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Claire M.

Fontaine - 1


Urban school films for critically reflective practice in teacher education


I have composed this essay as a manifesto loosely modeled after Donna Haraway's
Cyborg Manifesto. My effort to explore the strengths and limitations of the genre of the
manifesto as an alternative to traditional academic form is driven in part by my desire to
develop an approach to scholarly writing that respects the role of voice, style and clarity in
meaning-making. For as long as I can remember, I have read with pen in hand and paper
within reach, eager to discover, transcribe and absorb some particularly elegant turn of
phrase that captures the essence of a thing through an succinct distillation or an unexpected
formulation. Although I am often underwhelmed by the sterility and anonymity of academic
papers, it strikes me as highly unlikely that traditional academic form is in some way
intrinsically incompatible with good writing. A more viable scapegoat, in my view, is the
author's internal experience of shaping message to medium, the way anticipation of writing in
traditional academic form might activate in the writer certain habits of mind conducive to the
real task at hand, the mandate of knowledge production, at the expense of voice, style and
clarity. Perhaps it is the meta-conceptual project of constructing an argument with the intent
of encoding it in a particular discourse and in accordance with a predetermined organizational
structure for eventual publication and dissemination to an audience of peers that constricts
the scope of the possible. This is my interpretative schema for making sense of the
prevalence of bad writing in the academy.

With all this said, I assume the daunting task of writing a manifesto as a way of forcing
myself to contend with the challenges of developing a distinctive voice, employing
unconventional discursive strategies, and pursuing clarity and readability by limiting the use
of jargon and specialized disciplinary language when it is possible to communicate the same
idea at least as clearly using unpretentious language, appropriate for a general audience. I
aim in this essay to resist the temptation to lapse into academic-speak to: a) establish
credibility on the cheap based less on the quality of thinking than on command of privileged
discourses; and b) distract readers from a known flaw in my argument by intentionally
obfuscating meaning via complicated constructions.

In her Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway instructively models a range of discursive

alternatives to the conventions of traditional academic form. As early as the subtitle An ironic
dream of a common language for women in the integrated circuit, Haraway begins to signal
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that the text to follow will test readers' patience, defying their expectations in her disregard
for established disciplinary boundaries, her frequent use of hyperbole and other
impressionistic literary devices that convey a sense of wonder at the marvelous flexibility of
language. She adopts a refreshingly mischievous tone, and brings a sense of humor to the
task, demonstrating a comfort with ambiguity that she fairly flaunts in the subtly irreverent
goal of “build[ing] an ironic political myth faithful to feminism, socialism, and materialism,”
but in which blasphemy is re-envisioned as the purest expression of faith and reverence. The
manifesto seems on first read meandering, expansive, and associative, but subsequent
readings reveal an internally rigorous logic to its layered organization.

She develops in this text an identity as a public intellectual through the explicit linkage
of scholarship and activism while calling on women to unite in opposition to the tyranny of the
profit-maximization imperative enforced by the neoliberal regime of free-market
fundamentalism. Haraway's postmodern skepticism of objective truth and totalizing meta-
theories leads her to assert that “liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness,
the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility.” She advocates for a loose
coalition among identity-oriented interest groups, all united behind a common agenda. Their
political work would be to undermine the hegemonic authority of a Western rationality
predicated on the view that history unfolds in a prefigured trajectory of progress in which
social relations are mere side effects and value-neutral phenomena.

Taking my cues from Haraway, I have attempted to incorporate some of the

aforementioned discursive strategies into my own manifesto. In Lessons from the Dream
Factory I build the case for critical reflective practice through the use of urban school films in
teacher education. I direct my argument in particular toward progressive teacher educators
who work with pre- and in-service teachers in fast-track alternative certification programs,
who I believe are well-positioned to implement this pedagogical approach.


Few new teachers, particularly those who come into the profession through alternative
certification programs, have first-hand knowledge of high-poverty urban classrooms, yet all
new teachers are intimately acquainted with the representations of urban classrooms that
abound in popular culture. I will use the phrase urban school films to refer to those Hollywood
productions that follow a messianic teacher figure, typically young, white and middle-class,
into the racialized space of a ghetto classroom. But there are range of other terms used by
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scholar-practitioners in the field which refer more or less to the same set of films: heroic
teacher film, teacher-savior film (Stanford, 2008), teacher-martyr film, superteacher myth
(Farhi, 1972), and inspirational teacher film. In the conventional narrative, this heroic teacher
figure, the great white hope, recovers easily enough from the initial culture shock and swiftly
wins the respect and loyalty of her students. Although lacking in formal training, the upstart
teacher is steeped in heartland values and deeply committed to the myth of the American
Dream, traits she uses to domesticate her charges by convincing them to adopt the value
system of the dominant culture. In this paper I argue that new teachers' attitudes and
classroom practices will likely be shaped by this category of urban school films unless
teachers possess critical tools to challenge the distorted narratives seen on screen. Scholars
and teacher educators interested in enhancing the quality and equity of urban public schools
must therefore take up urban school films as objects of inquiry.

An act of sincere, embodied teaching met by the focus of an engaged learner can be a
profoundly intimate and mutually transformative experience. Yet seasoned educators are well
aware how elusive such a pure pedagogical encounter can be, while among the newest
generation of teachers, inexperience is but one of the serious obstacles to effective classroom
practice. The difficulties posed by our current situation of rapidly changing student
demographics and a comparatively homogenous teaching force are similar to those faced
many times over in the historical record of public schooling in the United States. Now, as
then, teachers' discomfort with a student population they construe as Other prohibits the
development of trusting relationships between teachers and students. By exhibiting a lack of
cultural sensitivity, well-meaning teachers may exacerbate the strain of cultural difference,
limiting their effectiveness in the classroom.

