The eternal Ben-Hur

From The Onion:

10th-Grade Class Watches Ben-Hur For Two Weeks
SALEM, VA—For the eighth straight world-history period, sophomores at Riverside High School watched the 1959 classic Ben-Hur Tuesday. “The chariot races were pretty cool,” Michael Bower said of the 211-minute film he and classmates have been watching in 25-minute segments, between roll call and free-reading. “And when Mr. Franks got back from the teachers’ lounge, he told us Jesus is in tomorrow’s part.” Bower said he dreads next week, when the class will break into Ben-Hur discussion groups and share their ancient-history unit journals.

Of course, this parody is off the mark. Students wouldn’t be keeping journals. That requires writing. They’d share their posters.

About Joanne


  1. Hunter McDaniel says:

    The sad fact is that this Onion parody is only a slight exaggeration of what goes on every day. Both of my kids went to a “good” high school and took predominantly IB classes. But my daughter has had to sit through “Inherit the Wind” in both English and Biology and spent three days watching “All the Presidents Men” in American History, my son was presented with “Jurassic Park” in a Geology class, plus several other examples I’ve since forgotten because it’s just not that unusual.

    Such misuse of precious contact time is a national scandal, but I’m not holding my breath to see anything done about it.

  2. I don’t think Ben Hur is actually a bad way to get kids to love history. It has all the great elements of the Roman Empire and the birth of Christianity. That’s how I learned to love history, first through movies, then through reading and writing about it. (Two weeks is a little long though)

  3. We only watched the chariot race part in my Latin class, but we watched it every year, with the volume on full blast, and the Japanese class next door would come by and complain. They only had Japanese soap operas to watch.

    I agree that movies shouldn’t be over-used, but in AP classes, when you’ve got a month or so after the exam, why not watch a movie? At the end of last year I was watching movies in three out of my five classes, but it wasn’t as though there was anything else we could be doing.

  4. Bill Leonard says:

    Clearly, times have changed since my elementary school days (1948- 1955) and junior high days (1955-1957) when we were exposed to the occasional, usually laughably bad Coronet Films production (technically uniformly amateurish by Hollywood standards) about a fairly wide selection of topics.

  5. I guess my district is enlightened or just ahead of the pack. Any time a video is shown to students, the teacher must send a note to parents beforehand outlining the length and purpose of the video, as well as which curricular standards it supplements. The kids can’t watch the video if the form isn’t signed.

    Don’t be so quick to jump on the negative bandwagon, people.

  6. Caddie,

    “… the Japanese class next door would come by and complain. They only had Japanese soap operas to watch.”

    What level of Japanese are these (high schoolers?) taking? If these are authentic videos rather than made-for-foreigners videos, those students must either be very advanced or not understanding very much. At Berkeley, authentic video-watching was only for advanced Japanese and Korean students (I speak from firsthand experience).


    What is the motivation for that policy? Parents fearing their children will watch something “inappropriate”?

    I myself have never used videos in any of my classes. I think my university students should get their money’s worth and get maximal human interaction. As a student, I never got much out of videos apart from entertainment and chances to sleep in the dark.

  7. The Japanese and Korean videos I watched are exceptions to my last statement, since my teachers wanted me to write down soap opera dialogue, summarize (in Korean) the day’s news, etc. Never watched TV so intensely before (or since). It was enough to make one never want to see TV again. Hmmm, now I understand why I don’t own a TV set.

  8. The chariot race scene in Ben Hur is actually a pretty good way to get them to visualize ancient history. It doesn’t last that long, it’s accurate, and it’s a good intro to discussing the place of slavery in the Roman economy.

    That said, does anyone remember the cartoon strip “Funky Winkerbean”? It was set in a high school, and the coach at said school showed so many films he got an annual invitation to Cannes. That always cracked me up.

  9. dave'swife says:

    On their recent fieldtrip from W-S to Raleigh to see the state gov’t buildings, my son’s 4th grade class watched Toy Story 2 and other such movies on the bus. I was told it kept them quieter on the long ride. Gee, 1 1/2 hours. Anyway, I asked why Bill Nye wouldn’t have been appropriate or even short Nova films or clips from a Nat’l Geo for Kids. I was told that the kids would never sit still for anything like that. So that’s why they showed a movie w/ no educational value that most of the kids had seen at least 3 times?
    Don’t even get me started on posters.

