Television Clip Analysis: Boston Public by Marlaina Riggio for EDU 6460 Curriculum Culture and Language

Television Clip Analysis: Boston Public by Marlaina Riggio for EDU 6460 Curriculum Culture and Language

Situating the Show

The American television drama, Boston Public (circa. 2000-2004), sharply characterized the social and political atmosphere of North America during its run on primetime. By broadcasting hotly controversial topics such as, homosexuality, fallible drug use and teenage pregnancy, the series ardently sought to display the potholes of Western culture. Through the various perspectives it panned, namely from student to teacher, the complexities of each theme was brought to life in each hour long episode.

The clip discussed in this paper is a four minute montage of season one, episode one. This particular season began in October of 2000; one and a half years after the Columbine massacre took place. In some ways, this episode is a response to the teacher-student tensions surrounding school shootings in America. I have not only selected the clip because of the themes it attempts to deal with, but also for the fact that I can relate to both the teacher and student identities portrayed in the scenes.

Clip Description

As the opening credits flash upon the screen, we enter Winslow High School, the fictional public school where the show takes place. Hip hop music floods the air as we are taken into the only classroom located in the basement of the high school. In the class, the students are jamming to the music; some are dancing on desks and chairs, while others toss paper around the room. There’s not a teacher in sight. One floor up, Scott Guber, Winslow High’s vice principal, hears the musical beats. Rising from his chair, he races out of his office and darts off in the all too familiar direction of these hip-hop lyrics. He flies down the stairs and violently swings open the classroom door. Immediately, the students shut off their boom- boxes and scramble to their seats, acknowledging the authoritative presence of their vice principal. Mr. Guber enters, a stern look draped across his face, and walks slowly to the front of the room. Looking silently around the room, he asks the students if they know the whereabouts of their teacher, Mrs. Hendrix. No response. Unsuccessful, Mr. Guber turns towards a teen, Miss. Washington, and repeats his question. Slouched back with one arm draped over the back of her chair, she hesitantly tells Mr. Guber that the class believes Mrs. Hendrix is dead. A puzzled Mr. Guber asks why, and Miss. Washington points nonchalantly to the blackboard. The camera zooms up to the words, ‘GONE TO KILL MYSELF HOPE YOU’RE HAPPY!!’ written in chalk. End scene.

Next, we arrive in the staff room where the teachers are discussing their personal lives with one another. Mr. Guber walks in and approaches Mr. Senate. Briefly describing the circumstances, Mr. Guber tells Mr. Senate that he will be the temporary teacher for Mrs. Hendrix’s class until they can find someone permanent. Bewildered, Mr. Senate asks, “What, the dungeon?” To which Mr. Guber responds that he is correct and should be making his way to the classroom now, seeing as class has already begun. Shaking his head in disapproval, Mr. Senate refuses to teach in “the dungeon,” claiming that the students are disrespectful “animals”. Without saying another word, Mr. Guber looks firmly at Mr. Senate while he protests. Realizing his defeat, Mr. Senate agrees reluctantly and exits the staff room. End scene.

Finally, we are escorted back down to the basement as Mr. Senate begrudgingly walks toward the class. As he enters the room, students chatter noisily, while throwing paper balls at one another. Politely, Mr. Senate asks his students to take a seat. Ignoring his request and his presence, the students continue to converse amongst themselves. Realizing their carelessness, Mr. Senate slowly removes his suit jacket revealing a gun nestled comfortably in a holster attached to his belt. Instantly, the students cease their conversations, settle into their seats, and stare uneasily at both the gun and Mr. Senate. Baffled by their silence, Mr. Senate questions their abrupt reaction. He asks a student why he fell quiet at the sight of the gun. The student replied that the gun “could kill me”. Mr. Senate continues his lecture expressing society’s respect for guns, as well as their entertainment value as seen in the media, namely The Godfather and The Sopranos. He adds that words such as, gun, boom, and dead, sound good because they are one syllable, which he states “works out well for you guys, because that’s about all that you can spell”. Then, he asks the students to shout out the word, gun, repeatedly until he tells them to stop. Moments later, while the students are chanting the word gun, Mr. Senate draws the gun from out of his holster and fires three shots. Fearfully, the students huddle onto the ground screaming. Smiling deviously at his students, he sarcastically asks them, “Aren’t these things great?” While the students are crying and shaking on the floor, Mr. Senate explains how guns can be used to “kill a fellow classmate or you can even shoot a teacher”. As he cocks the gun and stares furiously at the students, he says, “You guys really know what to respect”. Placing the gun back in his holster, Mr. Senate orders the students to “stay on the ground until I tell you to get up,” and makes his way back to his desk. End scene.