I therefore advocate that teacher educators incorporate decentering pedagogical

tactics into their instructional repertoire, challenging and ultimately helping to reconfigure
new teachers' worldviews. Critical analysis of urban school films is one promising decentering
approach. When situated in the current ideological, political, social, economic and
technological context, these films help raise important questions about teachers'
expectations, assumptions, and unexamined biases. Perhaps unremarkable in the theatre,
inside the classroom of a skilled and strategic teacher educator they are pregnant with sharp
insights into American popular culture – the very mashup that informs teachers' work
environments and interaction with students. To summarize: school films can be positioned as
cultural texts in the pre-service classroom and critiqued as complex manifestations of the
implicit values and beliefs of the American mainstream.
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The tidy narrative arc of the heroic teacher subgenre of school films propagates
unrealistic ideas about what constitutes success for a new teacher in a ghetto classroom.
These films divorce urban schools from the overarching social, political, and economic
conditions in which they are inextricably bound. They decenter systemic critiques that could
reveal the racist, classist and sexist structures upon which the myth of the meritocracy rests.
The films convey a sense that transformative work is possible but only within prescribed
boundaries that do not problematize the existing social hierarchy. So individual teachers
might enact transformative agendas in the isolated domain of their classroom, but to depict
teachers as politically engaged active participants in an emancipatory movement would
constitute a threat to the status quo – a risky business move when your business is making
money. While the declared intention of the entertainment-industrial complex that is Hollywood
is to entertain audiences, the profit maximization imperative is always the real bottom-line in
the tyranny of the neoliberal regime.


To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions.
The silence and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here.
–Peggy McIntosh (1988, p. 152)

From my vantage point as a white woman and a once-new teacher, and now as a
student of education policy and a coach of new teachers, I argue that many white teachers for
urban classrooms lack awareness of the very existence of a white racial identity.1 I establish
the need for a critical approach to Hollywood films with my claim that the failure of many
white teachers and teaching candidates to acknowledge whiteness as a racial identity and to
own up to white privilege in the context of their work in ghetto schools severely limits their
ability to build the kind of trusting and respectful relationships with students that must be in
place before instruction can be effective.

To be clear, the research does not indicate that white teachers cannot be effective
teachers of non-white students. While the unconscious oppression of minority students by
white teachers is well-documented, Gloria Ladson-Billings (1994) demonstrates that it is far
from inevitable. Recent literature does claim, however, that in order to establish the sort of
connection and trust that is a prerequisite of effective instruction, a teacher must step outside
the cultural framework that positions difference as deficiency – which requires one to first
acknowledge a white racial identity.2 It is also critical that white teaching candidates
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expecting to work with high poverty students of color interrogate their own motivations for
entering the classroom. For some, a stint teaching in a high needs school is an exculpatory
exercise, a brief detour in the inevitable march to vague but lucrative employment and
bourgeois respectability. In fact, Teach For America [TFA] explicitly markets itself as a sort of
domestic Peace Corps, a socially responsible way to pass a few years after college before
pursuing one’s “real” career (Veltri, 2008). But good intentions are no antidote for unintended
consequences. Pedagogies of oppression can all too easily take root in this context – a context
that mirrors society-at-large and upholds its oppressive discourse.

In her article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” McIntosh explores the
nature of white privilege and the social mechanisms, processes and practices which ensure its
continuation. McIntosh's conception of white privilege is two-fold: it refers in part to the daily
enjoyment of a whole range of social, cultural and political advantages, but its most deadly
weapon is societally-cultivated ignorance, that socially-sanctioned pose of neutrality naively
adopted by some beneficiaries of white privilege. The text is used in many courses in urban
and multicultural education, and its point is well-taken: white teachers must explicitly address
issues surrounding their own identity to build a safe space where learning can prosper.

There is, it seems to be, a paradox embedded McIntosh's assertion that white privilege
renders itself invisible. Much of our country's wealth - the surplus capital, David Harvey would
say – has been amassed by private citizens born into the ruling class who use some mixture
of persuasion and coercion to compel members of the various groups that comprise the
underclass to trade labor for wages. Many of those in the latter category are, tellingly,
members of persistently subjugated and historically brutalized groups – like the descendants
of slaves and Mexican migrant workers. Our nation's history is short and violent morality tale
with a devastatingly simple premise – that dark skinner people are somehow less human than
those of fair complexion, and therefore existing standards of humane treatment are
unnecessarily indulgent and inapplicable, and that these not-quite-fully-human beings are
happier and perhaps even better off when relieved of the burden of autonomous self-directed
action. America's original sin of race-based slavery gave binary oppositions great resonance
in the collective psyche: enslavement versus self-determination, black versus white. While
this sort of either/or identification in no way captures the present wikipedic reality of a
radically spectral diversity in New York City, the epistemic binaries of whiteness and blackness
still influence the way we think and talk about race, and their deep and enduring salience in
spoken and written language as signifiers of relative value and character are still evident in
literary tradition and in many contemporary expressions of figurative language.
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Our national legacy of race-based oppression, domination and enslavement indicates

that white Americans were at one time far less squeamish about race and privilege than is
now the case. In the pre-Reconstruction era, for example, many whites would readily admit
that they considered blacks their inferiors. This was a society built on race-based
enslavement and it seemed that continued economic prosperity depended on the
preservation of the “Peculiar Institution.” Now, forty years after the civil rights movement, to
utter such an explicitly racist statement is to invite censure and to court outrage. Our
standards of civil discourse may be more stringent than in the past, but the sincerity of our
alleged commitment to equality of opportunity for all citizens is seriously undermined by our
failure to commit the resources that such a project demands.

