Sunday, 14 August, 2022

Pedagogical excellence of the English Teacher of 'Dead Poets Society'

There has always been a conflict between realism and romanticism in our life. Sometimes realism wins the floor while romanticism gets stuck. On the other hand, romanticism becomes the meaning of life while realism stays apart. “Dead Poets Society” written by Tom Schulman and starring Robin Williams is such a piece of literature that not only introduces a wonderful way of teaching poetry but also creates a platform of thinking differently to “make lives extraordinary”.

The story starts in the Welton Academy, a conservative college-preparatory boarding school for boys coming off elite society where a bunch of prospective students enrolls with high ambition. Their bodies are run by themselves; not the souls. They are raised by their parents and are unable to live by themselves. Their family traditions and wealth push them ahead for a brighter future. It is a reflection of our society where parents want their children to be established as either a doctor or an engineer. However, the poetry teacher changes this flow and modifies the plot of the story with his unique teaching style and he successfully presents how life lies in poetry.

Todd Anderson is very shy and always tries to stay out of any hassle, grouping, and gossiping. He begins his senior year of high school in the Academy with his roommate Neil Perry and a group of young boys: Knox Overstreet, Richard Cameron, Steven Meeks, Gerard Pitts, and Charlie Dalton. Besides all the traditional teachers in their classroom, this group of boys gets an exceptional English teacher who later appears to have a huge influence on their study, thought process, belief and realizing the life from out of the box.               

The poetry teacher starts his class with the unorthodox teaching methods where everyone realises that this teacher is going to be different. It is like what I found about a real teacher on Facebook that students don’t need a perfect teacher, rather they need someone who’s going to make them excited about learning and to come to school every day. In this way, the first-day brainstorming includes the Latin expression ‘carpe diem’, meaning “seize the day.”

He tries to prove that poetry is not a flow that has been going on for the last few years, rather it is something new that comes on the mind and pokes us to think better, to think for ourselves. Because poetry is an expression that is possibly imagined when we’re alone, go to bed thinking about what we are really supposed to think. It comes to our mind and continuously gives us the pleasure of drinking the same water in different colours and tastes.

The way this poetry teacher Mr. John Keating applies his unique teaching styles is a demonstration of looking at life from a different angle. He stands up on his table and inspires his students to follow him, thus, they also do so. Standing in front of the students as a teacher and sitting on benches as students do not have the same feeling. So, he applied this to show students how they can look at themselves if they just change the sitting position into standing and standing in the place of a teacher to feel differently.

This crazy teacher starts tearing introductory pages from literature books and seeing this, students start doing that as well. The reason Mr. Keating explains is that these explanatory pages are nothing but the common statements that have been read for a long time. If we only read this like others, how will the new thoughts come out? Literature should be produced spontaneously, which is a theory of romanticism. This is why the harbinger of romanticism, William Wordsworth said, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

This teaching theory produced by Mr. Keating also includes another aspect of learning that encourages them to be individuals. Everyone is unique in their own style. Life has different colours with individual taste. It is important to pick up where an individual has made an interest in. A science-background person can be interested in literature if he or she realises what his/her heart wants. A doctor might be interested in music if he or she can concentrate on it. It depends on how everyone feels about their ideology and, of course, about themselves.

After reading poems with Mr. Keating, the boys get completely changed in terms of thinking and believing. After tearing the introductory pages, they find another cool way of practicing literature. Sitting in a secluded cave, far in the jungle, they continue their journey through the taste of poetry and their dreams of enjoying a new life. They learn about this cave through a diary of the ‘Dead Poets Society’ that Keating was a member of during his stay at Welton Academy.

After reestablishing this club, Neil along with his friends keep going to the cave mentioned in the diary at night. When they stay at the cave, they read famous, interesting and romantic poems written by contemporary writers like Shelley, Byron, Henry David, etc. They sometimes read their own compositions as well. Eventually, they learn to live their lives on their own styles and this cave gives them a great advantage.

Another way of teaching poetry has surprised me and it is when they get homework to create their own poetry. When the class starts the next day, everyone is somehow prepared in the classroom except Todd Anderson, who finds it difficult and boring as well. The way Mr. Keating made him produces poetry instantly in the class is really a remarkable way. The boy says that he hasn’t written any and he isn’t interested either. Mr. Keating pushes him to go in the front and made him angry after teasing him terribly. From this anger, later transformed into excitement, something comes out differently from Todd. Finally, he is able to make poetry describing a picture hung in the classroom. This is how Mr. Keating puts literature in the hearts of his students.

This poetry teacher becomes successful to establish his theories when this story comes to an end. Keating is fired somehow. He’s been found guilty of Neil’s suicide, although it was a politics. However, before leaving the Academy, he centres on his classroom to collect his personal stuff. At that time, Toad reveals the truth and informs everyone that it was not Mr. Keating’s fault. Finally, the boys give back what they learned from Mr. Keating. They address him, “O Captain! My Captain!”.


The writer was a Fulbright TEA Fellow, Fall 2018, Montana State University, USA. He writes

on contemporary issues, education, and literature.