Reel Education

Documentaries, Biopics, and Reality Television

by Jacqueline Bach (Author)
©2016 Textbook 186 Pages
Series: Minding the Media, Volume 17


Reel Education is the first single-authored book to bring together the theoretical and practical considerations of teaching cinematic texts about education that claim a degree of verisimilitude. Given the recent influx of documentaries, biopics, and reality television shows about education, new theoretical frameworks are required to understand how these productions shape public conversations about educational issues. Such texts, with their claims to represent real-life experiences, have a particular power to sway audiences who may uncritically accept these stories as offering “the truth” about what happens in schools. Since all texts, whatever their truth-claims may be, are grounded in specific ideologies, those in the fields of humanities, education, and media and communication studies must pay attention to how these films and television shows are constructed and for what purposes. This book provides an analysis of documentaries, biopics, and reality television, examining the construction of the genres, the explicit and latent ideologies they contain, and the ways in which students and faculty might critically engage with them in classrooms.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments and Introduction
  • Section I: Race to Represent First: Documentaries
  • Chapter 1. “Something Is Wrong in the Education System”: Manufacturing a Crisis in the School Documentary
  • Chapter 2. “But No One Taught Me”: An Educational Mockumentary
  • Chapter 3. “You Know that Kids Are Getting a Really Crappy Education Now”: Teaching Documentaries through Interpretive, Ideological, and Activist Approaches
  • Section II: Based on Actual Events: Biopics
  • Chapter 4. “I See the Same F—ing Movies You Do, Man”: An Analysis of Three Biopics about Teachers
  • Chapter 5. Trapped by Futility: The Problems with Claiming Connections to Real Classrooms in The Class
  • Chapter 6. “I Can’t Teach You That Other Stuff”: Incorporating Biopics about Education into the Classroom
  • Section III: Real Worlds: Reality Television
  • Chapter 7. “An Essential Ingredient of Trust”: An Overview of the Pedagogical Aspects of Reality Television
  • Chapter 8. “Are You Here to Tell a Story?”: An Analysis of One Reality Television Show about Teaching
  • Chapter 9. “Make It Work”: Incorporating Reality Television into the Classroom
  • Series index

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As I was writing this book there were two films titled Teacher of the Year: one came out in 2014 (Strouse), and the other was scheduled to be released in 2015. Strouse’s was a motion picture film starring Keegan-Michael Key as a principal and Matt Letscher, who has just become “teacher of the year;” the other stars Angie Scioli as herself, a former “teacher of the year.” While Letscher’s is a fictional film pretending to be a documentary (a mockumentary) and Scioli’s is a documentary, both feature teachers who are not new to the profession and who are facing similar experiences. These depictions are a departure from the new-to-the-classroom idealistic teachers that dominate the genre of school films, which I define for the purposes of this book as a film that focuses on teachers, students, parents, and administrators. Films like these that are focused on similar issues—in this case, honoring two excellent teachers who are struggling to balance the demands of their teaching jobs and everything else—always catch my attention.

It wasn’t until I was preparing my materials for promotion and tenure that I realized so many of my publications and presentations had been in the field of school films. I thought that I had been writing about more “important” issues in education: young adult literature, teacher preparation, and English language arts. Looking back, however, and specifically at my first publication ← vii | viii → about a school film, Napoleon Dynamite (Hess & Hess, 2004), I realized that I had always been taken with the relationship between the schools found on the screen and the schools in which I had taught high school English. In the education courses I currently teach, many of my students and I include references to these films in our class discussions. Combined with a fascination with Žižek and then Lacan through Žižek, I realized that reality can never be accessed but that wouldn’t stop filmmakers who claim to capture reality, represent reality, or base their films on reality to depict what really goes on in schools. I wanted to know what prevented them from capturing the reality that I believe audiences so desperately need to see.