I am referring to the policies of disinvestment in urban centers – in terms of public

transportation and other infrastructure, preventative medicine, welfare reform, race-based
discriminatory and predatory lending practice, real estate development, urban renewal,
school funding linked to local property values, the disenfranchisement of convicted felons, the
so-called school to prison pipeline that disproportionately affects men of color, and so on –
that have drained our cities of resources and redirected public monies to suburbs. It is no
coincidence that the roll-out of such parasitic policies coincided with a large-scale exodus of
middle class white families from the urban core to the suburban periphery, drawn by the
promise of green space, fresh air, and safe (read: racially homogenous) schools and
neighborhoods for their children (Anyon, 1997).

The rhetorical talking point of equal opportunity will remain just that – rhetorical – until
we commit to fully funding a comprehensive system of urban reinvestment policies. It is
relatively easy to support racial uplift as an abstract concept or ideal; far more difficult to
stomach are the material consequences of such support. The sort of policy regime change I
outline would necessarily redirect funds from the suburbs to the cities and imbue the debate
with racial dimensions. Such redistribution makes sense only insofar as whiteness is
understood as a historically privileged status, linked to clearly unearned material advantages.
Acknowledgement of white identity therefore enables white teachers to build productive
relationships with minority students, but it can also be of broader social utility as a framework
through which to fundamentally re-envision the terms of our entire social contract.

Reluctance to claim a white identity often reflects a sense that one has not enjoyed the
full range of benefits typically associated with whiteness, common among those with working
class backgrounds. Others imagine that by acknowledging race at all they expose themselves
to charges of racism, which leads some to rather preposterous claims of “not seeing race.”
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Still others may be accustomed to some degree of racial diversity but in the context of socio-
economic homogeneity, as in fairly common in elite liberal arts colleges. So, rejection of a
racialized identity might reflect a range of attitudes that include guilt, shame, self-
righteousness, fear, avoidance, and powerlessness.3

I believe, as does McIntosh, that it is precisely because of the deafening silence that a
myth of color-blindness so blatantly and literally false could gain the traction that it has.
Racism has not been eliminated; it has just been moderated and sublimated to political
correctness. Political correctness has come to mean using the right words with the right
audience. Language (African American instead of black, colored, or Negro; special needs or
learning disabled rather than retarded) comes to represent belief, and use of the proper
terminology immunizes the speaker against charges of racism and other -isms. But the
change is cosmetic, not substantive, and the focus on the signifier has detracted public
attention from the signified, obscuring meaning and intent. The public discourse seems more
respectful and enlightened, but the familiar normative processes are still at work in their
camouflage. White (heterosexual middle-class able-bodied masculine) identity is still the
standard against which other identities are measured. White requires no politically correct
alternative referent; these are only useful for groups about which we have politically-incorrect


At present, the teaching force in this country, both experienced educators and those
entering the profession, is dominated by white monolingual middle-class women. Teacher
educators describe the majority of incoming teachers as rooted in racially and culturally
homogeneous communities (Trier 2005, Robertson 1997).4 Our student population is
meanwhile becoming increasingly diverse, fueled by a wave of immigration from Latin
America and Asia (Banks, in Cochran-Smith, 2004, p. vii). Latinos comprise the fastest
growing segment of our nation's population, and students with limited English proficiency are
the fastest growing segment among the school-age population. In 2001, students of color
composed 40% of the school population; by 2020 the figure is predicted to rise to 50% (Nieto,
2006). The growing demographic mismatch between teachers and students has serious
implications; an extensive body of research documents the limitations of mono-cultural
familiarity, raising serious doubts about the ability of these teaching candidates to effectively
teach ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse students.5
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High attrition rates plague both alternatively credentialed and traditionally certified
new teachers, but the turnover rate in high poverty schools is 50% greater than that of low
poverty schools (Futernick, 2007). High poverty schools thus become virtual dumping grounds
for inexperienced new teachers and dead weight veterans, exacerbating existing inequity by
concentrating experienced high-quality teachers in well-run schools, while struggling new
teachers and ineffective old-timers are left to languish in poorly managed schools. This trend
further degrades the quality of education offered in under-served communities and imposes
great economic expense on poor schools and districts that are forced to continually recruit
and mentor new teachers (Quartz et al., 2008).6

Learning to teach is challenging and often emotionally wrenching. Often, new teachers
simply don't have the instructional repertoire, the instinct for designing engaging curricula, or
the strategic classroom management skills necessary to boost students' achievement,
especially when school culture is weak or counter-productive. Competencies like these are
developed through painful trial and error and critically reflective practice. Mastery of these
skills does not automatically equal effective teaching, but I would argue that teachers must
develop expertise in these areas in order to maximize their impact in the classroom.
Personality and character traits like empathy, consistency, flexibility and intellectual curiosity
are also integral to teaching excellence, but dispositional attributes in and of themselves do
not add up to effective teaching. No matter how stellar their credentials, how rigorous their
pre-service preparation, or how personally charismatic they may be, new teachers on-the-
ground experience to develop the skills that will make them effective.

Thus is not reasonable, or fair, or honest, or wise to expect that new teachers will be as
effective as critically reflective experienced practitioners at raising student achievement.
Beginning teachers already often fail to appreciate the scope and intensity of the challenges
they will face teaching in high poverty urban classrooms, and the cognitive dissonance
between expectations they hold and the reality they face causes many to abandon the
profession (Joseph & Burnaford, 1994, p. 6). It is therefore essential that pre-service teacher
educators take pains to help teaching candidates understand in clear and certain terms the
nature of the task that lies before them, and what “success” looks like in the classroom of a
first year teacher in a high poverty urban school.


I intend to articulate a vision of critically reflective practice using urban school films
that progressive teacher educators could use in pre-service teacher education courses.
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Through this vision I will contest the simplistic and superficial representation of urban schools
in Hollywood productions by looking at racist and sexist policies and practices as among other
inequitable school conditions that are all consequences of unequal power relations in society. I
believe that as educators and academics we must agitate for a theory of teacher education
explicitly aimed at preparing culturally responsive teachers capable of enacting an anti-
oppressive transformative multicultural pedagogy in diverse classrooms. I advocate that
teacher educators promote critically reflective practice in new teachers by incorporating into
their pre-service curriculum critical analysis of films about maverick teachers who transform
troubled ghetto schools.

