Ep. 176: Our Top 10 Education Movies

May 5, 2020

The EdChoice team shares their favorite education-themed movies—from Dead Poets Society to School of Rock.

Keri Hunter: Welcome back to EdChoice Chats. We thought we would mix things up a little bit here at EdChoice and give you a fun list of education-themed movies to enjoy during our current situation. You may be tired of reading and writing and following the breaking news, so we thought we’d lighten things up for you. So, enjoy our list of education-themed movies from our staff. We’re going to start with Robert Enlow in his pick.

Robert Enlow: Good morning Keri, and good morning everyone. Being the old dog in this group, I’m going to go with the old dog movie which is, Dead Poets Society, which was made in 1989 and directed by the great Peter Weir, starring Robin Williams and Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles and a host of young actors that you now see in every single sit-com or movie or hallmark movie that you see every week. It’s based in the fictional East Coast boarding school in Vermont, and it’s about how this unorthodox teacher, Robin Williams, teaches these kids how to be independent, free thinking. And the names that they have are Todd Anderson and Knox Overstreet and Charlie Dalton and Neil Perry. This whole set up is it’s a male boarding school where these kids are in a stifling environment where the oppressive system tells them how to act and behave.

And Robin Williams comes in and helps them understand how to be liberated and free and does that through poetry and expressing themselves. And of course as kids do, they take it one step too far and recreate the Dead Poets Society, which was a fictional society in the school and the fictional school at some point. And it all ends up tragically when the character Neil Perry kills himself in the end because he can’t get past his father’s oppressive way of his future. I’m thinking about his future. And so this is really a teen angst movie about how you should get out in front of your own liberty and own independence and buck the system. The real reason I like this movie is because it described like half of my childhood. I had the same sort of experience in 1979 to 1983 when I was a young kid from Evansville, Indiana, the Backwoods of Indiana, and got sent to Stony Brook, Long Island, New York, for a boarding school that was called, more modern prones to Christian Exeter, as it were.

And so, the names of the kids that I roomed with were not Knox Overstreet, but they were Pete DuPont and Alfred Swanson, or this rarefied atmosphere of this incredible setting was beautiful and bucolic and all of that. So, this is an interesting movie that really should tell us in some ways how education can be really great, but how you don’t want to do it. And so I’m sort of glad we’ve moved beyond dead poets thinking about our K-12 education system into a different, more innovative way. So, that’s my start and my movie and it’s why I like it and I’m going to pass it on to the great Mike McShane to go to his movie.

Mike McShane: Thanks Robert. Keeping the theme of hoity-toity private academies going, my movie is Rushmore. If you want to know a really kind of fun, quirky movie that’s set in a school, it’s tough to beat that one. Came out in 1998. It’s famous because it’s directed by Wes Anderson. I think it was his second film that came out and the first one that really kind of exposed him to a broader audience. And I think for no other reason than helping to resurrect the career of Bill Murray, it is worthy of our adulation. But I think just the story that it tells about a kind of weird kid trying to fit in in their school. So, I mean the basic synopsis of it is that Max Fischer, played by Jason Schwartzman, is this kind of quirky kid who is involved in every single club that’s possible, inventing even new ones for himself, staging elaborate plays, but doing terribly in school. And then there eventually is this whole kind of a love triangle situation between one of the younger teachers and Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman.

But the thing that’s more interesting about what it tells about schools is that I think there are actually lots of kids like Max Fischer out there, there are kids who don’t necessarily do great in the classroom but have all sorts of interesting skills that can be used and that schools should try and cultivate those things in them. And so if you can put on some amazing play… OK, maybe you’re not great in English class, but you can demonstrate these things in other ways. And there are lots of kids who come to school just because of the drama program or the school newspaper or the yearbook or sports. And it’s something that we should think about. So, it’s a real fun movie. It’s quirky. The music’s great. Bill Murray’s hilarious.