Before I introduce this work, I’d like to thank the many parties involved with the creation of this book. First, I must thank my students, who know of my obsession with school films and send me recommendations all of the time. A tremendous thank you to Elena and Albert LeBlanc, whose financial gift to Louisiana State University’s School of Education supported this project. And, thanks to LSU for that sabbatical. Thanks to Carol Schanche for her fine editing skills and to Sue Weinstein for the countless conversations on the early (and late) drafts of this book. A dear thanks to the members of my writing group, Laura Choate and Petra Hendry, whose contributions and support are impossible to put into words. Thanks to Yvette Hyde, Heather Johnston Durham, Veta Parker and the student workers who helped me with the finishing touches. To the pioneers in this field, Mary Dalton, Robert Bulman, James Trier, John Weaver, Cameron McCarthy, and the late Greg Dimitriadis, thank you for your scholarship, collegiality, and support. And, of course, thanks to my family, Victor and Emery Gischler—Emery, unlike your dad’s books, you can actually read this one.

This entire book is concerned with the concept of what is real about education in school films. While I acknowledge there is no such thing as reality nor is it possible to have just one notion of reality, each of these three genres relates to the real, intersects with the real, claims to be real, or markets itself with the phrase “based on a real story.” Given the increasing attention these films and television shows are receiving in multiple disciplines, new theoretical frameworks are needed to understand the complicated relationship these texts have with educational policy and public conversations about education. Reel Education: Documentaries, Biopics, and Reality Television opens with an overview of these three genres and examines their relationship representing aspects of education. Reel Teaching also examines the implications of incorporating documentaries, biopics, and reality television shows into humanities ← viii | ix → and education courses. Working through the lens of media studies, the book reveals the ways in which cinematic texts with realistic claims challenge, perpetuate, upend, and complicate audiences’ understanding of education. When audiences comprehend the relationship between these cinematic texts and larger contemporary conversations about education, viewing these films, television shows, and those found on the Internet, becomes a more enriching experience. This book serves as a resource for analyzing and discussing that relationship.

Overview of Book

This book is divided into three sections, each focusing on one genre, with three chapters in each. The first chapter in each section situates the genre and contextualizes landmark texts from that genre within contemporary conversations about educational issues. The second chapter in each section focuses on an exemplar in each genre—one that often challenges other works through the blending of previous narratives and the codes and conventions associated with that genre. Each section concludes with a chapter on the pedagogical implications associated with each genre, highlighting teaching strategies for each genre found in a variety of disciplines.

The first section, “Race to Represent First: Documentaries,” examines the genre of documentaries set in schools. In Chapter 1 I consider the relationship between documentaries about schools and educational reform and policy. Beginning with the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, these documentaries often reflect the contemporary reforms and policies regarding schools. The second chapter in this section, “‘But No One Taught Me”: An Educational Mockumentary,” examines the film Chalk (Akel & Mass, 2006), which pulls codes from the documentary and fictional film genres, such as interviews, a narrative structure, and unscripted scenes in order to distance the film from the audience’s expectations for both genres—namely, to present the objective truth as well as to sustain a traditional narrative structure. Promoting itself with the slogan “Real Teaching Leaves Its Mark,” the film engages conventions from both fictional and nonfictional genres in order to uncover, perhaps facetiously, why 50% of teachers quit within the first three years. Given the privileged status documentaries have acquired through their claims of representing reality and the ways audiences read these films as reflecting reality, Chapter 3 considers how educators and their students might ← ix | x → negotiate what is presented to them as fact by this genre. In this chapter, I examine how we might teach documentaries about education through a close reading of them, through careful examination of their ideological claims, and through the activist approach many of these filmmakers take in promoting their films.

In Section 2, “Based on Actual Events: Biopics,” I discuss the history of biopics set in schools and the reasons for the lasting popularity of this genre. Functioning primarily in an emotional register, biopics attempt to capture the personal and professional aspects of teaching. Such films often distort the stories on which they are based to the point of absurdity, perpetuating the “teacher as savior” myth. While these films do not claim to be real, they are often based on real stories from recorded memoirs, television talk shows, and newspaper interviews. In an attempt to understand the complicated process that unfolds when a story based on actual events is adapted for film, this chapter examines three biopics that not only received some degree of box office success but that comprise much of the conversation surrounding representations of good and bad teachers, and good and bad teaching, in school films. These are: Dangerous Minds (Smith, 1995), Freedom Writers (LaGravenese, 2007), and Stand and Deliver (Menendez, 1988). This chapter weaves together the reception of these films by film critics and scholars and the reactions from subjects of the biopics themselves in response to seeing their stories adapted for the screen. This analysis uncovers the aspects of teachers’ narratives that have been silenced to fit the Hollywood model for biopics and how those stories represent particular narratives to the public about schools.