My notion of film as text is borrowed from cultural studies which defines as text any
artifact of social life, whether tangible like a scroll or intangible like a moving image or even a
phone conversation. Meaning, according to cultural theorists, does not reside within the text
itself but is rather ascribed from without. Meaning is contingent, transitive not fixed,
continually becoming and never being, created in the temporal interpretive space between
the screen and the spectator's subjectivity. Scholars in cultural studies made film safe for
academia, but seeking to dissolve the boundaries that limit truth telling in academia, such as
the dichotomy between high culture and low culture that until recently situated mass media
outside the purview of legitimate scholarship. Feminist scholar of spectatorship Judith Mayne
(1993) critiques cultural studies for tending to overestimate the contestatory capabilities of
viewers. She reminds us that neither the viewers nor the studios are a monolith, that each
group has internal diversity. In her discussion of models of spectatorship, Mayne characterizes
what she refers to as the institutional model of spectatorship as totalizing and monolithic, and
discusses the notion of cinema as ideological institution implicated by its mechanics of
representation to uphold the dominant order.

The field of critical pedagogy has also influenced my own teacher identity through its
intensely politicized commitment to examine how power and authority interact in the
classroom to construct particular relations between students and teachers. Henry Giroux and
other proponents of critical pedagogy position popular culture as ideology. Giroux describes
film as a “powerful force for shaping public memory, hope, popular consciousness, and social
agency” and mass media as “veritable teaching machines in shaping the social imaginary of
students regarding how they view themselves, others, and the larger society” (2001, pp. 145-
6). Naming acts of domination and repression perpetrated in the name of education are
opportunities within critical pedagogy (re)appropriation of schooling for emancipation rather
than cultural imperialism. The exercise of agency is, by this formulation, autonomous,
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unmitigated, and seminal, as if founded on (the illusion of) omnipotence. But critical feminist
Patti Lather (1986) identifies another snag in critical pedagogy: that its
proponents/adherents/practitioners/articulators imagine themselves vigilante warriors in the
resistance, bold leaders of the struggle to dismantle systems of oppression and injustice, but
they seem unwilling to recognize their privileged identities as constitutive of their
contestative agency. This alienates otherwise like-minded scholars whose intellectual projects
incorporate identity issues like gender, sexuality, ethnicity and disability status, and prohibits
mutually-beneficial collaboration. I do believe that feminist discourses are highly aware of the
dialectics of subjectivity/objectivity, subjugation/domination, and legitimacy/illegitimacy.
Feminist analyses have much to say about how gendered power dynamics influence the
construction of women's social identities and women's agency to name and give voice to their
experiences. Feminist perspectives join my theoretical bricolage for the ways in which they
illuminate the gendered aspect of teachers' portrayal in Hollywood films.

I come to this investigation in hopes of exploring the mechanisms by which a series of

moving images come to operate as proxy for lived experience in the public imagination. I
envision this project as a statement of dissent as naming becomes an act of personal
empowerment and a way of claiming agency in opposition to systemic injustice. To name a
systemic injustice is to expose it in a declaration of non-compliance. Without the active, vocal,
conscious, explicit, and continual disruptive acts of naming one becomes complicit with
agents of injustice. I draw on Lather's discussion of research as praxis which engages in
“explicit critique of the status quo” directed at “building a more just society.” This notion of
research as praxis is predicated on the conviction that just as there is no neutral education,
there is no neutral research.


From Blackboard Jungle (1955) to Freedom Writers (2007), the same story is told and
retold in Hollywood productions about urban schools, while very different stories are told
about suburban and elite private schools in films like The Breakfast Club (1985) and Dead
Poets Society (1989). While these other subgenres of the school film category are outside the
scope of my inquiry, the fact of their distinction from urban school films raises important
questions about the subtext and implications of the urban category. In Robert Bulman's
(2005) analysis of 185 school films, domestic as well as foreign, he argues that students'
socioeconomic status is the most important variable affecting the their representation in
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American cinema. In Hollywood Goes to High School, Bulman distinguishes three kinds of
films about schools: urban, suburban, and elite private school films. He finds that suburban
school films represent “middle-class frustration with the conformity and status hierarchy of
suburban middle-class life and express fantasies of self-expression and individual rebellion”
and elite private school films reflect “middle-class ambivalence about wealth... [and] an
abiding belief... that schools are fair and meritocratic institutions” (pp. 10-11). And urban
school films, within Bulman's framework, are commercially successful because they play on
middle-class anxieties about the threat from within, the strangers in our midst, the urban
“rainbow underclass” with the most to be angry about and the least to lose. Thus urban
school films represent middle-class hopes that the students in urban schools can be rescued
from their troubled lives not through fundamental social change, but by the individual
application of common sense, good behavior, a positive outlook, and better choices (p. 10).
Viewers experience vicarious redemption through their identification with the benevolent
protagonist and leave the theatre with their faith in humanity renewed.

