Friday, September 30, 2016

Making Sure No Child Is Left Behind

It took nearly 15 years for parents and politicians to understand that the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was a cruelly misguided mess. As noted by Wikipedia:
"It supported standards-based education reform based on the premise that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals could improve individual outcomes in education. The Act required states to develop assessments in basic skills. To receive federal school funding, states had to give these assessments to all students at select grade levels. Each individual state developed its own standards. NCLB expanded the federal role in public education through further emphasis on annual testing, annual academic progress, report cards, and teacher qualifications, as well as significant changes in funding"
Parents and teachers complained that NCLB transformed the educational system into a process which was largely designed for "teaching to the test." Children were essentially ingesting data that they could later regurgitate without developing critical thinking skills.

"If you wanted to change a culture in a single generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children," explained Carol Black, who directed the documentary Schooling the World: The White Man's Last Burden. "Could we really not just look in our children’s bright eyes and know that they all bring something unique and precious to the world?"

In her lengthy article entitled A Thousand Rivers: What the Modern World Has Forgotten About Children and Learning, Black analyzes some of the key differences between the standardized education systems popular in the West and the ways children are allowed to learn at their own pace in most parts of the world.

"Science is a tool of breathtaking power and beauty, but it is not a good parent," she writes. "It must be balanced by something broader, deeper, older. Like wind and weather, like ecosystems and microorganisms, like snow crystals and evolution, human learning remains untamed, unpredictable, a blossoming fractal movement so complex and so mysterious that none of us can measure or control it. But we are part of that fractal movement, and the ability to help our offspring learn and grow is in our DNA. We can begin rediscovering it now. Experiment. Observe. Listen. Explore the thousand other ways of learning that still exist all over the planet. Read the data and then set it aside. Watch your child’s eyes, what makes them go dull and dead, what makes them brighten, quicken, glow with light. That is where learning lies."

Just as American society has evolved past the fantasy that the typical nuclear family lives in a house surrounded by a white picket fence and consists of 2.5 children being raised by two heterosexual parents, new definitions of family have been woven into the demographics of American society. Some may involve same-sex couples who adopted children that were created by heterosexuals who could not afford to raise their own offspring; others may be families who ostracized their children and threw them out of their homes.

As a result, there are times when interventions are necessary to make sure that a child does not fall through the cracks in society. In some cases, government agencies may try to rescue children who have been living on the streets; in other cases, extended family may be called upon to care for a child caught an emergency situation.

Two new films look at these situations with a rare sense of clarity and compassion. One tells its story through a fictional lens; the other copes with the harsh realities of children whose parents abandoned them or forced them from their homes. Both films are notable for their stunning cinematography.

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Directed and filmed by Nicole Opper, Visitor's Day is an observational documentary set in Puebla, Mexico. Focused on a group home for boys, the film's protagonist is 16-year-old Juan Carlos, whose home life took a turn for the worse after his mother died and his father's new girlfriend began beating the boy. After Juan Carlos ran away from home to escape her abuse, he spent several years living on the streets in Mexico City before finding his way to IPODERAC, a social outreach program which stresses trust building, teamworkbrotherhood and helps to guide boys through their adolescence as they grow into men.

When he is interested in the work he is given, Juan Carlos excels and shows signs of potential leadership. Often, however, he is haunted by the guilt of having run away from home and issues of abandonment. On each month's visitor's day, he waits in vain for a visit from his father that never materializes.

After discussing the situation with IPODERAC's counselors, Juan Carlos agrees to meet with his father in Mexico City in the hope of finding a way to move forward. His counselor acts as an intermediary who can not only make contact with the boy's father, but help Juan Carlos articulate what he hopes to achieve during their reunion and find a way to forgive his father for what happened to their family.

Juan Carlos is the protagonist of Visitor's Day

A 50-year-old social enterprise with a unique format for homeless boys (the organization is in the process of developing a similar program for homeless girls). IPODERAC's mission is to:
  • Raise awareness of the plight of children (including their families) who live and/or work on the streets of Mexico and have been socially excluded.
  • Support the development and implementation of effective programs for the reintegration into society of socially excluded children.
  • Identify and support projects and organizations which focus on children and families in vulnerable situations.
The IPODERAC program tries to foster a sense of
brotherhood and emotional honesty among its 72 boys

Unlike the conditions in the Victorian workhouses that Charles Dickens described in Oliver Twist, the IPODERAC facility in Puebla could easily be mistaken for a summer camp with a farming component. Separated by age groups, 72 boys are housed in six cabins along with two volunteers and a teacher in each cabin.  Some are assigned to janitorial tasks; others to feeding and caring for the goats. Some learn carpentry skills while others help with agricultural tasks such as planting new trees. The boys are also encouraged to choose a trade which appeals to them so that they can develop the necessary skills to get hired and become self sufficient after they graduate from IPODERAC.