And so, I highly recommend it both for what it tells us about schools and just cause it’s a fun movie. And so I’m going to hand it off now. If I didn’t do Rushmore, I was actually thinking of going way old school and doing something like Bells of St. Mary’s, which is an awesome movie about schools. But now that I know my friend and colleague Leslie Hiner, I think, is also going to talk about a classic movie. So, I feel I was allowed to do my quirky pick because I know Leslie’s going to handle something from classic cinema.

Leslie Hiner: Thanks, Mike. Yes, I love classic cinema, and it seems like we’re starting a theme here as we’re talking a lot about kids in school with a lot of angst and a lot of things to express. I guess if we all think back to when we were young, we all had things that we wanted to express and really know how to do it the right way and relied on some great teacher to make sure that maybe we learned how to do it the right way. But the movie that I would recommend to you, the Blackboard Jungle, is a movie where the teacher had a really hard time doing that with the class. So, this movie was made in 1955, so 65 years ago. And it’s a story about schools in the inner city and the violence and the racial tension that was in a lot of public schools at that time.

Glenn Ford is the man who starred in this movie, and it really reignited his film career as well. But he’s a guy who was at World War II, came back, didn’t know what to do with himself, didn’t really want to be a teacher, but became a teacher. And he had this idea of teaching to a class that was kind of like Beaver Cleaver and everybody was just happy and pleasant and harmonious and it was nothing like that at all. It was quite violent in the classroom. So, the movie itself I think is significant because it exposes that kind of tension that happened after World War II, as the country was trying to recreate itself and be everything good and wonderful, but teenagers were not quite buying it. So, it exposes that. Now in the process, this movie also debuts stars like Sidney Poitier, this is when he became famous was from this movie. Jamie Farr and also Vic Morrow.

Now, it’s also though, in addition to the education side, it’s also credited as being that movie, that is what they call, “The Big Bang of Rock and Roll.” That rock and roll was kind of in the background lurking around until this movie. The theme song of the movie was, “Rock Around the Clock,” by Bill Haley & His Comets. And people just loved it and they went nuts for it. And they called this movie the movie that brought rock and roll to the forefront, because suddenly it was mainstream. Very popular movie, especially amongst teens. So, teenagers went to this movie in droves and they did things that they hadn’t done before. Teenagers were dancing in the aisles at movie theaters. OK, so now today for us, we know Rocky Horror Picture Show, people do things, they respond to movies that they see in theaters. But at that time, that was a revolutionary act for kids to get up in a movie theater and dance in the aisles.

But that’s not all they did. They also became very violent, and the movie sparked protests and riots. Some of it was just because. It was just an underlying rebelliousness that existed across the country at the time, but another part of it though was very deeply rooted in what was happening in the public schools. And I find it so interesting because there was such a rebellion against butts in seats, staying in a very sterile classroom, being restricted in movements, I mean much like things are today, but there was a real outcry by teens at that time and this movie sparked that and sparked these kids to come out and say what they were unhappy about. It also was a very poignant movie regarding race relations at the time—1955. Of Course, this is at the time of Brown v. Board of Education and desegregating schools, just starting to do that.

But this was set in the North where this was a desegregated classroom. There were white kids, black kids in the classroom, but they didn’t like it. They didn’t like each other. They didn’t like that they had to be together. They express that at a regular basis. And in fact, part of the controversy of this film was that the teacher treated the black kids with respect, and that was considered to be very controversial at the time.

So, as you watch this movie, it will move you. This is a movie that has stuck with me for years and years. I can’t get it out of my head, it was so powerful. But it really is the movie that will make you think about how you feel about desegregated classrooms and peaceful classrooms and people getting along and being able to meet the needs of kids, whatever they are. And how can you do that if they’re not having their needs met in the classroom, how can you actually reach kids? Glenn Ford shows a little bit about how that can be done. So, it’s a great movie, very historic, and I hope you enjoy it. Now, after you watch this movie, however, it’s moving in kind of a dark way. It might depress you a little bit so you should know. So, you might want to watch the movie that Steve is going to talk to us about right now. Enjoy.