Bulman's analysis posits Hollywood as a narrative delivery system designed to satisfy

the ideological desires of a monolithic middle-class audience. By foregrounding the
independent variable of the students' social class, Bulman's analysis helped me delineate the
scope of my argument. I have adopted his term urban school film to denote Hollywood
productions that depict an idealistic rookie teacher, often white and middle class, who enters
the racialized space of an urban classroom determined to deliver a rowdy bunch of students
from the manacles of the culture of poverty ~ be it a negative attitude, poor work ethic, weak
morals, or a penchant for petty crime. But there is a range of other terms used by scholar-
practitioners in the field which refer more or less to the same set of films: heroic teacher film,
teacher-savior film, teacher-martyr film, superteacher myth, and inspirational teacher film. I
prefer Bulman's term because his use of the word “urban” invokes, I think, the race- and
class-based threat of the cities in the suburban white middle class imagination in a way that
the alternative teacher-centered terms do not. Indeed, “urban” has become a euphemism for
racial otherness and poverty in the public discourse with safe suburban homogeneity as its
foil. In urban school films, the cities are depicted as lawless jungles, teeming centers of blight
and decay, filled with people Not Like Us. Invoking the urban is thus a way of talking about
race without talking about race. The euphemistic use of “urban” also supports my claim about
the tendency of many whites not to recognize whiteness as a racial identity and
consequently, not to acknowledge white privilege. White teachers of poor minority students
must find new ways to talk about race and class with their students that do not shy away from
naming and validating difference.
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But in two recent Hollywood blockbusters about urban schools, Freedom Writers and
Dangerous Minds, the female teacher protagonists uncritically graft their societally-bred sense
of agency on to their students' experience in a demonstration of self-delusion. Michelle
Phieffer as LouAnne Johnson acts out a paternalistic pedagogy of choice, arrogantly
proclaiming that “There are no victims.” And Hilary Swank as Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers
invokes figurative baptism and cultural erasure, as if she could speak redemption into their
lives. She insists that inside the walls of her classroom, students are freed from their past. She
berates one student for a bout of self-doubt, declaring, “I don't want excuses. I know what
you're up against. We're all of us up against something... I see who you are. Do you
understand me? I can see you. And you are not failing.” Both women fail to recognize that
their privileged position offers them a wider range of choice than those available to most

The heroic teacher figures are often loners with a penchant for anti-conformist antics
that run afoul of administrative procedures and test supervisors’ patience. These characters
may test boundaries within the narrow space of the school, but they are essentially reformers,
not revolutionaries. They instill in urban students middle class values like personal
responsibility, self-determinism, and the value of hard work, while functioning as agents of
redemption for their students, shouldering their share of the White Man's Burden. Mary
Dalton, author of The Hollywood Curriculum (1999), these teachers are “narrowly
emancipatory” figures who represent an alternative to the fascist dictator model of bad
teacher who abuses his or her limited authority. Yet their challenge to authority is a safe one,
according to Dalton, because it limits its critique to individuals’ character flaws and so does
not threaten the dominant ideology. For example, the film Freedom Writers commits a vile
white lie of omission by centering the teacher and classroom at the expense of the broader
context. As William Ayers explains generally of urban school films, “There is no hint that the
problems facing... young people include structures of privilege and disadvantage, social class,
racism, or the existence of two societies, separate and unequal (2001, p. 149). And so by
avoiding structural critique Freedom Writers fundamentally misrepresents the challenges
facing teachers in urban schools.

The myth of the teacher as savior “places an impossible burden on real teachers… by
forcing them to compete with their cinematic counterparts” (Farhi, 1997). More pernicious is
the way the narrative of the heroic teacher as messianic figure situates teacher quality as the
solution to the problem, and implicitly, the cause for urban poverty in all its various
dimensions. By rejecting the conventional solutions of the educational establishment and
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succeeding wildly, maverick teacher characters function to scapegoat inefficient

bureaucracies and self-interested teachers unions for the ills of urban schools. In so doing, the
teacher-savior myth distracts attention from the real but solvable systemic issues that
threaten public education.


From Ronald Reagan's trickle down economy and now-infamous report A Nation at Risk,
through the waning days of the second George W. Bush administration, in the last quarter
century we have seen the our public schools bend and droop under the strain of conservative
leaders whose personal attitudes toward public institutions for the common good have
fluctuated between ambivalence and outright hostility. The Department of Education [ED] was
still in its infancy when Reagan took office in 1980, just months after Carter had signed it into
law. Reagan was famously hostile to the ED, but his campaign promise to dismantle what he
considered an illegitimate and unnecessary department was rendered impossible by
publication of a government document that warned of schools facing a “rising tide of
mediocrity” so dire we might have considered it “an act of war” had we a plausible

The first alternative certification program was authorized by the state of New Jersey in
1983 to address a persistent teacher shortage. The “Provisional Teacher Program” was
heralded by the local business community but scorned by teacher educators still flustered by
the insult of A Nation at Risk who recognized even then that alternative certification programs
would threaten their authority. Texas and California followed suit, authorizing their own
alternative certification programs, the movement did not truly gather momentum until Clinton
designated research funds to build the knowledge base about the emerging movement.

Reagan's conservative legacy remained largely intact throughout the intervening

decades of the Bush I and Clinton administrations. George W. Bush announced in 2000 his
intention to make the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act [ESEA],
renamed No Child Left Behind [NCLB], into the trademark accomplishment of his
administration. NCLB instituted a range of unfunded mandates, but among the most costly
was the requirement to ensure that a “highly qualified” teacher for every classroom by 2005-
2006, but the task of defining the term was left to individual states. The legislation carved out
space for private companies to land major contracts to provide supplementary services to
students both inside and outside the school building by creating mandates for the provision of
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certain services that schools were never expected to be able to provide. The radical
conservatives had effectively positioned themselves as the vanguard of the privatization
movement through the Bush II's unexpected but strategically clever decision to insinuate his
incremental privatization policies at the apex of the money stream.

In June 2002, the assault continued as the Annual Report of Teacher Quality lambasted
university-based teacher education programs, charging them with failure “to produce the
types of highly qualified teachers that the No Child Left Behind Act demands.” The report
called on states to develop alternatives to university-based teacher education that removed
barriers to entry by eliminating coursework and redefining a “highly qualified” in terms of
content knowledge. Traditional teacher education programs' ongoing solvency was further
undermined by the establishment in September 2003 of the National Center for Alternative
Certification [NCAC] through a $2.5 million grant from the Department of Education. By 2007,
alternative certification programs had been adopted by 47 states and the District of Columbia,
and fully one in five new teachers was taking advantage of an alternative pathway. The
traditional model of university-based teacher education programs in which course work was to
be completed prior to certification, is being supplanted by a whole range of niche programs,
each with distinct admission criteria, preparation requirements, and support services.

