02/01/2011 10:53 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Non-Instructional Instruction: Not a Moment to Waste

According to one of his contemporaries, when the late actor Robert Mitchum would read a script for a movie he was about to shoot, he would sometimes scribble, in the margins next a scene--usually one with a lot of action and no dialogue-- the initials NAR ("No acting required").

I used to think that there were days in a school year when it might be appropriate to note--on the school's master calendar, perhaps, or in one's planner or perhaps on the board--NTR (no teaching required).

Teachers know what I'm talking about. So does anyone who remembers ever being a student, especially in an urban public high school. Those end of the year school days--after final exams are done and grades turned in. Nothing much else to do but "kick it in the classroom"--or outside the classroom, pack it up for the summer.

I wonder sometimes how many education reformers realize how much instructional time is lost amid this June void. Those who recommend extending the school year might accomplish as much if they could figure out how to get rid of all that wasted time. Except that as it turns out those NTR days can end up being some of the best opportunities to teach our students--when they are least expecting it.

I've generally resisted the inertia of those end-of-semester or end-of-the-year or day-before- vacation days. I might like to suggest that it is conscientiousness or professionalism but it is more likely a habit formed when I was teaching in circumstances where unstructured time led to mayhem and so for my own survival I always gave whoever showed up on whatever day something meaningful to do and something to learn from it.

Last week--on the day after the last day of finals, I found myself in an end of the day class of 40 seniors (remarkably they had all shown up) without any of my materials (having been hastily moved out of my now former classroom which is being treated for mold).

What I did have with me was a copy of Charlie Chaplin's The Kid, a film I usually show students as part of a thematic unit but had, in a school year shortened by furlough days, skipped. Students were happy to discover we would be watching a movie, less so when I told them it was a silent one. "Are you going to stop it every five minutes and talk?" asked a student who had been in my class last year.

"No," I assured him, "I'll stop it every three minutes."

Actually, I only stopped it about every ten minutes. Mostly, with Chaplin's films, he does the teaching.

I don't know why it always surprises me--that with all their technological dependency and the influence of our jaded youth culture--how much my students respond to the films of Charlie Chaplin.

I usually hand out study questions to keep them focused--and to make them think about the film after it has reached the end.

But those questions were now sitting in a room in which a giant machine was sucking air out of one wall and pumping it into the other. Still, even without the requirements of a written response and the threat of a grade, the students were riveted. As have been audiences of all ages throughout the world for nearly a Century.

During the famous sequence--when two men from the orphanage come for the kid and the tramp loses him in the struggle but jumps through a window and dashes across rooftops and leaps down onto the back of the truck--I watched the students watching and saw the outrage and fear and sadness and then the triumph and then more sadness amidst the humor of the tramp chasing the driver down a dirt alley.

And I remembered the stories of some of my students from the personal statements I helped them with for their college applications last November. One boy nearly lost his father when the man fell off a ladder while tarring a roof; a girl literally was dragged from her parents by Los Angeles County social workers when she was five years old.

There is so much to learn from this film--about how stories are told, about humor and about human relationships and the human condition, about politics and class and love--and sometimes, on an NTR day, we can all learn from a great work of art without the usual formalities of teaching and learning (though, as I said, I did stop the film and instigate a brief discussion about every ten minutes).

I'm not sure if showing this film and helping students to discover its depth, its relevance and timelessness will help overcome our nation's math and science deficiencies--and lead to the technological renaissance that it supposed to save our nation's economy.

But I do think that our greatest works of literature--textual or cinematic--might be part of understanding why our nation might be worth saving and that technology and economic growth and improved student test scores will certainly not be enough to save us.