Steve Holwerda: Thank you, Leslie. I certainly will lighten the mood after that. The movie I’m going to talk about does not have a heavy implications on the history of the United States, although there is some pretty heavy rock and roll in it. The movie I’m going to talk about today is, School of Rock. It’s one of my favorite movies. It was released in 2003 directed by Richard Linklater and starring Jack Black, Joan Cusack, Mike White, Sarah Silverman amongst many others. This movie, it’s a pretty fun take on school. I guess it does involve a prestigious prep school. It’s called Horace Green, focusing on a group of fifth graders in that class.

But the main point of the movie is about a struggling guitarist. His name is Dewey Finn in the movie, that’s played by Jack Black. This guy gets kicked out of his band for what some would probably call over-performing, doing stage dives, all that kind of stuff that wasn’t appreciated by his other band mates. So, they kicked him out, forcing him to kind of go a different direction, we would say. He’s not able to pay the rent with his roommate and so he takes a phone call intended for his roommate asking him to be a substitute teacher at this school, Horace Green.

He accepts the job even though he’s not qualified for this role whatsoever and yes, the fun ensues from there. He does not do anything that you would want a teacher to do in a classroom, particularly for those that have paid $15,000 a year for their child to go to a prep school. But he does help these kids actually find some hidden gifts that they have. And his whole purpose of it is to try to build a new band to replace the one that kicked him out, out of these fifth grade students. So, he assigns roles to each of them and actually they do pretty well. I don’t want to give away the whole plot of the movie, but it’s one of those that definitely is enjoyable to watch. There’s not a lot of heavy themes in it for sure.

I don’t know if this opinion is shared by everybody, but one of the reasons I like this movie so much is I enjoy the comedic stylings of Jack Black. I think he’s kind of funny. I also love classic rock and this movie is full of it. The whole soundtrack is some of the best out there. So, you know, Led Zepplin, Stevie Nicks, The Who, you name it, they’re in this movie and it’s great. Obviously there’s some bumps in the road along the way and Jack Black not being a teacher certainly doesn’t handle every situation very well. In fact, he probably handles it as badly as somebody could handle it. With all that said though, in the end, he really does become that really likable guy that you would want. He learns his lessons and teaches others a few lessons as well. So, I enjoy watching this movie.

I think I probably watch it every time I’m on TV and it’s on. I end up watching it probably much to the dismay of others in my household, but I would highly recommend this movie to everybody if you want just a lighthearted, funny film that will also maybe teach a couple of lessons along the way. With that said, I’m going to pass this along to Drew Catt.

Drew Catt: Yeah, thanks Steve. So, if you’re not really one to feel like cheering up and you want to get all in your feelings, then I recommend watching, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. So, this is the 2012 adaptation of Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 novel of the same name, which I believe I read my senior year of high school. And this is maybe one of the first movies that I saw in which Paul Rudd had a serious role in which he was the English teacher.

And I also believe that this is the first post-Harry Potter film where Emma Watson separated herself from the role of Hermione Granger and had short hair. So, really for me, this kind of coming-of-age story stroke a lot of notes for me. I mean it gets deep and dark with some of it—talks about depression, mental health, non-heterosexual relationships, which for me growing up in a small town in Indiana reading this book my senior year of high school, that was kind of the first time I was really read about any of that, read about clinical depression. But we don’t need to get too deep and dark with all of this. I think some of the highlights of the movie really are, again, I mentioned like Paul Rudd played the important role of a teacher. He really struck a chord with the main character who is a new freshman and the high school environment and kind of inspired him to pursue his passion, kind of called him out for his excellent writing and assigned him extra material.

And really that was the impetus of the main character, kind of finding the light for himself and kind of pulling that thread of his passion and discovering his passion. And then again, when one of the seniors that takes them under the wing, kind of gifting him with a typewriter at one point in the movie, kind of taking that into the next level of encouraging him to write and follow his passion and not really getting stuck in the darkness of the angst of teen years kind of complicated with clinical depression, but for really giving him something to look forward to, giving him something that he felt confident in, and kind of giving him a way to express himself.

