Giving My Students the Power, As Inspired by Dead Poet’s Society (1989)

“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. To put to rout all that was not life; and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived” (Henry David Thoreau, as quoted by Neil Perry).

What does it mean to have lived? How do we measure the successes of our own lives? Who do we let define what it means for us to ‘live deliberately,’ in the words of Thoreau?

I ask these questions after watching Dead Poet’s Society (1989), a film starring the legendary Robin Williams. Williams plays the role of John Keating, an influential English teacher who indirectly inspires students to resurrect an illegal club (title of film) at their boarding school. The mission of this club is to help its members use poetry as a vessel to live with a greater sense of purpose and passion. As a future teacher, the pedagogical messages imbued in the film were nothing short of avant garde. As a human being, the themes of the film had me in tears.

I have linked the trailer of the film below. But in all honesty, taking the two hours and watching the film instead will afford you much more fodder for thought.

How does Dead Poet’s Society (1989) inform my teaching?

When juxtaposed with the Four Pillars of Education in Welton Academy’s pedagogical values (Tradition, Honor, Discipline, and Excellence), the teaching styles of John Keating (Williams) offer students authentic opportunities to think for themselves. Beyond challenging their current conceptions of what it means to learn, to think, and to impact change, Keating models for students what it means to bring the ‘self’ into education. Keating empower students to not simply analyze poetry, but to use it, to write, to create, to love, and to live. Keating’s portrayal of English goes beyond teaching students how to analyze poetry – his inclusion of their voice and insight drives the discussion of the broader importance of voice and of emotion in life.

I find this movie particularly resonating in my current position as a student teacher. Often, we enter schools with an already-established sense of purpose. An already-established set of norms. An already-established perception of what good teaching and good learning look, sound, and feel like. In comparing my lived experience with the experience of John Keating in the film, I am reminded of the difficulty of being a student (or new) teaching in a setting where such rigid practices prevent one from sharing new ideas on how to learn.

Nonetheless, Keating reminds me of the importance of authenticity and purpose in education. Teaching science means nothing to my students if they feel their learning only belongs in science class. The Next Generation Science Standards remind us of this – that the bigger ideas about how knowledge is produced and communicated matter more than “Google”able facts. Inspired by John Keating, I am reminded of the importance of teaching the nature of science to my students beyond simply teaching the content they must often reproduce on traditional examinations.

How can my students use what they know to create, to inform, or to impact change unto the world around them? How might I structure learning experiences that bolster self-initiated learning? How can I scaffold inquiry-based educational experiences that demonstrate the importance of asking questions and challenging current conceptions of our world?

These are the questions I care about as a science educator.

How does Dead Poet’s Society (1989) impact myself as a human being?

Of course, the movie has its limitations. This kind of teaching is not limited to the kinds of boarding schools that upper- and middle-class families can afford. The treatment of language as a device to “woo women” portrays exclusively heteronormative ideas of romance and relationship-building. The lack of diversity and the portrayal of women both raise important questions about the issues of representation in film and media. These portrayals are all important considerations to continue to pursue, address, and combat as we progress onward into the 21st century.

Even after applying this critical lens, the movie resonates strongly with themes of power, creativity, individuality, and expression. In discussing the big ideas of the film (and without giving much of anything away), the movie touches on the importance of living one’s truth to the fullest extent. It highlights the necessity of feeling a sense of control over one’s future. It illuminates how asking questions and challenging norms provides a sense of purpose and persona, as well as juxtaposes the dangers of conformity and bending to the will of others. It conveys the significance of living with integrity. The lessons I have learned from this film, as well as the charge to live more purposefully and fully, I will carry with me in every aspect of life.

The take-away for myself? Challenge that with which you don’t agree. Live with intention and integrity. If something goes against your moral compass, don’t just ignore it – change it. I am reminded of this in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, FL; rather than accepting this as a typical event, students have come together to protest and push for stronger gun laws that would help prevent such tragedies from happening again, or at least from occurring as frequently as they do. These students are living the message that Dead Poet’s Society preaches; find that which needs to change, and change it.

Final Thoughts

So…what does it mean to have lived? How do we measure the successes of our own lives? Who do we let define what it means for us to ‘live deliberately,’ in the words of Thoreau?

For some of us, as evidenced in the film, it is our parents. For others, our friends. Our teachers. Our mentors. Our bosses. We let those around us dictate how we define success. We let those around us tell us not only what to think, but that our thoughts – the raw cries of life from within us, the signs that we are living and breathing and living – we let them tell us that our thoughts mean less than what they have to say. It is for reasons beyond our current comprehension that we might use our voice, or that we might have one at all, to impact change unto the world around us. The change that so many before us dreamed of (Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Maya AngelouWalt Whitman).

We must understand where we have been should we ever dream to reach beyond its grasp, and to grasp beyond its reach. It is in awe of the wisdom of those before me and the joy for all to come that I pursue my dream of becoming a teacher, of inspiring my students to find their passion, their creativity, that which makes them feel even beyond words. I hope I might one day inspire my students to live fully, to dream deeply, and to find that which pumps life into everything they do.

In that same vein, it is in recognition of the wisdom of those before us that we might sometimes yield to their words when written with artistry and intention. Therefore, I leave you with the words of Dylan Thomas (1914 – 1953). I hope you find its inclusion purposeful, illuminating, and invigorating:

Do not go gentle into that good night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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