Monday, April 18, 2011

"I'm not deliberately different, I'm just me." - Albert Cullum

I recently had the merit to discover A Touch of Greatness, a film about Robert Cullum. He was a teacher from the forties until in death in the early Oughts. I will share a bit of my impressions of this capturing of a life (capturing a life is also known as attempting the impossible). This is one movie you've got to see for yourself. You may hate it. You may love it. Then we'll know if we can be best friends.

Interviewed as an old man Cullum speaks of how he believes pride empowers. He thinks of a class as a caboose and says that if the caboose gets there then everyone gets there, although - of course - some are pulling the front and some are bringing up the end.

He'd make spelling teams and have fourth graders competing to learn hundreds of words, many of which they put in the pool themselves, having seen the words on billboards or in a store window and then as per teachers' orders bringing them in. One student, older now, recalls this experience and names a name (and then feels bad, but not too bad) of an academically weak classmate whose mom didn't understand why this girl kept calling him to drill big words. They were team-mates, all competing in the word race together. (The same grown student speaks about how she was hesitant about singing in her role of Ophelia. She was down on her own singing because the music teacher told her she didn't have a good voice. She gives the music teacher's name. Louise Lipman is not afraid to name names).

He would build mountains with chairs for his fourth graders and they watch the mountain grown and then see what it looked like when the chair mountain crumbled to the ground. They mapped out the U.S. in the schoolyard and then rolled a paper Mississippi across it. Then they swam the Mississippi. Then they passed the river through the window and into and around the classroom. (This was all filmed by Robert Downey Sr, and the archival footage is powerful).

Many students are interviewed and share strong positive feelings, forty or fifty years later, about how much they loved their forth grade class. One student talks about how much he loved the class, how well he did. Cullum tells him a secret - that he sought this kid out and made a trade for him (two quiet students for this one noisy one) which the other teacher readily agreed to due to this kid's bad rep up till that point. (that student turned around and guess what profession he embraced as an adult.) Another of Al's pupils remembers begging to go to school when he was sick so he wouldn't miss the fun of his class.

Cullum addresses something that will happen for sure at some point in an elementary school year, a kid will suddenly vomit. We don't like to talk about it, but it's just life. In class when someone throws up all the other kids (or people if you will)will move away from that kid and what he has just deposited on the floor. Cullum had a different approach. He would have that kid go and sit in the teacher's chair. And then everyone else including him would clean up the mess, their mess, together. In case you're wondering, he felt it was important to make clear that he was the teacher and yet he also felt that they were all joined in the process.

He used to stay out of the teacher's lunchroom to avoid getting ulcer's because it was mostly a negative war zone where teachers put down this kid or vented about wanting to throw that one out the window. A colleague recalls other teachers being jealous of his success. A student recalls another teacher's complaint about the noise from Cullum's spelling competitions. She went to the principal. Al Cullum suggested she join in and that the two classes have a spelling competition. Guess which class won.

Cullum confesses that he had the acting bug and the inclination to be a star, but that underneath that his goal in the classroom was to turn everyone in the room into a star. One pointer he shares is to find every students point of success and work from there. Early on in teaching he realized he wasn't having fun and that if he wasn't enjoying the lesson the students wouldn't enjoy it either. He introduced more learning through play (ala John Dewey) into the proceedings, and everything - not least of all discipline - improved.

Former students have a reunion and reminisce. One of the many things they remember fondly is their conference of presidents. They had to research and play presidents (and town politicians came and participated). One boy played the president dubbed "the do nothing president." He figured he didn't have to prepare. He came in knowing nothing else about this president besides his nickname. Al gave him an F (though he questions that call now, saying, "I was a young teacher then - just learning").

There was a literary convention where students advocated for and then voted on a most popular writer. Cullum believes that if children are introduced to great writing when they are young, they never lose their love for it. An this includes - wait for it - poetry. He taught young children the poems of Federico Garcia Lorca. He was big on Shakespeare. In one clip of him teaching a fifth grade class a student says her favorite writer is Shakespeare because she liked him since she was first exposed to him when she saw Romeo and Juliet when she was in first grade (it was performed by Cullum's fourth grade class). A somber former member of Rye, New York's Board of Education almost cracks a smile when she recalls her son coming home from Cullum's class and announcing that April would be the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare's birth.

He was also dramatic arts director. He recalls that he never said how they should stand or move he only said whether he believed them or not. As a student recalls forty years after the fact, Al told them to be emotionally honest. She remembers playing a snowflake in fourth grade and wearing a snowflake on her head. The prop fell off and she fought didn't pick up the headband because it didn't jive with her take on Cullum's direction to be emotionally honest.

There's a clip of Cullum on CBS TV's Camera Three, in 1964. The interviewer confronts Cullum about his having said the "shocking" statement: "Don't let your fears of the classics spill upon your child. Insist that your school feed your child less Simple Simon and more Shakespeare. Don't limit your child's world." His response was that once the kids get an inkling of the mystery and magic of Shakespeare they're on board - and that adults often have lost that excitement, but kids haven't. At a later point he says that kids' success in capturing roles played an important part in them growing to feel good about themselves.

After years of teaching children Cullum became a college professor and he says, "It nearly killed me." In his estimation "teacher education is one of the most difficult things anyone can do." A colleague of Cullum's explains that what made it so hard was the fact that his education students didn't have the playfulness and joy that he believed is needed in teaching children. So his mission was to help them regain that childlike excitement themselves and to learn to truly respect that essential aspect of being a child. There's a scene of him having his college students crawl around the room and commending them and adding, "If you can't crawl on the floor, go sell junk jewelery."

I assumed that "A Touch of Greatness" the title as a praise of Cullum. (I'm sure it was, as the film was made by one of his students.) But at the end of the film Cullum says that he uses that phrase often, that the a teacher's job is to help a student find his or her touch of greatness. Once you make someone aware of their uniqueness that revelation and it's positive affect stays with them forever. While teaching on a university level Al also successfully ran theater programs in inner city elementary schools.

Cullum wrote a book, which at the end of this film he says he was fortunate to have written, called The Geranium on the Windowsill Just Died But Teacher You Went Right On. It is "dedicated to all those grownups, who as children died in the arms of compulsory education." He says, looking like he's on the verge of tears, that "teacher education on a national level is a cancer of mediocrity." He says teachers have to help kids balance but not hold them tightly, they need to be helped by teachers to be pointed toward doors and to go through them on their own as soon as they are ready and able to go. This sounds simple but often kids are stifled rather than encouraged to move ahead. Cullum feels that this idea is well represented in Picasso's Mother and Child. In that painting a mother balances - as opposed to holding - her infant on her lap, having him him poised to walk off her lap whenever he can. (He doesn't say it outright, but by referring to this image Cullum clearly believes that this idea applies to parents as well as to educators).


Blogger uriyo said...

Thanks for this. There are some pictures from the Cullum book at

April 19, 2011 at 3:11 PM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Thank you Uri for reading and commenting.

April 20, 2011 at 9:56 PM  

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