Bob Gliner, Documentary filmmaker

October 9, 2007

Cassidy: Film pushes new approach to learning

By Mike Cassidy
Mercury News Columnist

When San Jose State Professor Bob Gliner has something to say, he picks up his video camera.

Since before YouTube and Michael Moore, Gliner has been tackling social dilemmas through documentary.

So when he began to worry that the public schools' teach-to-the-test culture was helping produce a nation of political morons, he went to work on his latest film.

"An issue that has been largely ignored," Gliner says sitting in his spartan office on the Spartans' campus, "has been, what is the effect of No Child Left Behind on preparing informed citizens?"

No Child Left Behind. It's a reform that has warring factions seizing on different sections and effects of the federal law meant to increase accountability in public education.

Are the tests fair to English learners and special education students? Do the standards help kids learn or merely help them memorize? Do they measure the right things?

Gliner goes all that one better. In "Democracy Left Behind," airing tonight at 11 p.m. on KTEH-TV (Ch. 54), Gliner asks whether putting so much emphasis on rote learning and standardized tests ignores one of our schools' most vital roles: turning out citizens armed with the skills to participate in a democracy.

Civic life

"I was alarmed by the public knowledge of the post-9/11 era," Gliner, 65, says, "and by the reaction."

He says something is wrong when a significant
portion of Americans think Saddam Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

So, Gliner connected with student teachers at San Jose State and started visiting classrooms in San Jose and Scotts Valley. He traveled to the East Coast. He talked to experts for and against No Child Left Behind.

His hourlong documentary is simple and straightforward. It starts with the dreary premise that students who are drilled to score well on tests are ill-prepared to think deeply about political philosophies, motivation and outcomes. They aren't ready to participate in civic life because they know so little about it.

"More Americans can name the Three Stooges than can name the three branches of American government," San Jose State political science Professor Terry Christensen says in the film's opening.

Hopeful message

But in fact the film has a hopeful message. Gliner quickly turns to schools and teachers who are taking an innovative approach - approaches that marry the knowledge needed for standardized tests with the skills needed to contribute to a democracy.

In one scene Carmen Gomez, a teacher at East Palo Alto Academy High School, fights back tears as she talks about her students' re-enactment of hearings held to heal the wounds of apartheid in South Africa.

"They come up with their own findings and what they would have done," she says. "This is one way that is more meaningful for the students . . . to learn about tolerance and to learn about forgiveness - and to also learn about, if this is a multicultural society, how do we move forward? And that's the society that they live in."

Gliner says that if schools are to succeed they need to use issues relevant to students' lives to teach them how to debate, listen and analyze. One expert in the film suggests building a whole curriculum around the hamburger. Think of it. The simple burger touches on the economy, agriculture, health, . . . etc.

"The problem is," Gliner says, "all that takes time and it takes a different kind of teacher preparation."

The film will be offered to PBS stations nationwide this month, and Gliner is hoping many will air it.

Either way, he knows he is inspiring the very sort of conversation he argues is necessary for democracy to succeed.

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