The film Akeelah and the Bee portrays the life of an African-American girl named Akeelah and her journey towards winning a spelling contest. Dr. Joshua Larabee, an English professor and a friend of the school’s principal, becomes the coach of Akeelah. In the film, Larabee is faced with the dilemma of empowering Akeelah, a student of color, who refuses to recognize her own talent. Instead of being lenient, Larabee does not compromise and requires more than it is usually expected from Akeelah. As a coach, Larabee recognizes that every student is different. Hence, teachers must “refuse to offer lesson plans or strategies that work for all students in all contexts”, which leads to the development of individualized teaching tools that suit the learning style of a student in particular (Kumashiro, 2012, p. 84).
In the movie, Larabee realizes the strengths and weaknesses of Akeelah, so he used the same leverage to inculcate the lessons to her. He has used a teaching strategy of demanding Akeelah to spell faster than she normally does. Under the pressure of beating time, this teaching style has trained Akeelah to learn more words quickly and understand their meaning. This type of practice lessons may be rather severe for everyday classes, but Larabee understands that Akeelah has to prepare for the upcoming national spelling bee contest; thus, he doubles his demands and expectations towards her performance. It should be noted that Larabee has fully grasped that being a teacher means being an agent of change, and it is the job of the educator to implement some strategies to motivate students to learn better. Before teachers can successfully teach and train a student, they must consider factors that make each student unique. In this film, racial diversity and cultural differences play a significant role in shaping the teaching strategies of Larabee simply because Akeelah is a student of color. Furthermore, it is beneficial that Larabee is a person of color, which makes him understand the clouds of mixed feelings and incongruent emotions confusing the judgment of Akeelah as a child of color. The teaching strategy of demanding more patience, effort and skill from a student works especially for Akeelah because she is stubborn and unwilling to renounce her self-doubts brought about by her social class standing and experience of racial discrimination. Larabee acknowledges that Akeelah has obvious intelligence and passion for learning, but she lacks the inspiration and motivation to excel in school. To up the ante, Larabee has incorporated the use of jump ropes to help Akeelah channel her focus on what she is learning and not her surroundings. While this activity is an unlikely method of teaching, it serves effective in refocusing the concentration of Akeelah towards learning. Hence, this teaches the teachers of America that it is perfectly alright to think unconventionally when it comes to teaching students as long as the objectives and goals are met and the codes of student-teacher relationship are not violated.
Perhaps the best characteristic of Larabee as a teacher is his ability to recognize the need for a progressive education for Akeelah. The word “progressive” itself means moving forward and it “… can have little meaning in the absence of clearly defined purposes.” (Counts, 1978, p.4). Larabee has immersed Akeelah in a progressive education because the goals of his teaching methods are clearly set to educate her to do the right things. In fact, throughout the film, winning is not in any of Larabee’s teachings. The content of Larabee’s didactics is an amalgam of life reflection on understanding one’s history, knowing the importance of words and their meaning, the art of language, the benefits of healthy competition, overcoming obstacles, and embracing individual potential sans fear that Larabee keeps reminding Akeelah a quote borrowed from Marrianne Williamson: “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
To borrow the thought process and principles of Larabee as a spelling coach in the film, it disentangles the common notion of education and clearly tells the audience that learning is fun, it is a creative and complex process. In addition, learning is a two-way treaty. Akeelah is a student who faces real struggles in the same manner as any other student of her age and color, and her coach Larabee respects her individuality. Hence, their relationship is based on the needs of Akeelah, and Larabee hinges his teaching strategies on her learning style. The clear goals and transparency in their student-teacher relationship is what makes the learning successful. The practice sessions between Akeelah and Larabee highlight one of the most vital roles of a teacher in today’s society flawed with unequal opportunities and implied biases. Following this principle, Larabee avoids teaching Akeelah in an overly simplified way that discourages independent thought. For young students to learn, teachers of this day and age must impart important lessons that transcend the walls of classroom. When such children as Akeelah learn the importance of respect, self-responsibility, independence, self-acceptance and patience, school can become a place that feels much closer to home (Kumashiro, 2012, p. 38). What Larabee has done for Akeelah poses as a challenge to the rest of the teachers in America. A teaching profession surpasses beyond translating what the textbooks say. Teaching goes beyond the assignments, essays and projects that would sharpen the intelligence and potential of students. Larabee shows the audience that teaching includes showing students what they are capable of, and when they refuse to see it, it is the teacher’s job to inspire them to embrace their individual potential. It sounds harder than it is, but the teaching profession is not lacking in trials and frustrations here and there. However, as is the case with Larabee in the film, the tribulations of the profession should not discourage aspiring teachers in the country to abandon their aspirations of being a teacher and inculcate the best lessons, in and out of the classrooms, to students of all colors, social standing, races and religions.
