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It’s no disparagement to say that one highlight of this moving, cautiously optimistic film is the freak show staged by the problem students at its centre. “Tremble in fear at the terrible nature of this horrible, twisted little girl,” loudhails ringmaster Aron, an elvish-featured, once-withdrawn teenager who has recovered his vim to introduce fellow pupil Eternity, who has cerebral palsy. Capering and gurning in the face of adversity, their performance is an affirmation of difference; in lockstep is James Redford’s 2015 documentary, which shadows the pupils’ progress through the alternative, “trauma-sensitive” education method being roadtested at Lincoln high school in Walla Walla, Washington state.
Redford concentrates on six pupils, all of whom have chalked up a fistful of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) such as verbal, physical and sexual abuse and parental abandonment. Established in the late 1990s, this metric says that chronic trauma at a young age causes permanent and detrimental changes in brain structure. And dangerous susceptibility to emo side partings, if Lincoln high is anything to go by – but the school’s revolutionary gambit is to mostly ditch censure and punishment, and replace it with scrupulous emotional care. “Steven know this above all else,” texts the science teacher to one pupil freaking out over the prospect of leaving the school behind, “I value you unconditionally.”
If that sounds high-minded, sequences like the one in which staff and students enjoy the healing power of a jam session unshowily sell a different vision of education. “I like the fact we don’t have to talk. There’s still that communication going on,” says the teacher (on bass); a blunt rebuttal of the idea that schooling must be goals-orientated, an extension of the consumer society it increasingly prepares young people for. What Paper Tigers doesn’t do, though, is address how Lincoln high’s approach could be scaled up into the mainstream system. Apart from a few expressive touches, like the strange opening cacophony of classroom sturm und drang, Redford cleaves to the documentary textbook, serving up clear confessional space for the kids. Eye-opening for the layman, vital for anyone pedagogic.
Source: The Guardian
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