August to June is a chronicle of the final year before retirement in the teaching career of Amy Valens. Her husband, Tom Valens, a part time filmmaker, accompanied her to school for the whole school year, ultimately shooting several hundred hours of footage of her and her 3rd and 4th grade students.
The school is a public elementary school in California, but one that has a small pocket of unconventionality within it. A minority of students participate in the “open classroom” concept. Since the early 1970s, Valens has taught in their open classroom.
By way of background, I was fortunate enough to have one year in an open classroom in my schooling in Michigan–6th grade. I have virtually nothing good to say about my pre-college schooling, but that school year was the least of the evils. It’s always stood out to me as head and shoulders above the usual drudgery that school otherwise represented for me and that I resented so much.
No doubt there are different variations of the open classroom concept, and I wouldn’t say that what is practiced in the class in the film is precisely what I experienced in 6th grade, but in general terms, in an open classroom students are encouraged to initiate and pursue a lot of their own activities. There’s some amount of prompting from the teacher, and certainly books and other material is in abundance to be made use of, but the idea is for the students themselves to make a lot of the decisions about how they’re going to spend their time and what they’re going to learn.
For example, I remember we would often form makeshift small groups and prepare and put on plays or skits. I and three other kids created a little newspaper and put out three or four issues, selling copies for a dime a piece. A friend of mine and I for a month or two spent a lot of time outside with a stopwatch trying to improve our long distance running times.
That’s the other thing I remember is that the open classroom was “open” in the sense that we didn’t have to remain shut inside it all day. We were outdoors at least a little more than just for recess or gym class. More often we were in the hall. I remember a lot of our stuff was set up on tables out in the hall, and we spent a lot of time reading, drawing, talking amongst ourselves about our next activity, and even playing board games out there. It was like our classroom had expanded to take over a lot of extra space. Most or all of our work on the newspaper, for instance, took place at those tables out in the hall, as I recall.
We still had tests and conventional assignments of various kinds, but I remember very, very little of that. It’s been so long that I honestly don’t recall if the time we were free to pretty much “do our own thing” was 20% or 70% or what, but certainly to the extent that I can remember anything about this experience of so many decades ago, those unconventional aspects are what come back to me. It sure seems like that was how we spent well over 50% of our time that year, but I can’t say for sure since it’s possible my memories are skewed toward thinking the highlights were the norm.
This documentary is pretty much just snippets from the school year, showing the students interacting with each other, and Valens interacting with the students. Due to the nature of the open classroom concept, this latter interaction is not the typical one of a teacher at the front of a room with 20-40 students seated in rows of desks facing her. Instead it is generally her consoling a child who has been crying, leading an activity of some kind in a circle of six to seven kids, serving as a mediator to cool things down and hear both sides after two students get in a dispute, etc.
She is shown far more often teaching life lessons about tolerance, patience, mutual respect, expressing feelings, forgiveness, reaching accord, etc., than teaching any kind of conventional academic subjects.
The movie includes little more than this opportunity to be a witness to what goes on in this kind of classroom. About the only supplement is occasional voiceover comments by Valens.
Certainly one can imagine a much different approach that included far more supplementary material, such as extensive on camera interviews with Valens, perhaps interviews with other teachers, parents, informed academic supporters and critics of the open classroom concept, the students themselves, and more. Or perhaps not all in interview form, but just more context, more background material explaining the open classroom idea, its history, how common or uncommon it is, how successful or unsuccessful it’s been (at least insofar as such a thing can be measured), etc.
I think a lot of viewers will find it refreshing that the film is not cluttered with more of that stuff. I have more mixed feelings about it. I lean toward wanting more of the supplementary material, but not because what’s here is somehow a failure.
Even if other material were added, I’d want the bulk of the film to be this opportunity to see the day-to-day classroom events for ourselves, not just to learn about the open classroom indirectly through interviews and such. So I’m not talking about eliminating the classroom footage or even drastically reducing it.
What I have in mind is instead of, say, a 90 minute movie with 90 minutes of the unmediated classroom footage, how about a 110 minute movie with 70 minutes of that classroom stuff and 40 minutes of reflective interviews of the participants and other informed parties talking about what we’ve seen?
One small change I’d suggest is adding subtitles in a few places. Because there are often multiple people talking at once, or the shot is sometimes from a distance, or the kids are not miked (and are not professional performers who know to project their voice a certain way), etc., not infrequently it’s hard to make out some of what’s said. For some viewers that’s probably not a problem, as you can still get the gist of what’s going on and get the feel of the atmosphere, and they might find subtitles distracting. But I personally appreciate the content of what the kids are saying, and I don’t want to miss that.
I’m not suggesting subtitling the whole movie certainly, but my experience of it would have been slightly augmented by judicious use of subtitles here and there.
This movie is refreshing to me. I have major, major problems with a lot about how education is handled in this country, but it’s inspiring to see that it’s still possible to find some little corner of the system where you can do some good. I appreciated seeing a simple film about a simple concept–a teacher nurturing and caring about children.
That’s what this film is about: A teacher practicing her trade in an honorable way. That, and children smiling, playing, learning, making mistakes and recovering, getting into conflicts and recovering, being scared and uncertain and recovering. And a husband wanting to preserve and celebrate his wife’s decades-long career making the world a better place in whatever modest ways were open to her in her little corner of California.
Overall there are things I would likely have done slightly differently if I were putting this film together, but this is a solid documentary about one of the most important subjects in life–how we raise and educate our children.