Now public schools in districts all across the country face the same litany of seemingly
insurmountable obstacles. The spirit of NCLB, that all students are entitled to a high quality
education regardless of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, socio-economic status,
family wealth, country of origin or religion is consistent with the aims of progressive
educators. But the law's professed intent was squelched by the disaster of its implementation.
Federal funds promised to states and municipalities never materialized, and the burden of
financing the law's mandates fell to states and municipalities. Demands for accountability, a
rhetoric of high expectations for all, and threats of sanctions for not meeting the prescribed
goals are among the law's requirements, all of which reflect a naïve and paternalistic ideology
of tough love and a desperate need to feel powerful even as our tenure as world bully draws

We must therefore understand the movement for data-driven instruction as the

culmination of a quarter century of fear and dread at the possibility, or likelihood, of waning
global influence predicted in A Nation at Risk. Data-driven instruction is an iteration of what
Zeichner calls the behaviorist approach to teacher education. The behaviorist approach is
concerned with imparting to teachers a specific set of performance-based skills and
competencies, all observable, measurable, and therefore "scientific." Teachers' work is
Claire M. Fontaine - 15

construed along a metaphor of "production." It is standardized, systematized, and ultimately

de-professionalized. But despite the vigor with which the United States has struggled to retain
its vaunted position in the global hierarchy, our resistance has been futile from the outset. We
would be wise to take heed of this last point, and of the damage already done, and to guard
what remains against the unthinking imposition of quantitative measures to qualitative
problems. We must resist narrowing teaching preparation to measurable outcomes, and
revision teaching not as an objectifiable craft but as a contextualized social practice with
innumerable contingencies.

The other paradigm of teacher education relevant to this discussion is inquiry-oriented

teacher education, which is concerned with fostering in future teachers habits of critical
inquiry. The goal here is complete reflexivity, a deeply embedded tendency to call every
decision that one makes in the classroom into question and ultimately problematize the social
and institutional context of teaching. This outlook posits that teachers must model the
intellectual posture they seek to develop in students. Driven by questions of what ought to be
rather than what is, the inquiry- oriented approach sees action research as a valuable engine
for the empowerment of teachers as active agents in shaping the direction of educational
environments. The teacher is a developing being whose self and whose subjectivity is
constantly evolving. Multicultural pre-service training develops in prospective teachers
knowledge of diverse cultural groups, challenges beliefs and attitudes surrounding difference,
and training in pedagogical skills useful with diverse student populations. Transformative
multicultural education refers to action-based pedagogical practice aligned with the principles
of social justice to help eliminate racist practices in schools. Culturally responsive teaching
(CRT) asks teachers to fold students' cultures, experiences and perspectives into the
curriculum and prioritizes frank discussions of social disparities in power and privilege.7 All
three of these forms of teacher preparation and pedagogical practice foreground racial,
ethnic, and cultural difference as the first step toward flattening power relations. These social
justice projects are committed to reconfiguring social relations and reformulating what counts
as educational achievement such that old metrics of measurement are rendered extinct. The
process begins in the microcosm of a single classroom and moves incrementally into the
broader public sphere, the classroom retained as the project’s fulcrum and spiritual ground
zero. Inquiry-oriented teacher education in its various iterations thus aims to dismantle once-
persistent race-bound disparities in educational achievement and to render unintelligible the
framework of the achievement gap.
Claire M. Fontaine - 16

Proceeding from an interruptive agenda that seeks to vigorously interrogate culturally

dominant narratives of the social context of schooling, I call on the inquiry-oriented paradigm
of teacher education, which seeks to liberate teachers by fostering habits of critical inquiry.
Teachers are thus enabled to model the intellectual posture they seek to cultivate in students.
Driven by questions of what ought to be rather than what is, inquiry-oriented approaches try
to encourage intellectual curiosity and develop teachers' sense of agency. Yet it is ironic that
despite understanding the oppressive potential of the dominant narratives of popular culture
and despite having achieved recognition in the academy, cultural studies has scarcely
infiltrated teacher education programs. How can we expect classroom teachers to help
students deconstruct complex multimedia texts if they have no experience doing so
themselves? This problematic frames the task I have set out for myself: to explore how school
films might be utilized in teacher education courses to foster critical identity construction.

In the past few years a movement has been building among scholar-practitioners to
use urban school films in teacher education classes to promote critically reflective practice.
Within the teacher education community, critically reflective practice refers to the practice of
continually critiquing institutional policy and one's own decisions about pedagogy, curriculum,
and classroom organization and management in order to see relationships between daily
practices in the classroom and issues of schooling as society (Zeichner, 1996). I envision this
project as a statement of dissent against the intensely conservative climate that prevails at
present. Naming becomes an act of personal empowerment and a way of claiming agency in
opposition to systemic injustice. Without the active, vocal, conscious, explicit, and continual
disruptive acts of naming one becomes complicit with agents of injustice. I draw on Lather's
(1986) discussion of research as praxis, a notion predicated the conviction that just as there is
no neutral education, there is no neutral research. If we recognize the impossibility of truly
objective inquiry then we acknowledge that our framework limits what we can perceive. I will
proceed by briefly summarizing the limited literature situating urban school films in terms of
critically reflective practice.