  10. Amritas,

    Yes, parents fear their kids will watch something inappropriate. Also, the district wants to keep tabs on what teachers show in their classrooms. I don’t mind the policy at all.

  11. …”parents fear their kids will watch something inappropriate/” – Heck, just watch the Superbowl – and remember kids – gory graphic violence is less likely to offend than anything remotely sexual! (Tongue firmly in cheek)

  12. Michelle Dulak says:

    I remember watching Ivanhoe in a 9th-grade class (that would be over twenty years ago) over several days. Oddly, I can’t remember what the point was, or even whether the class in question was English or History. (I know that we weren’t actually studying the book; I read it for the first time years afterward. I would hope it wasn’t History, as the history is pure caricature . . . )

    Anyway, I was much wrapped up in the narrative at the time. I happened on the movie on cable a couple years ago and could not believe how cheesy it was. Ah, pespective.

  13. Amritas – as far as I know, only the higher level – fifth or sixth year AP students – watch the soap operas, and even so the teacher needs to provide them with some English narration from time to time. My school is big on the language-by-listening theory, however; we’ve got a huge “language lab” with dozens of desks with tape players and headsets and microphones. The Latin classes never got to use it, though, which was a bummer. The downside of taking a dead language.

  14. We watched “Apocalypse Now” in English, over 2 or 3 Days, and then we read Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and talked about the similarities and differences. I don’t remember if we needed parental permission to watch an R rated movie in class though.

  15. I was appalled by how many movies my son saw in junior high and high school. And I never could understand why drawing a poster would be an alternative in English in high school. But this kind of thing isn’t just restricted to high schools–take a look at this “typical assignment” from the Director of First-Year English at the University of Denver, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice’s alma mater:

    “Sketch a cover for Mark Childress’ Crazy in Alabama. Be sure to communicate the book’s major theme, so that potential readers can tell what it is about.”

    This woman has been teaching there for over 30 years…

  16. I can understand thoughtfully designed art work as a complement to an English assignment. When I teach description, for example, I’ll sometimes have students write a descriptive passage, pass the paper to their partner and see how much their partner can literally “see” in their writing. If the details are skimpy, so is the drawing.

    But if you’re an English teacher, there’s no defensible rationale to assigning art in lieu of writing.

  17. Brad — I remember doing the same assignment in high school. It was a big deal as there was only one VCR in the district at the time (I think their price tag was still up around $700 at the time). I remember it as a pretty powerful planning, too — and it suddenly occurred to me that movies and TV drew on literature as a source.

    SuzieQ: some teachers overuse the poster concept dreadfully, and we all get painted with the same brush. I sometimes have students draw/create a collage to illustrate the images/metaphors in Their Eyes Were Watching God — that book begs to go visual.

  18. My students hounded me for weeks to show a particular video and I finally caved and rented it.

    But when I announced I was going to show it after school, their interest suddenly evaporated.

  19. This week in my Louisiana History class, I wanted to show the differences of women’s roles prior to the Civil War, during and after. I also wanted to show the change in morale of the Southern soldier. To illustrate I showed a three minute clip from beginning of Gone with the Wind, a two three minute clips from the middle. The clips showed the men arguing that the Confederacy would win simply because they were gentlemen and then had the men dying in the hospital. We talked about the pretty ladies compared to the nurses they became and then how Scarlett and her sisters picked the cotton to maintain Tara. The movie time was eight minutes, but many of my students said they were going to go home and watch the movie this weekend. I chose this movie because it is rated G and I did not have to be concerned with language. I have used numerous clips from various things to get to the point. The clips trigger curiosity and the students go home and watch the movies. My students also made a list of Civil War movies and shared it with the class. I am curious to see what they watch this weekend. I did not have to spend days watching the movie, worrying with permission slips and yet many will still see it. Above everything else, we had a great discussion and they were actually excited about writing an opinion paper about the ideas.


  1. When you don’t pass the standards

    Notes Joanne Jacobs, “Students wouldn’t be keeping journals. That requires writing. They’d share their posters.”