“Entre Les Murs” in New York City

October 31, 2009

En route to visit the lovely and amazing AJ in Paris, I made two delightful discoveries. First, the Air France beverage service includes free Chardonnay.  Second, in-flight programming offers passengers a choice between 16 movies, some still in theaters. One of them was Entre les Murs, or The Class, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes a couple of years back.


Well done, Air France. Well done, Cannes. The Class is perhaps the most intelligent commentary on public education in the United States that I have seen, heard or read with my feet firmly planted on the ground, let alone when 30,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. Yes, The Class is set in the 20th arrondissement, not in Bed-Stuy or the Bronx. But this unassuming little film forcefully illustrates many of the challenges that emerge in the classroom, and exposes the clichés that characterize our public conversation about education reform.


I want you to move The Class to the top of your Netflix queue immediately, so I’m not going to pick apart all the intricacies of its plot, nor do I want to spoil the heartbreaking ending. Instead, I’m going to tell you a little bit about the central conflict of the film: the struggle between François, a literature teacher in a rough-and-tumble middle school, and Souleyman, his Malian student.


François is initially presented as a committed, compassionate teacher. We watch him engaging his class in a discussion of identity based on their reading of The Diary of Anne Frank, patiently explaining the definitions of unknown words, and responding to their subtle gestures of defiance with humor and wit. In turn, Souleymane seems to fit the stereotype of the angry, young Black man. Although the two clash early in the film, the conflict seems to be resolved when François recognizes that Souleymane refuses to complete homework assignments or participate in class discussions for one simple reason: he cannot read and write. When Souleymane submits a set of grainy but artful photos in place of an assigned autobiographical essay, François celebrates his talent, carefully pinning the images on the classroom walls. In these scenes, François’ class is the kind of vibrant, inclusive space that all teachers aspire to create.


But François’ fall from grace is swift. At a staff meaning to evaluate student progress, he tells the other teachers that Souleymane is incapable of progressing further. Two student representatives are present, and when they repeat François’ comment in class he lashes out, calling them “skanks” (an accusation with loaded racial undertones.) Souleymane defends them angrily and storms out of the class, accidentally hitting another student in the face with his book bag. The injury is grounds for expulsion, and François must decide whether to pursue disciplinary action. He knows that his comments provoked the incident, and that Souleymane’s father may send him back to Mali if he is expelled. But François is persuaded that the student’s defiance should not go unpunished. At the disciplinary hearing, François remains a voting member of the staff committee and Souleymane must translate the proceedings for his mother. When the committee delivers its verdict, it is Souleymane who tells her that he has been expelled.


The Class powerfully illustrates a central challenge within the classroom: how do you balance a legitimate interest in ensuring student safety, providing the structure kids need in order to learn, with the temptation of arbitrarily asserting your authority as a teacher or administrator? François is not the kind of abusive, failed teacher TFA recruiters point to as “the problem” with American education. He was a good teacher having a very bad day, but his emotional reaction to his students still had tragic consequences.  Nor is Souleymane unredeemable. His anger is not arbitrary, and his defiance is largely defensive. If François had accepted the blame for the incident, he would have been forced to cede some of his authority within the classroom, but he might also have been able to find constructive ways to address Souleymane’s sense of frustration and isolation.


Souleymane’s story is not pure fiction. The Class can be read not only as a parable of the power-dynamics of the classroom, but also as a demonstration of the unexpected consequences of “zero tolerance” discipline policies. Although these policies originated as a response to the perception of rising school violence in the 1990s, they do little to address the underlying reasons why students act out in class, break school rules, or –in the most extreme cases- engage in violent activity. In New York City, “zero tolerance” philosophy drives Bloomberg’s “impact school” initiative. In January 2004, the mayor’s office announced changes in the district discipline codes and school security systems. Suspensions were mandated for a new range of violations, and increased numbers of NYPD officers were placed in facilities deemed insecure. (The NYPD replaced school security officers during the Giuliani administration.) It goes without saying that these “insecure facilities” are the under-resourced schools in low-income neighborhoods in the outer boroughs.


The impact school initiative has had dramatic results. During the 2004-2005 school year, superintendent’s suspensions increased by 33% (from approximately 11,000 to approximately 15,000. Stats from NYCLU) In theory, students who are expelled or suspended are sent to alternative “opportunity schools.” In reality, these students are more likely to stay on the streets than return to school. Police officers are also empowered to arrest students for in-school incidents, which means youth who previously might have spent time in the principal’s office are now sent to family court and, sometimes, detention. These policies contribute to the disgraceful racial disparities in the Juvenile Justice system: in New York City, between 95 and 98% of youth in detention are youth of color, despite the fact that they comprise less than two-thirds of all youth (NY Department of Juvenile Justice.)


(New Yorkers, when you go to the polls on Tuesday, please consider the fact that the Bloomberg administration has made no effort to address these disparities. Yes, “commuter taxes” and trees are nice and all, but they don’t make Bloomberg a progressive, and I for one don’t like the fact that the greatest of American cities has resurrected Jim Crow.)


To top it all off, the impact schools initiative hasn’t made schools any safer. While the Department of Education insists that their policies have reduced crime, the number of actual violent incidents in most schools has only decreased slightly. Moreover, the decrease in crime at impact schools is not statistically significant when compared with the simultaneous decline at other high schools (NYCLU: Criminalizing the Classroom.)


The outcomes of the impact schools initiative, then, are these: more kids pushed out of school and into the maze of the justice system.


Take my former student L. L is originally from New Orleans, and he and his mother and brother took refuge in the Superdome during Katrina. His grandmother died in the flooding. After the storm was over, L moved in with his mother’s family in New York. Understandably, he has serious issues with anger management. L was enrolled in Kindergarten during my first year, when I taught in the classroom next door. I knew him by his screaming. Administrators regularly dragged him out of the class when his behavior was unmanageable.


But the next year, things were different. My teacher had a reputation of knowing how to handle the “bad boys,” and L was assigned to her class. Mrs. S set clear boundaries, working with L’s mother to develop a behavior monitoring system that traced his progress. Initially, it was a struggle, but L came to respect Mrs. S and to take interest in her classroom. By Christmas, he was a different kid: hardworking, helpful, engaged. When praised, his whole face crinkled into a smile. He stayed in our classroom for 2nd grade, and he remained one of my very favorite students.


When L moved up to 3rd grade, he began to act out again. By the end of the year he had been suspended for hitting his teacher. Elementary students who are suspended are sent to other schools for the duration of their suspension, where they are placed in classrooms in which they receive no instruction or attention. I can only imagine that L spent the last two weeks of 3rd grade in a strange place, bored and making trouble.


Students like L and Souleymane are not a lost cause. They can be taught, and they can contribute to the classroom. Are they easy to teach? No, not at all. But they are worth all the trouble in the world.


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