As he nears his 10th birthday, Pepe is transferred to another cabin

As one watches Visitor's Day, it's impossible not to be impressed by the candid footage of the boys and the way the filmmaker has been able to capture their emotions. In her director's statement, Opper explains that:
"I first encountered the IPODERAC boys as an 18-year-old volunteer, and was deeply moved by my experience there. The boys at IPODERAC come from all over the country. Most ran away to escape abuse and lived on the streets for months or years before they get here. Many of them have never been able to trust an adult before IPODERAC, but they quickly learn to become accountable to one another and to their adopted home. Eleven years after volunteering as a teenager, I unearthed the journal I kept during my time there. In it, I had vowed to come back and make a documentary about this place. I returned to IPODERAC to fulfill this promise."
Robert is one of the boys living at IPODERAC

Over the course of its history, IPODERAC has helped to raise more than 1,000 boys. While there are endearing shots of the boys caring for the farm's goats, playing soccer, and going to school, there are also plenty of raw emotional moments in Opper's deeply moving documentary, These may be boys who once lived on the streets, but they are vulnerable children who often struggle with their emotions. Here's the trailer:

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Anyone who has spent time in New Mexico will have no trouble understanding how easy it is for Nancy Schreiber's glorious cinematography to steal attention from the human relationships in
Kepler's Dream. Based on the novel by Juliet Bell (aka Sylvia Brownrigg), the film catches an estranged family struggling to cope with the ramifications of one person's medical crisis.

Amy (Kelly Lynch) is a single mother whose medical options have nearly all run out. Her one hope is a radical attempt at stem cell therapy to be performed at a hospital in Los Angeles. With her former husband leading fishing tours in Oregon, there is no one available locally to care for Amy's 11-year-old daughter, Ella (Isabella Blake-Thomas), while she is away. Unable to make contact with Walter (Sean Patrick Flannery), she is left with no choice but to send Ella to New Mexico to spend the summer with her paternal grandmother, the formidable Violet von Stern (Holland Taylor).

Holland Taylor portrays Ella's formidable grandmother,
Violet von Stern in a scene Kepler's Dream

Violet's marriage came to a sudden end when her husband drowned in an arroyo during one of New Mexico's flash floods. She now lives in an isolated adobe house where peacocks roam freely and her ranch hand, Miguel (Steven Michael Quezada), lives in a small trailer with his wife and their 11-year-old daughter, Rosie (Esperanza Fermin).

Ella (Isabella Blake-Thomas), Miguel (Steven Michael Quezada),
and Rosie (Esperanza Fermin) in a scene from Kepler's Dream

A bibliophile who has traveled extensively abroad and built a personal library of rare books, Violet's deep emotional scars from losing her husband have hardened her into the kind of woman who is far more concerned about inanimate objects than people. Being thrust into a position of responsibility where she must care for an adolescent girl is not just a huge annoyance, it occasionally brings back painful memories of when Walter and Miguel were boys who played together all the time.

Ella's arrival causes another disruption in Violet's meticulously controlled lifestyle because she is also expecting a visit from her long-time friend (and fellow bibliophile), Abercrombie (David Hunt), who is soon joined by his nephew, Jackson (Stafford Douglas), whose computer skills are needed to deal with Violet's outdated computer.

Amy (Kelly Lynch) undergoes stem cell treatment as a
last-ditch cure for cancer in a scene from Kepler's Dream

Although Amy has done a solid job of preparing her daughter for a long separation (and the possibility that she might not survive the stem cell therapy), nothing could have prepared the young girl for her battle axe of a grandmother, a fussy old woman who can barely hide her resentment at being asked to take care of a granddaughter she has never known.

Following up on Amy's suggestion, Ella asks Violet to show her one of Walter's favorite books, Johannes Kepler's novel, Dream. But one night, after shots are heard after the sighting of an intruder, the precious book goes missing. Having closely observed the behavior of Violet, Abercrombie, and Jackson, Ella and Rosie bravely set out to discover the identity of the thief and, in doing so, make a remarkable discovery.

Poster art for Kepler's Dream

Directed by Amy Glazer and supported by Patrick Neil Doyle's excellent film score, Kepler's Dream was mostly filmed in the area around Albuquerque and Santa Fe during the summer months. The role of Violet fits Holland Taylor like a glove and the film makes clear that, once Amy's stem-cell treatment succeeds, there is no expectation that Walter will move back in with his wife and daughter. Glazer (whose work has been seen on several Bay area stages) does an exemplary job of guiding Ella through the process of discovering her own strengths as well as piercing Violet's emotional armor.

Kepler's Dream manages to deal with adult themes of mourning, estrangement, denial, and despair without ever devolving into the kind of Disney family film that concludes with a perfectly happy ending. Much of the story deals with characters coming to grips with a past tragedy, learning to rediscover themselves, and gaining support from their extended family. It also does a beautiful job of depicting how curious and fearless young girls sharpen their problem-solving skills. Here's the trailer:

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