As educators, what does this clip force us to think about?

In our initial viewing of what is referred to as the dungeon, we enter a dimly lit classroom surrounded by concrete walls and exposed beams located in the basement of Winslow High. The evident parallels between a basement and a dungeon as places that people are often frightened to set foot in further emphasize how both the students and teachers at Winslow, perceive this classroom. Dungeons, like basements, are generally dark damp rooms located underground. Unlike a basement, dungeons are commonly associated with prisons. In French, dungeons are known as oubliettes, stemming from the word oublier, which means to forget. In other words, dungeons are known as places where devious individuals were placed if society wished to forget their existence. If the role of an educator, as Huebner (1974/1999) proposes, is “to determine the environment of the child,” then the faculty at Winslow High has literally placed these ill-mannered students in a space that separates them from the rest of the school (p.220). This spatial division also represents their disengagement to their school material. From an educator’s standpoint, this non-verbal segregation is a bold message to problematic students, telling them their actions are not acceptable in mainstream classrooms. Yet, this separation contradicts the training we receive whereby we are expected to confront disengaged and unmotivated students to find out the source of their misbehavior, particularly at the elementary and high school level. Depending on the severity of the situation, it is also common for teachers to remove difficult students from the classroom with the intention of speaking to them individually. However, no attempts are made by Mr. Senate or Mr. Guber to try to understand why these students are acting the way they do. From my perspective, this implies that they think it is natural for students this age to be acting out in class and the best way they can be dealt with is to be thrown into one room together away from the rest of the classrooms.

In the second scene, we witness the comfortable looks of some of Winslow High’s faculty, particularly Mr. Senate, as Mr. Guber mentions the situation with the students in the dungeon; they are very familiar with the behaviour and attitudes of these students. From Mr. Senate’s perspective, these students are “disrespectful animals” that do not care to learn. His utterances echo Huebner (1974/1999) “descriptive language,” a type of curricular language commonly used by educators to express the events that occur within their classrooms (p.215). Through descriptive language, Mr. Senate is allowed to “skate linguistically over the surface of events and phenomena” without seeking deeper understanding (p.215). In other words, Mr. Senate has managed to label and define this group of students from a superficial standpoint after a single observation. His generalizations are based solely on one experience and provide a snapshot of these students, which further stigmatizes them as dead-weights. Huebner (1974-1999) also suggests that descriptive language generally occurs outside of the class when teachers interact with each other. However, Mr. Senate does not hesitate to share his negative perspective directly to these students, telling them that they are incapable of comprehending any words that exceed one syllable. These patronizing vocalizations continue to oppress these students and may be the primary reason for their disruptive behaviour. Moreover, they endanger the individual autobiographies of the students. Clearly, they are not accurate representations of each student; they do not reflect each student’s actual competency or real thoughts towards education and learning. All the negative descriptive remarks they hear from Winslow High’s faculty may cause these students to believe that they really are incapable and should not make an effort to succeed, because no one believe that they actually can. Through this discourse, the students are labelled as problematic and are thus treated in that way by their teachers. As educators, we are expected to help students reach their full potential. Vocalizing their faults negatively not only disregards their capabilities, but is also stigmatizing. Therefore, a teacher’s descriptive language can ostracize their students to the extent that they succumb to their marginalization.