Henry Giroux has been outspoken advocate of incorporating a cultural studies

approach, which he defines as “a concern with the relationship between culture, knowledge
and power” into university-based teacher education programs. Notwithstanding Giroux's
enthusiastic support, cultural studies' notorious interdisciplinarity as well as its trendiness
inside the academy may have been read as threats by the leadership of mainstream schools
of education. The behaviorist paradigm discussed above is the operative framework in many
university-based teacher education programs, a phenomenon that I would attribute in part to
Claire M. Fontaine - 17

impression management by schools of education in their campaign to be seen not as a

bastion of mediocrity but as a valued arm of the university. To this end, schools of education
have organized themselves around scientific rationality. There are, of course, notable
standout teacher educators working from within university-based schools of education who
are engaged in the sort of intellectual labor I advocate. The most prolific publisher among
them is James Trier at the University of North Carolina. Trier uses urban school films with his
homogenous group of teacher education students to help them develop the competencies of
critical reflection. While it is reasonable to assume that others are also doing this work, the
sparseness of the body of scholarship on the topic does not help verify this assumption.


Feminist poet Audre Lorde famously declared that “the master's tools will never
dismantle the master's house.” This quotation represents one of the competing theories
about the origins of social change and the processes by which such change is effected. The
main issue here is one of means; specifically, the relevance of means to ends, and the moral
implications and potential for damaged integrity that one assumes in approaching a project of
social change from the “inside” - which is to say, through existing channels and via
established modes. The alternative, insofar as it is intellectually honest to presume the
existence of two diametrically opposed ways of being in the world, is a campaign that seeks
to undermine and delegitimize the very source and structural underpinnings of the existing
political, economic and cultural powers. There is, I think, a persistent and salient tension that
characterizes both the individual psyche as well as the collective. For example, a recent
college graduate eager to help rebuild to the languishing labor movement might agonize –
law school or grass-roots activism? Armed with the skill set of a trained attorney one's effort
and energy expenditure might be more fruitful, more useful to the cause. On the other hand,
to pursue an advanced, prestigious and highly specialized course of study could be viewed as
evidence of deep and unexamined complicity with the same profoundly unjust political,
economic and cultural system that prevents so many of our citizens from securing the bare
essentials while others enjoy unprecedented affluence; as a society, we continue to invoke
quaint notions like the ever-popular myth of the American meritocracy.

My view of the roots of authentic and legitimate movements for social change strays
from Lorde's notion of “what works.” It seems to me that her argument may be circular in a
certain sense, in a way that is very human. I think that it is very difficult for our species to
Claire M. Fontaine - 18

distinguish very clearly between cause and effect when reflecting on our decisions and
beliefs. The two are closely related and mutually constitutive; I would go further to argue that
they are interactionary and incestuous and often incompatible, and that the purpose of
memory is to facilitate our transition from actress on a screen to spectator gazing at the
screen through the inventive haze of memory, piecing together motivation, action and
implication and somehow making sense of the narrative. From this perspective, one's stated
beliefs both influence and are influenced by life's constant daily decisions. It is not surprising
that a poet identifies nonconformity as a prerequisite of resistance; this is her constant reality
as an artist, perhaps even a prerequisite of success in that line of work. But a successful
politician, in contrast, can never stray too far from the line, the law, convention, appearances.
Bound by high calling and a sense of mission, these are nonetheless her prerequisite habits.

Maverick academic Donna Haraway entranced me with the seemingly effortless

rhythmic cadence of her language. She is a prominent feminist scholar, professor and chair of
the History of Consciousness program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and regular
lecturer at the European Graduate School in Switzerland. She has dug out a space for her
work within the academy, even as she has flouted conventions of discipline-bound scholarship
and contributed to the burgeoning discourses of cyberculture, feminist primatology, and
cyborg politics, as spawned by her way of gracefully massaging the language into submission
in her Cyborg Manifesto. Haraway deploys the metaphor of a cyborg – a hybrid of machine
and organism – to challenge feminist scholars to collaborate toward additive feminist theories
that are not fundamentally hypocritical for failing to properly account for the suffering of other
oppressed peoples, such as racial minorities, who bleed real blood – though perhaps
transfused, in the spirit of the cyborg. In rejecting the patriarchal science of her, and our,
inheritance, she delivers a surprisingly brutal injury to the continued authority, integrity and
viability of our society as is, resting on the Freudian notions of women's partiality, the
condition of perpetual under-stimulation framed as a deficit. She is a fully embodied
representative of tenured radicalism. I admire her nuanced and subtly principled but firmly
pragmatic, her text at once strident and understated, theoretical and worldly. She engages in
conceptual activism aimed precisely at the culture of power. Rather than adopting new battle
weapons she simply stretches existing ones to the limits until they collapse upon themselves.
Neoliberal ideology must self-implode simply because it is an unsustainable regime. Similarly,
my call for critically reflective teacher education rejects the wholesale divestment of
university based teacher education but it calls for a profound re-visioning of premises in which
pedagogical practices reflect a transformative multicultural reflexive paradigm of teacher
education. The old approaches to teacher education are incompatible with the exigencies of
Claire M. Fontaine - 19

our contemporary society and effectively institutionalize inequality, just as the logic of
neoliberalism threatens to atomize collective agency. Like the cyborg metaphor, the sort of
teacher education I propose is rooted in a sense of the political imaginary, which nourishes a
vision of a possible, even plausible future.

As a classroom teacher working with seventeen to twenty-one year old students at an

alternative high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, I became aware of my own racial
identity in a way that I never had before. For the first time I found myself Other-ed, the only
white person in the room. Incapable of projecting confidence that I did not have and lacking
the emotional calluses of experience, I felt like crying when, on a few occasions, students’
dismissed me as a “cracker bitch.”My attempts at humor bombed, my cultural touchstones
were all wrong. I was like a bad actor imitating a teacher. Fast forward five years. By now I
have learned to embody my role as a young female white teacher of non-white students. I am
a human among humans. The students can tell. Sometimes one will remark, “You black, Miss.
You real, just like us.”They distinguish Caucasian from white; the former is a physiological
designation reflective of European heritage, the latter is a way of being in the world, an ethos,
the essence of inauthenticity. In tribute to Haraway’s memorable declaration that she would
rather be a cyborg than a goddess, I would rather be an albino politician than a white poet.


