Last weekend was one of my favorite weekends in Columbia: the True/False Film Fest. Not only are the documentary films thought-provoking, challenging, inspiring, and beautiful to view, the films are surrounded with great interviews and Q and A with the film directors. I saw six films this year – most were marvelous, a few were just okay, and one film I loved and hated all at the same time.
Approaching the Elephant.
Because of my background in education and my love of documentaries that feature kids, schools, and teachers (To Be and To Have; Pressure Cooker), I was really excited to see Approaching the Elephant. The True/False description of the film reads, “The free school model proposes a learning environment where classes are optional and all rules are determined by democratic vote…this radical concept has reached the small town of Little Falls, New Jersey, where an ambitious idealist…opens the world’s 262nd free school.”
I’ve heard of free schools before and the concept is intriguing to me. In seeing the film, I wondered how students would handle their freedom to choose classes and run the school themselves. I wondered what role the teachers would play and how they would teach if children didn’t choose to learn. Approaching the Elephant gave a true and up close view of what happens when kids have complete freedom to do whatever they choose. And it was difficult to watch. The teacher and mother in me were cringing throughout most of the film.
In one scene, the children are haphazardly using handsaws to cut boards with their fingers literally an inch away from the blade while the teacher gives loose instructions. One little girl eventually says, “I don’t think my parents would want me to do this.”
Another scene shows the same little girl being bullied and chased by older boys while they are unsupervised outside, which is where one of the older boy students spends most of his day choosing to ride his bike for hours instead of choosing to take a class.
The teacher helps guide one of the many democratic meetings we see in the film where the students are upset with him because he asked them to stop jumping off some plastic bins so they wouldn’t get hurt. One girl was so upset with the teacher she said she would not come back to school over the issue. Another student and assistant teacher decide if the main teacher was guilty or innocent in this situation and provide the verdict he was innocent.
I could go on. Watching the children choose over and over again to fight with one another, wander around the school, ride bikes, and play video games was so disheartening. These children needed guidance. They needed a teacher who would instruct them, provide boundaries, set high expectations, and discipline them when needed. They needed an adult to lead them; someone with wisdom and experience and compassion for his students.
I am all for giving kids choices, when adults are helping them to learn how to choose. For example, when I taught at Stephens College Children’s School, the children had a 90-minute literacy block. During that time, they would attend reading groups, writing circles, and meet individually with a teacher. But they could also choose how to structure the rest of their time. They could choose to read or write or edit or work on a new poem or publish some writing. But there were parameters for their choices.
Teaching and disciplining children is biblical. It is God’s design for adults to model and instruct children so that they will grow up in faith and knowledge and wisdom. To this point, consider the following verses:
Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. – Proverbs 22:6
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. – Deuteronomy 6:6-7
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. – Ephesians 6:4
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away. – Matthew 19: 13-15
Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him. – Proverbs 13:24
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. – 2 Timothy 3:14-15
Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him. – Proverbs 22:15
This is why Approaching the Elephant was such a difficult film for me. It showed in explicit ways how children are unable to guide themselves to make good choices when left completely to their own desires. They need some help to see what is wise and good and true. As Christians, this is especially important because, as the verses above proclaim, we are charged by God to teach our children about Him and His holy word. Teaching, instructing, and disciplining is not optional work – we want to impress God’s truths and teaching on our kids’ hearts.
You’ll remember I said at the beginning of this post I both “loved and hated” this film. Though I’ve mostly discussed what I found troubling, there were some things that make this film stand out. First, it is beautiful to watch. In striking black and white, the film feels timeless and set apart highlighting the gray subject matter of the film. Secondly, the film is impeccably edited. The director, Amanda Rose Wilder, condensed hours and hours of footage into a tight and engaging story that allows the viewers to feel like they are a spectator of the inner workings of the school. And, lastly, the film feels true. Though I didn’t agree with the philosophy of the school, the film itself reserved comments and ideas about what the viewers should take from it. Since there were no interviews or voiceovers or soundtrack, we simply got to watch the teacher and his students interact. We are to draw our own conclusions and this is why the film felt real and pure.
If Approaching the Elephant ever makes its way to Ragtag or Netflix, be sure to check it out. Through this film was frustrating in many ways, it was still engaging and caused me to roll out some of my thinking on how important teachers are for our children and their future.