On the other hand, these students have warranted this disbelief from their teachers. They have not done anything to earn the faith and respect from their teachers, namely Mrs. Hendrix and Mr. Senate. Indeed, a base line reverence is necessary to maintain a professional atmosphere, but why should a teacher extend themselves dramatically to students to learn? What is the role of a student in his/hers own learning experience? Is the teacher responsible if this falls short?

With the exception of a few students and parents, most of Boston Public’s storylines follow the individual lived experience, or currere (p. 9) of each faculty member. In this specific clip, we shadow Mr. Senate’s currere within the classroom environment. As the newest faculty member to Winslow High, Mr. Senate is known as a zealous teacher striving to make a difference in the lives of his students. His reputation for creatively engaging students in the educational material makes him a notable and talented educator amongst his coworkers. After firing the gun in his classroom, many parents protest his irrational behaviour to both the vice principal and the principal. Yet, Mr. Senate is only warned by Mr. Guber about his harmful performance and faces no other consequences. As educators, is it possible to believe that these dramatic actions taken by Mr. Senate will be accepted/tolerated by our superiors? Do you think that the Boston Public television show makes a further rift of the teacher-student relationship? Do they overemphasize a power struggle? Does one truly exist?

The behaviours expressed by the students in the dungeon are also clear examples of Aoki’s (2000/2005) curriculum-as-plan versus curriculum-as-lived (p.333). Our brief observations of them demonstrate their disengagement with school and learning, as well as, their interest in the hip-hop culture. Their desire to socialize freely during class time highlights the importance of affiliation amongst their peers; curriculum-as-lived. Similarly, lectures on respect involving guns are not typically a part of the planned curriculum, yet Mr. Senate decides to use this approach to illustrate the importance of appreciating teachers. Whether or not an educator decides to include these types of supplementary lectures is highly dependent on the classroom environment. Oftentimes, we, as teachers, go off on tangents to explore topics that students show genuine interest in. Other times, as in the case of Mr. Senate, we must address issues of discipline. In both these circumstances, the lived curriculum supersedes the intended curriculum because it demands attention at that specific time. For educators, the question still remains of how to integrate components of students’ lived curriculum, like hip-hop music, into the teaching material to enhance the overall educational experience.

As mentioned earlier, this clip can be interpreted as a reaction to the numerous school shootings that occurred in North American high schools. Without a doubt these situations have drastically changed feelings of safety and security amongst teachers, parents, and students. In many high schools across the United States, police patrol and lockdown drills have become regular security precautions. Given the seriousness of school shootings, perhaps Mr. Senate’s demonstration was in fact the strongest way to deliver the message across to students. Maybe Gilmore (2001) was correct to state “that language fails in the face of trauma,” because of the “multiple difficulties that arise in trying to articulate it” (p. 6). Although Winslow High School is not a victim of school shootings, the pain affects all of its members in various ways. For Mr. Senate, articulating this suffering may be too difficult or fail to send the intended message. In other words, instilling feelings of fear and terror within the students may turn out to be more powerful a message than simply telling students to respect their teachers.

Concluding Remarks

Although Boston Public is a television drama that is often overly theatrical, it does attempt to deal with many social issues that teachers and students encounter on a regular basis. As we follow the lives of different students and faculty members, we come to understand their attitudes towards specific topics and how they confront these issues with their students. In the case of Mr. Senate and the dungeon students, we observe the constant inner battle between Mr. Senate’s hatred for the students and his passion for teaching. Descriptive language, curriculum-as-plan/as-lived, and language and trauma are some of the themes that can be extracted through this clip. These themes help us, as educators and students, to try to further understand our roles in the teaching and learning process.


Aoki, T. (2000/2005). Language, Culture, and Curriculum. In William F. Pinar & Rita Irwin (Eds.). Curriculum in a new key. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Doerr, M. (2004). Currere and the environmental autobiography: A phenomenological approach to the teaching of ecology. New York: Peter Lang.

Gilmore, L. (2001). The limits of autobiography: Trauma and testimony. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Huebner, D. (1974/1999). The tasks of the curricular theorist. In Vikki Hills (Ed.). The lure of the transcendent. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.