So yeah, definitely, definitely highly, highly recommend this movie. And if you’re more of a reader, the novel is amazing. Fun fact that originally Stephen Chbosky wanted the novel to become a screenplay and started writing it as a screenplay. But his caveat was he wanted to write and direct it and it took John Malkovich, of all people, and his production company to be like, yeah, we’ll do this and we’ll give you kind of full free rein of everything, do it as you see best fit, because this is after all yearbook. So, after getting all in your feels, if you want to have another kind of inspirational movie, then maybe check out what my colleague Lauren Hodge is going to talk about.

Lauren Hodge: Thanks so much Drew. So, for those of you who are the 90s era and you might have grown up like I did with the great movie, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and that is, for those of you that don’t know, it’s a wonderful story that talks about a composer, Mr. Holland, who has a dream of writing an original work, composition and music is his life, has passion. He takes a job as a teacher because he wants more time to actually write. So, he kind of goes into the teaching profession as a back channel pathway and he’s not really interested in being a teacher, but as we so often hear, teaching takes hold. And so he ends up finding, begrudgingly at times, a love for his students. And he learns how to teach his students through whatever means possible. So, whether that’s rock, whether that is being outside and being with the band, and he teaches people who had no rhythm whatsoever how to play the drums.

And it’s this very kind of telling and touching story about a teacher who didn’t want to be a teacher finding his passion. I think from an education standpoint, and really kind of more unique perspective of this movie and why I like it is, it shows a teacher as a person. And so often I myself fell into the habit of teachers being seen as not real people. Like, when I would see them at the grocery store, I’d wonder, “Oh wow, you go here to really?” Forgetting that they too have to get groceries and they too have lives and complexities. And so what’s shown throughout the movie is the complexities in his relationship with his wife, the complexities in the relationship with his son who’s deaf and can’t experience music in the way that he does. And ultimately it’s, it’s just a very touching story about how teachers can make a difference and how teachers have to fight for their subjects, unfortunately. And how those teachers who do really reach us and speak to our souls, that’s a connection that’s made that stands the test of time.

And so, it’s one of those movies that I continue to kind of watch periodically throughout my life. And it’s kind of interesting that each time you watch it you see something new. So, it’s definitely one that, if you just need a movie that has a good message and will let you think of things a little bit differently, I definitely recommend Mr. Holland’s Opus. And so now I turn it over to my wonderful colleague Jen, who has an even more fun movie.

Jennifer Wagner: Thanks, Lauren. I do. I went with the brain candy route on this particular exercise and this is a movie that, if you haven’t seen it, I kind of don’t know who you are. My movie is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Came out in 1986 when I was in kindergarten, but like Steve with School of Rock, this is one that you, man, if it’s on, you just have to watch it. I don’t intend to believe for you with all the details other than it’s a great education movie in part because of the caricatures of education that are part of this.

The principal. Ben Stein is the economics teacher. And I just think it’s, you got to do something in these weird times to let your brain kind of unwind. And you get to see a young Matthew Broderick, a young Jennifer Gray. And really, this is an education movie that’s not about those caricatures. It’s a movie that’s about Matthew Broderick’s character finding himself, taking a day off school, playing sick, playing hooky and figuring out what really matters in his life and where he’s going and also destroying a Ferrari in the process, which is pretty awesome.

So, if you haven’t seen it, I—again—question whether you’ve been alive for the last 30 years. Just kidding. But I will say this, I have a 12 year old now, she’s almost 13, and it’s a really fun time since we’re all cooped up with our kids to introduce them to great classic movies, like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and I highly recommend it. Tune in and turn off your brain and with that, I’m going to hit it over to my colleague, our marketing director, Katie Brooks.

Katie Brooks: Thanks, Jen. That’s actually one of my favorite movies, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But my pick today is kind of in the similar vein of your pick, which is like kind of teen angst—teens finding their identity, but mine is in the horror genre, sci-fi horror genre. It is The Faculty, released in 1998. That would have made me about nine years old at the time. And yes, when it came out on DVD, months later, my cousins did let me watch this movie with them because apparently there was no parental oversight over that. But anyway, it scared me then. But now, having seen it as an adult. It’s actually really, really funny and it has some decent horror in it too for anybody who’s looking for something apart from the more serious, heavy things. If you’re a 90s kid, it’ll be nostalgic for you.

