Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

07.01.20The TLAC Summer Guide to Movies: Science Fair

Science Fair | National Geographic Documentary Films

It’s going to be a long summer if the TLAC Blog is your sole source of movie recommendations, but I do want to highly recommend one film: Science Fair.

It offers so much to think about for society and schools… the amazing science teacher at Jericho High, Serena McCalla, with sky-high expectations; Myllena and Gabriel from rural Brazil doing ten times as much as the average kid with a fraction of the resources. But especially, especially the story of Kashfia Rahman.

When the film was made she was a high school student in Brookings, South Dakota where, essentially, she and her dreams of science are invisible and irrelevant to the institution.

Her interests are neuroscience and psychology and she does amazing research on the biochemical changes that come from risk-taking behavior among teenagers. The film ends with her winning a prize at the insanely competitive International Science and Engineering Fair. It’s profound work for a teenager. For anyone. Three years later you can see her TED talk on the topic. In the epilogue we find out that she’s since gone on to Harvard.

But through no fault of her school.

At the beginning of the movie Kashfia takes the camera for a tour of her school- the three gyms, the massive trophy cabinet. Is there a lab you can use? her interlocutor asks. She laughs. She couldn’t find a science teacher to sponsor her so she asked the football coach. He said yes which was nice though it seems like he offered more encouragement than scientific support. There’s footage of them talking and he appears to be thinking, in a very kind and avuncular way, I wish I knew what you were talking about.

As she nears the finals of perhaps the most prestigious science competition in the country the film-makers ask students in the school about it. No one knows about her work. No one even knows who she is. They don’t even know she goes to the school. Even after she wins a the prize, the school never thinks to honor her work or announce her results or to try to find ways to make it easier for kids like her to do more work like that. She’s not even a happy anomaly. Just an anomaly.

A brief aside: In my first year of teaching I had a student named Leonard L. Lovely kid. A good student but maybe not great . He was my advisee. Met with Dad, who had gone to school in his native Taiwan and wanted Leonard to be a great student and to want to do great things.

Dad said: “I don’t understand. There have been three pep rallies for sports this year. Where are the pep rallies for academics?” For years I thought that story was quaint. Funny even. I told it at parties. I don’t think it’s funny any more. I see, now that I’m a dad, that the question wasn’t a critique of the school (which is how I heard it then, in my twenties) so much it was a plea for culture: he wanted the school to bring the best out of his son. He wanted it to help make him more likely to aspire to more.

(Aside to my aside: Mr. L. please know that one of the first things I did when I became a school leader was to add pep rallies for academics).

At Kashfia’s school, like at most schools, culture is mostly an afterthought. To the degree that there is an intentional culture, it’s about school pride not achievement and knowledge. If some kids choose academics; good for them. But most schools don’t see it as their job to actively foster that. The school I worked at was always trying to undercut the Mr L.’s frankly. The staff thought they put pressure on kids. Their ardent aspirations were quietly mocked by the sophisticated members of the faculty.

Kashfia’s parents are immigrants from Bangladesh. She wears a hijab. She doesn’t appear to care much about what her peers in school think. She’s quiet but strong and motivated by her parents’ sacrifices. She goes about her business in with graciousness and quiet drive. She was by far my two daughters’ favorite kid in the film.

But her unique strength and drive are also the problem. How many kids would and could do so much more- except that they lack strength to doggedly pursue what no one cares about, maybe even what is quietly snickered at, in order to achieve things that benefit themselves and society.

Kashfia’s HS is like most American schools. It doesn’t really see it as its job to shape culture, especially not academic culture. To go out of its way to make the world safe and encouraging for academic endeavor. To metaphorically speaking or perhaps literally have pep rallies for academics.

The story ends happily for Kashfia.

But maybe not so happily for the hundreds of thousands of kids who go to schools that just don’t think academics are all that hugely important. Nor for the parents who, like Leonard’s dad, want schools that are a bit more serious about bringing out the best in their kids, who want teachers like Serena McCalla to push them.

Many such parents, unlike Leonard’s dad, haven’t been successful in school themselves. They can’t offer chemistry experiments at home, as Leonard’s dad was ultimately driven to do. They failed at school or were failed by school and paid the price–pay it everyday in many cases. The school their child attends is their one chance to change the game for their child. It’s one reason why Robert Pondiscio’s book How the Other Half Learns is so profound. Read it all closely but read the paragraphs where the parents speak about this twice.

What they want is a school that will share their dreams and do everything it can to help their child unlock the scholar within themself. We should ask ourselves every day if those are our schools.

Finally the movie makes a pretty clear statement about immigration and the gift that Kashfia’s family brought to this country in moving here. She is driven to create value for the world around her with a grace and decency that exceed her years. She’s everything we should be seeking to be. But her family being here, her success in school- they are as much despite and because of the policy things we do as a nation. To watch this film and contemplate the idea that somehow we don’t have room for families like Kashfia’s who want to come here and do worthy things among us, that we shouldn’t be grateful to them for coming- that, to me, is mystifying.

Anyway, I highly recommend the film.


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