Tuesday, July 26, 2011


by Cecil B. DeLibby

Revolutionary improvements in teaching now happen every few months. This year saw yet another giant step: the installation in classrooms of video cameras coupled with the use of Pan-Opto, a program that allows us to store the films of our classes for instant viewing on computers. Being a man who ardently embraces all advances in our ancient profession, I naturally wish to be among the harbingers of progress by examining the implications of this latest breakthrough. What can we expect to happen?

First will come changes in titles and terminology, something we are very used to anyway. The Director of Studies, now termed the “Casting Director,” will place job listings in Variety as well as traditional locations and will assemble the “cast” (faculty) for the year’s “shoots” (classes). An “actor” (teacher), before going “on stage” (to the classroom), will report “in costume” (dress code) before “call-time” (the bell) to the “green room” (faculty lounge), where a make-up artist will insure that the actor does not look pasty or off-color while the cameras are rolling.

During the opening faculty meetings actors will receive instructions on the key skills of modern pedagogy, such as how to present one’s best profile, voice projection, and the importance of not looking at the camera.

Because the presence on-set of real students is not always necessary—they can watch the movie later—the stage can sometimes be filled by “extras” chosen to personify whatever goals the school is trying to emphasize (e.g. gender balance, multicultural diversity). Extras will be controlled by an off-screen AD (assistant director), who will coach them in simulating interest, taking notes, holding vigorous (but polite) discussions—from a script, of course—and otherwise impersonating ideal students in an ideal classroom. This will make for boffo kudos when the movies are displayed, as they surely will be, on You Tube as well as Moodle.

As the actors build up fan bases and viewers, Producers and Directors (Boards of Trustees and Heads of Schools) must expect certain difficulties. The most successful actors will get agents, of course, so the annual contract-signing, at present reduced to a simple response to an e-mail, will involve heated negotiations for salary, housing, and perhaps perks like chauffeured limousines, luxurious trailers, stars painted on classroom doors, and reserved chairs with names on their backs. Directors will start hearing things like “I’m not thrilled by the script for Physics—can you do a re-write?” “I’m not right for Middle School Spanish—I’m better with more mature audiences,” “Come on, even Sir Alec Guinness couldn’t mine any yocks from Calculus AB!” “If I go into much detail about the September Massacres of 1792, will we lose our G Rating?” or “This is live theater, remember. How much audience response can you expect anyone to get from this ‘Passé Composé’ shtick?” And don’t forget residuals every time a film is played, and fees for “The Best Of ...” compilations.

Thespians who specialize in the liberal arts will have an inherent advantage over those in math and science: English Dept. actors work with material written by geniuses, while those on the nonfiction side usually can concentrate on the doings of various zanies, lunatics, and fascinating homicidal maniacs who so dominate the genre called History. Possibly actors who must try to make audiences warm to verb forms, invisible particles, or complex formulas will demand higher pay on that account.

Some teachers will also encounter difficulties. No school will wish to hire anyone who lacks stage presence or who is unsightly. It will do a school no good to place on stage some gargoyle, however skilled a teacher he might be. Maybe some careers can be salvaged by plastic surgery.

But there will, of course, be opportunities for different types of actors. A media-savvy school will try to present, through its films, a variety of interesting types to provide a potpourri of diverting performances. Among these might be:

The Young Progressive: Chummy with students, affects coolness (odd ties and belts, perhaps a tattoo), makes up for inexperience by enthusiasm (shouting, prancing about, standing on chairs), avoids giving many tests or “high stakes” evaluations.

The Matriarch: A motherly beldam who brings cookies and bags of sweets to class, perches stuffed animals on the windowsills, and punishes severely the tiniest disturbance.

The Jock: Personable, magnetic; easily distracted from his subject (usually “social studies,” which, of course, anyone can teach) by questions about the most recent “big game;” happy to speculate in class on the prospects of this or that professional team in some upcoming tournament. Knows all major sports stars even if he is hazy on Robespierre.

Mr. Chips: To meet the expectations of the public, prep schools especially must have a couple of antiques pottering about the place, confusing names and faces and reminiscing of antediluvian times. These absent-minded relics are often rather weak on classroom discipline and reporting attendance and quite easy for clever students to fool; on the other hand, students who enter their classrooms intent on actually learning something often emerge very well prepared for college.


A seminal article like this cannot be expected to deal with every new development that filming classes will bring about—such as post-production (e.g. insertion of special effects and a musical score; editing out such things as an actor throwing an eraser at an annoying student)—but the author hopes he has at least given his colleagues food for thought. (Might we eventually get to cutting-edge “blue screen” classes, where no students are needed since they will be computer-generated afterwards?) We invite you to meditate on this and develop your own notions.

Perhaps it is a good idea to end a treatise about this latest revolution in education with an encouraging reminder: the basic needs of good teaching were developed not last month (class-room cameras) nor last year (smart boards) nor several years ago (computers) nor in the 1960s (television in classrooms) nor in the 1940s (filmstrips) nor even in 1454 (the printing press) but around 440 BC, when Socrates demonstrated that the essentials are (1) a knowledgeable and enthusiastic instructor, (2) students who want to learn, and (3) adequate time. (He didn’t even use chalk!)
August 2010; expanded July 2011

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