If anyone is well versed in the virtues of learning and the practice of assembling a teaching curriculum that children not only retain but also enjoy, it’s Rex Bobbish. Principal of The Cinema School, a selective liberal arts institution in the Bronx grounded in creative activity, Bobbish has been around the block, career-wise. The Michigan native is qualified to do a few things, from practicing law to performing jazz. Now, he’s at the helm of New York City’s most coveted public high school, one with a university-level understanding that it’s not so much what we think but rather how we think that matters most.
The Cinema School launched three years ago with the help of award-winning nonprofit partner Ghetto Film School. Shortly after, Bobbish was brought on and, since then, he’s put in seemingly endless hours and loved every minute of it. Almost, anyway. This fall the school will welcome its first set of seniors, and after that comes the moment of truth: Which students are college-bound? And, of those destined to matriculate, how many will actually graduate? College graduation rates are pretty dismal for kids hailing from blighted communities. But, based on their performance thus far, and according to Bobbish’s sincere assessment, the roughly 300 students enrolled are, on the whole, poised to outperform their peers by leaps and bounds.
Bobbish kindly took time out of his hectic schedule to discuss the ins and outs of filmmaking as core curriculum, a few faults of the current educational system and how he believes we can turn it all around.
What sets The Cinema School apart from other institutions?
Our school is unique in that we’re actually trying to push the boundaries of what traditional school has been versus what we think it should [be] for young people of the future; to expose kids to the idea that, to exist as a professional, it takes an enormous amount of effort and education. Just because you pass a state test does not mean anything. There’s more work you have to do as a student.
We’re making sure they’re competitive in terms of applying to Ivy Leagues and top tier universities, so they’re taking AP courses, they’re doing SAT preparation. And they’re about to freak out.
Let’s revisit the drama momentarily. For now, why filmmaking specifically?
We’re trying to get kids to take ownership [of] meaningful work that exists in the real world. We chose filmmaking, [which] we teach through the lens of a director, because you’re going to see the end result. [It’s ideally suited to our purposes] because it’s something the kids are really motivated to do.
From there, you hope they become critical thinkers, and that they take an idea and make it real. Hopefully by the time they graduate they’ve done it so many times that it’s not going to cause them to stress out and drop out of college. The college drop out rate is extremely high, especially for disadvantaged communities. The graduation rate from universities for people from poverty is below 20 percent. But, they’re already outperforming their peers. The early indications are that these kids are going to do very, very well.
What else can you tell me about the filmmaking-related coursework?
There are real life projects – around business, technical skills, creative thinking. And there’s also this jargon that goes along with that career. If you can master that, it’s applicable to any other field.
They do their own filmmaking projects, story concepting, actor casting. They have to do everything themselves. We don’t step in, so they live or die by [the] effort [or lack thereof] that they put into it. And it’s obvious when they don’t do what they’re supposed to, because we screen their work publicly.
The expectation isn’t that they go on to make movies, though, is it?
More so to teach them how to think, not what to think…
Right. Kids don’t develop that thinking until later. We’re trying to push that earlier. The idea that anyone’s going to have one career now is an [outmoded viewpoint]. It’s not the way the world works anymore. You have to get the kids to form habits of mind that would be good in any profession. We think filmmaking prepares kids. It’s a creative process that’s by design and every aspect of it is thought-out. Every aspect that begins in their mind has to be executed. They have to tell a story and have a message. So, it’s a very sophisticated way of thinking.
Can you expand on how this exercise relates to the real world? Say, in a corporate boardroom…
No matter what profession you go into, you’re in front of people speaking. You have to engage the audience. It would be nice if you had technical skills to back that up, but, ultimately, what is your message? Why are you standing up in front of people? What’s your ‘ask’? What journey do you intend to bring them on? What are you offering? The idea is to build their confidence so they feel like they can be part of anything. Self-authoring young people is what we want.
Tell me more about the student body, their background.
Eighty percent of the kids are [living] in poverty. So, the whole idea of being a ‘professional’ is not a narrative [at home]. When we push them academically, a lot of times we get push back from parents; ‘My kid’s doing 2-3 hours of homework a night!’ I’ll be like, ‘That’s all?’ There’s social pressure because the families themselves have never been through what it takes to be competitive on this level.
Would you say this is a thankless job?
I don’t want to be thanked. You’re answering to a lot of different constituencies when you’re the leader of a school: students, teachers, parents and the community at large. It goes on and on. And, everybody’s opinion is coming from a different lens. It’s about making sure you’re pleasing people, but sometimes pleasing people means lowering your own standards.
The best thank you I can have is for the kids to graduate and get into really great colleges. Outside of that, I don’t really need anyone to [thank me]. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s nice to be supported, for people to say nice things. But, at the end of the day, if these kids don’t get into good colleges and do well in college, then we failed. I won’t be happy until I see them do well.
How does this approach to education compare to the educational system at large?
We are in an environment where everything is testing, testing, testing. They’ve completely taken out of the curriculum any focus on critical or creative thinking. That’s not what education is about anymore.
They’re trying to measure how much students have learned each year. There’s very few ways to do that, and [all are] ineffective. It’s created a condition where we’re teaching kids to answer limited types of questions that can be captured by data.
Despite the long hours and daily challenges, you enjoy your job, however less cushy.
I love it. It’s a much harder job, but I would never easily walk away from being a public school principal. I think [public school is] where we’re going to learn how to provide great education for all students. We need to invest in our public school system.
Do you foresee this filmmaking model operating well elsewhere?
Human beings learn best by doing. It’s important for kids to feel they’re doing [the work] for a real reason. To show their movie publicly, put it in their portfolio, send it to festivals; that’s what schools need to do more of – authentic activities that get kids thinking and creating. You want [students] to attain precision and rigor. Any school that [does this] is doing a better job preparing our kids for what they need to be prepared for.
Filmmaking just happens to capture the imagination. The hook is, kids get a camera, but you have to apply yourself. You have to be smart.
What guest speakers have you invited to talk?
Spike Jonze, David O. Russell, Wes Anderson [via] video chat (he Skype’d live from Paris). There was a Q&A. Vincent D'Onofrio from Law & Order, Derek Cianfrance, director of Blue Valentine. People who are successful, among the top echelons in [various] areas of their industry. They’ll talk about their craft, what made them brilliant. The goal is to have the expert speak and the kids apply the wisdom of that expert [in their own work].
Are there any films you believe to be curriculum musts?
We show segments of films that [convey] the mastery level of whatever technique [we’re trying to teach]: Hitchcock films show how to build tension in a scene and the pacing of that. The Birds is one we show a lot. The Godfather comes up a lot, too, especially around storytelling and building character. Citizen Kane, The Graduate. The list goes on.
Nell Alk’s writing has appeared in Manhattan Magazine, Essential Homme Magazine and Z!NK Magazine, and on RollingStone.com, InterviewMagazine.com and BlackBookMag.com, among other print and online publications. She lives in New York City.