Inside the Classroom and Mind of an Extraordinary Teacher
If we could be sure of landing at Midland, which was an elementary school in Rye, New York, between the years 1956 and 1966, I’d be inclined to agree with traditionalists who argue that education should go back to the old days. I’m starting to see their point of view. To be more specific, landing in the classroom of the educator Albert Cullum. He had an innate understanding of what was successful in education and routinely incorporated teaching strategies ranging from social and emotional learning to project-based learning, long before these pedagogical approaches had academic names.
A Touch of Greatness is a documentary that was produced in 2004 by Catherine Gund for the PBS series Independent Lens. Cullum explains that “We must remember how children learn rather than how we teach” in the aforementioned documentary. “They are picking up all the fundamentals without even being aware that they are doing so because everything from movement to emotions to activities to projects are incorporated into what they are doing. Learning shouldn’t be a chore; rather, it should bring happiness.”
Unrequited actor that he was, Cullum brought his love of literature, storytelling, and movement into the classroom to share with his students. He favoured Hamlet and Ophelia over Dick and Jane in the play, and he taught geography by having his students “swim” (in their bathing suits) up an imaginary river that was created by unrolling a massive roll of paper on top of a massive map of the United States that was painted on the school playground. He believed that Hamlet and Ophelia were the better couple.
If everyone who has seen Davis Guggenheim’s hugely popular documentary Waiting For “Superman” spent an hour with Cullum and his students in the film Greatness, then the debate over education reform would be about firing up teachers, rather than firing them. This is not intended as a slight.
To our great good fortune, Cullum’s extraordinary teachings were captured on film by his friend Robert Downey Sr., who was just starting out in the film industry at the time. Downey’s hypnotic black and white footage captures children as young as ten and eleven years old putting such unfiltered feeling into their roles as Antigone, Saint Joan, and Julius Caesar that I dare any acting school in the country to outdo them. Cullum was not surprised in the least by the sincerity of the performances, particularly coming from such young children. He explains that “every public school girl should have a chance to play the part of Saint Joan before the age of 12,” and that this is because “the older you get, the more difficult it is to hear the voices of Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine calling you.” This is why “every public school girl should have a chance to play the part of Saint Joan before the age of 12.”
The director of Greatness, Leslie Sullivan, intercuts archival footage shot by Downey with a reunion that took place in 1999 between Cullum and some of his former students, who are now in their 40s and 50s. Cullum, who was getting close to 80 years old at the time, passed away in 2003, not long after the production of the movie was finished. For the time being, however, he and some of his former students have reunited at Midland School in such a natural way that one would be fooled into thinking that they have been having weekly Sunday barbecues for the past half century. An old friend makes a joke about how the woman is still trying to get straight As when she shows Cullum the spelling lists she’s kept all these years. And when David Pugh, a student from Cullum’s class of 1959, recalls how much of a ruffian he used to be back then, Cullum surprises him by revealing a secret to him. “Let it be known that I traded you,” Cullum says to the boy, telling him that he was scheduled for another teacher, which is met with a roar of laughter from the crowd. And I responded by saying, “No, give me that kid, and I’ll give you two boring ones.” Pugh eventually entered the teaching profession and worked in the public schools of New York City.
It is difficult to imagine a teacher surviving in today’s classrooms who organised literature conventions at school and had his students vote on their favourite authors (Shakespeare and Shaw tied for first place). A man who, throughout his many books and interviews, advocated that education should be “joyous” and “playful,” would most likely not find any satisfaction in a system that solely evaluates teachers and students on the basis of their performance on standardised tests.