Chapter 5 is a close reading of the French film The Class (Cantet, 2009), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Based on François Bégaudeau’s book Entre Les Murs (2006) (which translates into Between these Walls), which many scholars consider an autobiographical novel or semi-autobiographical novel, the film is about the relationship between a French teacher and his students, who are an ethnically diverse group, many of whom are from immigrant families from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. The Class is technically not a fictional or nonfictional film although it employs the codes and conventions of both, such as creating fictional characters and employing documentary styles of filming. The film was praised for many reasons, but perhaps the most frequent compliment was how it represented the realities of the urban classroom.

I have a problem with those critics and scholars who praise it for its reality, and use it as a way to talk about contemporary education problems. They ← x | xi → are trapped in a conversation in which they must acknowledge that while they believe it reflects the contemporary real classroom, it is also a movie with fictional elements. Some of those elements, which I will discuss in this chapter, possibly reinforce stereotypes and assumptions about schools, teachers, and students. In other words, while Bégaudeau’s story may contain elements of truth, it is a story told through a genre (memoir) that is often criticized for its representation of past events based on the author’s memory and interpretation of them.

Since biopics, arguably, wield the most attention out of all the genres of films and television shows about education, Chapter 6 explores the possibilities of teaching them as between the worlds of the real and not real, or based on reality. Since many of these narratives are based on memoirs and real-life stories, how should educators approach this genre in their courses? In this chapter, I outline the questions raised by scholars who research biopics and suggest that educators use these questions as a way to teach biopics about teachers. I then go on to examine how instructors from communication studies, sociology, and teacher education incorporate school biopics into their courses. Finally, I offer two approaches to teaching biopics that reflect the conventions of the biopic genre.

Section 3, “Real Worlds: Reality Television,” examines the world of reality television and its intersections with education and pedagogy. Whether it’s a look into the daily activities of housewives or the competitive world of dance, reality television shows provide an insider’s view to various professions and lifestyles and offers audiences ideas about improving their own lives. Section 3 considers the genre of reality television. The first chapter in this section, Chapter 7, is an overview of the genre, as I consider how its roots are somewhat set in a pedagogical basis. Reality television informs, teaches, and supports various lifestyles and ways of being. It remains a contested genre, criticized for its artificiality and inexpensive paths to production. The chapter begins with an overview of the growth of reality television and a discussion of the different types of shows that have developed over the years and their intended purposes. It concludes with a consideration of the educative aspects located in this genre through audiences’ fascination and interactions with these lives caught on film.

Chapter 8 provides an analysis of how the reality television genre distorts the elements found in television shows to create representations of education that focus the audience’s attention on the boundary between real and contrived. Using a case study approach to examine the first reality television show ← xi | xii → to feature a teacher, Teach: Tony Danza (Grief & Reed, 2010), this chapter reveals how a reality show featuring a questionably qualified celebrity teacher was unable to escape the mundane aspects of teaching that essentially led to its being canceled. In Chapter 9, I examine how scholars look to the structure of these shows to create a sense of real-world application and engagement for their course material. This chapter focuses on educators who are using reality television shows to teach their students about their professions by interrogating and critiquing representations of professionals found in such shows.


Akel, M., & Mass, C. (Writers & Directors). (2006). Chalk [Motion picture]. San Francisco, CA: Someday Soon Productions.

Cantet, L. (Director). (2008). The class [DVD]. France: Haut et Court.


ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
teachers reality tv biopics documentaries schools teaching education
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. XII, 186 pp.

Biographical notes

Jacqueline Bach (Author)

Jacqueline Bach (PhD, Oklahoma State University) is the Elena and Albert LeBlanc Associate Professor of English Education and Curriculum Theory at Louisiana State University. She has published texts on films and reality television shows in journals such as The Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, English Education, and Pedagogies.


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