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1 The field of whiteness studies took shape in the 1990s as scholars from diverse disciplinary backgrounds, influenced by
postmodernism notions of polysemy and multiple subjectivities, began to theorize whiteness not as a racial category but
rather as a socially constructed ideology bound up in social class and institutional authority.

Regimented ethnic hierarchies and notions of differential race-based genetic capacities had gone unquestioned for much
of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries during the heyday of eugenics and the mental hygiene movement.
But the notion of race itself was discredited by scientists' discovery that are no biological characteristics by which to
empirically distinguish one so-called “race” from another, a finding that strongly indicates that the actual or perceived
deficits of some groups, like for instance African Americans, must be due in large part to social conditions.

A look in the historical record reveals great permeability and flexibility in white identity, especially for European
immigrants and their native-born progeny. Recall, for example, how immigrants from southern and eastern Europe –
Irish, Italians and Jews – were once considered non-white. But as the population of New York City further diversified in
the twentieth century, with black sharecroppers and Puerto Ricans migrating en masse to New York City around the mid-
century, these European ethnics – once regarded with suspicion and disdain by the Protestant Anglo-Dutch establishment
– must have suddenly seemed far more palatable. Eastern and southern Europeans soon shed their status as racial
“Others,” becoming accidental beneficiaries of an altered social landscape.

Readers interested in further exploring the genesis of white ethnics as such might refer to Roediger, D. (1991). The
wages of whiteness: Race and the making of the American working class. London: Verso.

2 See, for example: Gibson, C. (2004). Promising multicultural pre-service teacher education initiatives. Radical
Pedagogy, 6(1); Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). Who will teach our children? Preparing teachers to successfully teach
African American students. In E. Hollins, J. King & W. Hyman (Eds.), Teaching diverse populations: Formulating a
knowledge base. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press; Mazzei, L. (2008). Silence speaks: Whiteness
revealed in the absence of voice. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24(5), 1125-36; Vavrus, M. (2002). Transforming the
multicultural education of teachers: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

3 Several scholars have written the frustrations of teaching about whiteness. See, for example, Bruna's description of
counter-productive discussions with teacher education candidates at Iowa State University: Bruna, K. (2007). Finding
new words: How I use critical literacy in my multicultural teacher education classroom. Journal of Education for
Teaching, 33 (1), 115-18.

For another interesting treatment, refer to Solomon, P., Portelli, J., Daniel, B. & Campbell, A. (2005). The discourse of
denial: How white teacher candidates construct race, racism and “white privilege.” Race, Ethnicity and Education. 8 (2),
147-169. In this article the authors develop a typologies avoidance strategies employed by their teacher education

4 See all articles listed above, plus: Trier, 2005; Robertson, 1997.

5 See, for example: Aaronsohn, E., Carter, C. & Howell, M. (1995). Preparing monocultural teachers for a multicultural
world: Attitudes toward inner-city schools. Equity and Excellence in Education, 28(1), 5-9; Gay, G. & Kirkland, K.
(2003). Developing cultural critical consciousness and self-reflection in pre-service teacher education. Theory into
Practice, 42(3), 181-7; Moss, G. (2008). Diversity study circles in teacher education practice: An experiential learning
project. Teaching and Teacher Education: An International Journal of Research and Studies. 24(1), 216-24; Solorzano,
D. & Yosso, T. (2001). From racial stereotyping and deficit discourse toward a critical race theory in teacher education.
Multicultural Education, 9(1), 2-8; Perry, T., Steele, C. & Hilliard, A. G., III (2003). Young, gifted, and black. Boston,
MA: Beacon Press;

6 Exact attrition figures vary from study to study; Ingersoll (2001) found that approximately 40% of teachers leave the
profession within five years, while Johnson and Birkeland (2003) report a 50% attrition rate among new teachers. Quartz
et al. (2008) point out that attrition rates may in fact under-represent the personal losses of urban districts, noting that in
addition to those leaving teaching for other professions, many others early-career educators first hired in urban districts
will transition to positions in more affluent districts or to non-teaching but education-related positions. If teacher quality
is indeed the single most important variable affecting student achievement (Guarino, Santibañez & Daley, 2006), the
retention crisis among new teachers represents yet another obstacle to achieving equity in already resource-poor

See, for example: Darling-Hammond, L. (2003). Keeping good teachers: Why it matters, what leaders can do.
Educational Leadership, 60(8), 6-13; Futernick, K. (2007). A possible dream: Retaining California teachers so all
students can learn. Sacramento, CA: Center for Teacher Quality, Office of the Chancellor, California State University;
Guarino, C., Santibañez, L. & Daley, G. (2006). Teacher recruitment and retention: A review of the recent empirical
literature. Review of Educational Research, 76(2), 173-208; Ingersoll, R. (2001). Teacher turnover and teacher shortages:
An organizational analysis. American Educational Research Journal, 38(3), 499-534; Johnson, S. & Birkeland, S.
(2003). Pursuing a “sense of success”: New teachers explain their career decisions. American Educational Research
Journal, 40(3), 581-617; Quartz, K., Thomas, A., Anderson, L., Masyn, K., Lyons, K. & Olsen B. (2008). Careers in
motion: A longitudinal retention study of role-changing among early-career urban educators. Teachers College Record,
110(1), 218-50.

7 For a discussion of multicultural pre-service training, see Gibson, C. Promising multicultural pre-service teacher
education initiatives. Radical Pedagogy, 6(1). For a detailed treatment of transformative multicultural education, refer to
Vavrus, M. (2002). Transforming the multicultural education of teachers: Theory, research, and practice. New York:
Teachers College Press. For culturally reflective practice, see Gay, G. & Kirkland, K. (2003). Developing cultural
critical consciousness and self-reflection in pre-service teacher education. Theory into Practice. 42 (3), 181-87.