It doesn’t take itself too seriously. Something notable about this movie is that it’s written by Kevin Williamson of Scream fame. He wrote Scream and a bunch of other teen movies of that time. And this movie is star studded, but at the time it wasn’t so star studded, but if you watched it now, like tons… Almost every single character, even like some side characters that don’t have important roles are super famous now, which is a fun little experience if you’ve never seen it. So, some of the stars of this—Josh Hartnett, Elijah Wood, Salma Hayak, Usher, even John Stewart weirdly has a pretty important role in this movie as a teacher. So yeah, literally almost every character is a star now. So, the brief synopsis of the film for anyone who has not seen it is that the students of Harrington High School, their principal and their teachers and the staff have always been a little weird, but now they’re starting to act really weird and you find they’re acting almost alien.

So, what you learn is they’re being controlled by these parasite aliens that have come to earth and the faculty is trying to infect all of the students to eventually take over the world if you will. And so, of course, in nineties teen movie fashion, a popular girl, a nerd, a goth, a football player, a drug dealer, and the new girl at school, they all team up and they fight back against this alien. So, there is no real deeper meaning that you’re going to pull about education system or anything from my movie. It’s really just an escape from kind of heavy times right now and it will kind of, it’ll make you laugh and it might scare you a little bit. It’s really fun.

It is, again, a story of teens kind of struggling to find their identity, find how they fit in and you have a little fun along the way. I recently introduced this to one of my teacher friends. She teaches fifth grade and then another one of my teacher friends who teaches high school and she really loved it because this movie plays a lot with stereotypes, and like Jen said, kind of caricatures of teachers. And so they got a big kick out of a lot of the teachers’ lounge scenes and a lot of those silly characters. So, that is my pick. Hopefully you guys enjoy little horror amidst all these other great movies. With that, I will pass it along to Brian McGrath.

Brian McGrath: Thanks, Katie. Hello everybody. A movie I chose was, Lean on Me, which came out in 1989, it was directed by John Avildsen, who’s done lots of other great films. The main star was Morgan Freeman. There were some other people in there you might recognize, but he was the principal after there that we would all know, and the primary song in it that everybody would might remember is actually, “Lean On Me.” It was the remake of bill Withers, 1972 classic done by Club Nouveau, who put it out actually in 1987 and won a Grammy award for it. And it was kind of the song that, I think in part, drove the popular, this movie back when it was out in 1989. The story is something that’s probably all too familiar these days, but it’s an urban high school that used to be successful is now kind of ridden with crime and violence and drugs and kids not learning, but trapped at a bad school.

And it turns out that standardized testing is as big then as it is now. The school gets word that if they can’t get 75 percent of their kids to pass the state test, then the state will take over the school. So, the mayor of the city is panicked, of course, and they have to do dramatic things and so he hires this guy named Joe Clark, somewhat reluctantly, but Joe is a no-nonsense educator, former teacher at East Side High and a now elementary school principal. But so he brings in Joe, and Joe immediately starts to do things that are considered absolutely crazy and radical by the people around the school. He immediately expels 300-and-some kids, because they’re drug dealers or abusers of other kids or bullies or whatnot. He just locks him out of the school, doesn’t let him come back.

He immediately starts getting tough on his teachers. He gets tough on students. He gets tough on parents. He is a no nonsense rabble rouser of a administrator and a principal. And oddly enough, this seems to have some results. All of a sudden the kids can learn a little better because maybe the school’s not so disruptive. The teachers starting to have high expectations for their students. Some of the parents get on board, some do not, and some of the other educators don’t get on board either, and he has lots of conflicts with them. But as he’s pushing this and pushing this and pushing this, he instills some school pride. He makes all the kids learn the school song and require some them to sing it on command during the lunch and other things. So, he’s changing the culture of the school in a very rapid and aggressive way. But it begins to have some results.

