Making the Grades
Inspirational teachers with innovative ideas are the basis for numerous films including To Sir With Love and Stand and Deliver. Yet, what happens when those novel teaching methods arouse aspirations contrary to the ingrained traditions of an exclusive prep academy?
Schooled in the rote recital of rudimentary facts, the students in Mr. Keating's (Robin Williams) class are not only surprised by, but also uncomfortable with the freethinking approach of their new English teacher. Believing literature brings beauty and romance to an otherwise mundane existence, he challenges the boys to experience poetry from a personal perspective rather than simply assigning it a value dependent upon the appraisals of others.
After an uneasy start to the semester where the young men are encouraged to deface their textbooks and stand on their desks, the pupils relax and their teacher's infectious carpe diem (seize the day) attitude begins to affect more than their in-class activities. Of their own initiative, the boys reinstate a secret club known as the Dead Poets Society. Sneaking out of the dorms to meet in an old cave, they recite poetry to one another. Eventually they also take up smoking pipes and looking at centerfolds.
Individually, the boys also change. Stifled by the rigid demands of his dad (Kurtwood Smith), Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) risks his father's wrath and tries out for a part in a local play in order to pursue an acting dream. Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), the painfully shy, younger brother of a former class valedictorian, finds his own identity separate from his familial fame. Urged on by one another, the club members each start to explore their world in a new way.
However, the school's administrators are increasingly apprehensive about Mr. Keating's style and the whispered rumors of the club's existence. When a suicide stuns the campus, they initiate a manhunt for the society's participants.
Mr. Keating's unusual approach to the arts and his encouragement for individual contribution is a message to motivate teens and young adults. Still, the extended buildup to the suicide and boys' reactions to the event need to be considered before parents bring this film home. As well, the sweeping portrayal of teachers and parents as uncaring, negligent or overly demanding, also warrants discussion.
Although the well-meaning educator is forced to add a cautionary note to his counsel after one student causes uproar on campus, his philosophy does arm his students with the insight to look beyond the traditional approach to poetry. From that vantage point, they, along with teen viewers, may also gain a broader perspective on how to live life.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Dead Poets Society.
Although a character chooses suicide, what other options could he have considered? What effect does his death have on others?
What does Mr. Keating imply when he asks the students to contribute their own verse to life? What does it mean to find your own voice?
Why can it be difficult to maintain individual beliefs in the face of others? What exercises does the teacher use to illustrate this?
Is Mr. Keating a pied piper, leading the students into trouble, or a radical thinker opening their minds? Do his ideas help the boys to think for themselves, or are they merely substituting his ideals for those of their parents and former teachers? How can parents and children find balance between their individual dreams and the hopes and expectations of others?