater for the Q&A after screenings of Race To Nowhere, but I am still nervous about the Q&A at the Rafael. One reassuring thing is that I imagine it will be led by one of two people I have been working with through the California Film Institute, and they are both very sympathetic people to talk to. Can't make up my mind if it will be easier or harder having many friends in the audience.

I know it is a good thing that nothing is standing still while we prepare for this, but it surely is a balancing act that is unlikely to slow down for a while. I'm glad we took time off for the holidays! Guess I better go back to mailing invitations, and maybe rework the poster into a postcard? What have I forgotten??

To reserve tickets for the Rafael screening, January 27 at 7pm go to