School is fundamentally one of the greatest sources of humor.
The premise of mainstream schooling is that a lot of young people, at different developmental stages, are packed into a room with an adult who is trying to get them to do something they often have little idea why they should care about. That basic set up produces all kinds of problems but it also produces a natural environment for sitcom. That’s why from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and the Breakfast Club, to Napoleon Dynamite and Freaks and Geeks, everyone has a favorite classroom comedy.
Now Wyatt Cenac, formerly a correspondent and write for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, has brought us season two of his HBO show “Problem Areas,” all about education. The show has been described by Anne Branigin at The Root, as “among the most ambitious comedy shows on TV”….or by one viewer as, “a millennial, stoner version of ‘Mister Rogers’ [Neighborhood].” Problem Areas airs every Friday on HBO at 11:00pm Eastern.
Throughout season two, Wyatt travels to some ten cities around the country to explore the education system: From the mass strikes for education and teacher pay in West Virginia, to the struggle to redefine school safety in New York City, to school lunches in Minneapolis, to my home town of Seattle to examine powerful public school innovations, and beyond.
Problem Areas does something all too rare in conversations about education in mainstream media: It centers on the perspectives of educators, students, parents, and community members–rather than politicians and billionaire “education reformers.” I was amazed when I, a classroom teacher, got the call from Wyatt’s studio to join the program and share my perspectives on education–but what’s truly amazing is how often teachers are not consulted at all about how to improve education. But I have to admit, I was deeply worried about the program when I agreed to join. I have seen educators become a prop in the mass media, simply used to tell a story that producers have already decided upon. Yet as soon as Wyatt began asking questions, I could tell right away he was actually curious about what I thought, in my experiences in the classroom, and my ideas for making change.
From the jump, you know Problem Areas is going to go deeper into education than anything you have seen on TV before with a segment in the premiere that begins with educator and writer Brittany Packnett stating, “I don’t think education is broken, I think it is functioning exactly as it was designed. Because this thing was never built for certain kids to succeed.” Next, it cuts to education historian Diane Ravitch explaining, “What is broken is that our society is unwilling to pay for education.” Then Wyatt holds up a LIFE magazine he found from 1958. The cover story is about how teachers have to work second jobs as bus drivers, paper boys, and grocery story clerks. Finally, holding up the recent TIME magazine about teachers living in poverty and working second jobs, Wyatt points out, “Sixty years later and the only thing that feels like it’s changed is that the news has gone digital…but not for me. Oh, I love the smell of musty paper.”
And then Wyatt says the words that kept Eli Broad and his billionaire associates from being able to go to sleep after watching the late-night episode: “Over the past year, teachers around the country have been fighting back.”
The rest of the episode is a brilliant account of one of the most inspiring strike waves in U.S. history, which began with educators in West Virginia and spread throughout the nation. It takes on the fact sexism plays a central role in educators being under paid, as the teaching work force is predominantly women. It takes on how charter schools are privatizing education and funneling money out of the public school system. And perhaps most importantly, the episode allows the educators who built the strike wave the time to explain the intolerable conditions they face in the classroom, their unyielding love and support of their students, and their strategies for movement building.
At one point Wyatt introduces Nicole McCormick, a music teacher in West Virginia, and one of the leading organizers of the strike. Wyatt asks her, “What was the first day of striking like? Wake up in the morning and have a big bowl of strike crunch?”
Nicole replies, “It was exciting. But I was afraid that people wouldn’t show up. Because that’s what I’d experienced for the past 7-8 years, people just not showing up. So I get out there and there are great signs. and people are in red. There’s food that’s been brought by community members. and just random folks stopping by and high-fiving the line. It was just overwhelming, the amount of vocal, out there support, for what we were doing.”
Also during the premiere episode, the following line up of guests are introduced as commenters who will be discussing education on the different episodes throughout the second season: Kay Galarza (16-year-old activist), Mathew Beeston (senior in high school), Paola Mena (11th grader in the Bronx, NY), Jesse Hagopian (Ethnic Studies Teacher, activist, author), Kiese laymon (Professor of English at the University of Mississippi, writer) Dorthy Espelage (Professor of Psychology at the University of Florida), Brittany Packnett, (Educator, activist, writer), Diane Ravitch (historian of education), Richard Carranza, (Chancellor of the NY City Department of Education), Nikole Hannah-Jones, (investigative reporter at the NY Times magazine), David Sciarra (Executive Director of education law center), zakiya sankara-jabar (Co-Founder, Racial Justice Now), Anya Kamenetz (Education reporter, NPR, Author), Michael A. Lindsey (Executive Director of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research), Arne Duncan, (former Secretary of Education, advocate for standardized testing and privatizing schools), Dana Goldstein (education report at the NY times).
The fist episode of Problem Areas is one of the best explanations I have seen of how educators can organize their collective power to transform the inequitable education system. Also, check out episode 2 that veers towards sy-fi when it explains the real life practice of “pre-suspension” (pre-crime from minority report anyone?) and other aspects of the school-to-prison-pipeline.
Problem Areas, is teaching us we can chuckle as we change the national dialog about education.
Jesse Hagopian teaches Ethnic Studies in Seattle and is an editor for Rethinking Schools magazine. Jesse is the director of the Black Education Matters Student Activist Award, the co-editor of the new book, Teaching for Black Lives, and the editor of the book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High Stakes Testing. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.