And sure enough, when the time the test comes around, well I won’t ruin the end for you, but the kids take the test. But in the meantime he has been arrested for breaking a fire code largely because one of the school board members sees that he’s kind of gaining control of the school and effectively taking power away from those who actually want to control the school. So, that’s kind of the basic story. I can remember seeing this in high school and I think why it stuck with me is that I went to a suburban high school that had a mixed student population. It was one of the first movies I’d seen about high school that dealt with kind of an inner city falling apart, dilapidated school. I mean most of those high school movies I saw in the eighties were things like The Breakfast Club or Pretty in Pink or Say Anything or any of these other movies that dealt with high school kids that were just dealing with their own kind of emotions, and high school was sort of seen as burdened on that, but there was nothing really about the schooling itself.

So, it kind of showed me, and I think even the folks that I hung out with at the time, that there actually was this other side of school that we just didn’t think about it very much because we went to a relatively decent school and even though it had its own problems, it’s a place we all felt comfortable. So, it showed us that wasn’t the case for all kids. I think another thing that grabbed me about this, was that that was when I was sort of coming to my own as, I wouldn’t say an activist, but I was interested in things like public policy and why did we do things the way we did in school and I was part of the student government and I remember our advisor would always challenge us to, if we didn’t like the way something was happening in the school, we should just get organized around it and start pushing back and figure out what we wanted to make it happen. So, I think it, it showed me that determined people could do that.

And then looking back on it now after spending 25 odd years in education reform, it sort of queued up a few things back then even. One is that everybody can learn; they just need an environment that kind of supports that. And two, it shows me that expectations are super important and we have to make sure we expect high things from our students, from our parents, from our community, from our teachers to make education work. And it also shows, I think, very starkly that in lesson really for all of us and this is that even if things are working, don’t underestimate the desire of people who want to maintain power or maintain their own self-interest even over the results that they all claim are most important, like kids doing well on tests or enjoying their school.

So, it’s a fun movie. I mean the soundtrack’s good, it’s got everything from the “Lean On Me” song to Guns N’ Roses. It’s a serious film in a way, but it’s really inspirational because the kids kind of rise to the occasion as it were, and it was just a good way to see that and remind you that this stuff does matter in school, can matter for these kids and given the right circumstances, everybody can be successful. So, check it out if you haven’t seen it already and that’s all I got.

Keri Hunter: All right. Thank you Brian and thank you everybody. This is a great list, and I hope you guys can take some time and enjoy some of these films, but I will say I think the best education movie out there right now is Miss Virginia. And I have a couple of reasons I believe that. Miss Virginia was released in the fall of 2019 and is based on a very important and special lady to us at EdChoice, and that is Virginia Walden Ford, one of our board members. This movie was made and based on her life in her fight for students and her own son in Washington, D.C. The tagline for the movie is actually, “Be brave. Be heard. Believe.” And I think that’s very fitting for us in this kind of EdChoice movement. Another reason I really liked the movie is it helped explain to a lot of my family and friends exactly what I do at EdChoice.

A lot of my family didn’t really understand what school choice meant or what I actually did in this movement and showing them the movie was super helpful. I would also say that this is a family-friendly movie—about 10 years old and up. It’s a good one to sit down as a whole family or if you’re struggling for some extra content for your kids like I am for online learning right now. I think this would be a good junior high, high school movie for kids to watch and maybe write a paragraph about afterward. It has some pretty cool stars in it. Uzo Aduba actually plays Miss Virginia. Matthew Modine is in it, if you remember him from back in the 80s and 90s. Vanessa Williams is in it and we also have Niles Fitch who plays in the very popular series, This Is Us, and he is a rock star in the film.

Really enjoyed the movie, like to see Miss Virginia story brought to the big screen for folks to enjoy. You can catch it actually on Netflix, or BET has been running it several times too. So, enjoy this list of 10 movies and let us know what movies you would recommend. We’d love to hear from you. You can drop us a note on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. We’re @edchoice on all of those. We’re glad that you are listening to our podcast. Be sure to subscribe so that you get all of our upcoming content, and stay safe out there. Thanks so much.