The storyline of the film is centered on the struggle of a middle school for money and exposure. Its growing financial problems are challenging the school’s ability to provide the necessary basics to its students. To solve this problem, the principal decides to conduct a spelling bee with the objective that the winning student would make it to the nationals. Akeelah Anderson became the school’s official participant. Dr. Larabee sees her potential, but Akeelah, wanting to lessen her intelligent reputation, resolves to truancy. With the help of her family, friends, neighbors and the school community, Akeelah realizes her potential in the end and shares the first place spot in the National Spelling Bee with another student.
The movie is not a typical Hollywood inspirational film. While the plot of Akeelah and the Bee is thought to be familiar and conventional, the primary and supporting themes are remarkably moving, without getting out of touch with reality. The central theme of the movie is overcoming obstacles despite the challenges in the way. Although the school is underfunded, but this did not discourage the administration to find ways to raise money, so it could continue to provide quality education to its students. Akeelah’s participation in the national spelling contest is not supported by her mother, but this did not stop her from training, albeit secretly with Dr. Larabee. The courageous spirits of the school and Akeelah teach the audience not to lose hope because in reality, the journey to achieving triumphs in life is not a smooth ride. There will always be problems attached to every goal, but this should not hinder anyone from dreaming and looking for actual solutions. Another theme in the movie is not being afraid of the things one does best. Akeelah’s African-American roots and background stigmatize her as an inferior being because she grows up in a poverty stricken neighborhood where residents are, most if not all, “good for nothing”. However, the film shows that one’s current situation should not dictate his/her future. Larabee recognizes the skills and intelligence of Akeelah and pushes her until Akeelah acknowledges her own talent with an open mind instead of fearing social stigma and failure. This part of the film imparts that anybody can be great notwithstanding color, religion, race and class standing. In this context, Akeelah is inspiring students to find their strengths and use it to their advantage and that in a community afflicted with teenage pregnancy, inferior academic performance and gang-related violence, people of color can manage to overcome the stereotyped labels and can do great in life. Politicization of education can be partly blamed to this because “schools have always been teaching only certain things from only certain perspectives to only certain groups” (Kumashiro, 2012, p. 34). To be specific, the structure and curriculum of American public schooling is criticized for imparting racial consciousness to students, which is largely identified by White American culture. In the film, Akeelah does not identify her spelling intelligence as part of her African-American culture and tries her best to hide it. Larabee is an instrument in this Akeelah’s realization because he sees that she can be great despite her upbringing and background. Akeelah’s coach who has the same social standing as her empowers her to use her talent for the greater good. This part reminds teachers in America that they are a reliable source of empowerment to their students. However, the audience should be careful in identifying teachers as agents of change, and not as some kind of educational saviors depicted in most Hollywood films.
The culture of education and teaching has undergone plenty of changes in the last few decades. In the book Bad Teacher!: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture written by Kevin K. Kumashiro, the author finds out that most Americans depict education solely in the context of classrooms. Hence, any failure that happens inside the walls of the classroom is blamed to the teachers. The film challenges that common notion and shows the audience that teaching does not happen in a teacher-student setting, but teaching can be done in the homes and community, as well, with neighbors, friends and family serving as teachers. Furthermore, the film unravels the complex setting of the American education by pointing out the other players in the community of education. In the movie, the school principal makes a drastic decision of conducting a spelling contest, with the objective of sending its winner to the state and national level to gain recognition and, eventually, get funding from private sectors. Hence, the principal is a key player to Akeelah’s education, as well. For the audience, it seems to be a plain set-up, but in truth, American public education system is controlled by a series of key players in a tug-of-war of power struggle. Ideally, the school is a setting for education where students learn the concept of Trigonometry, Sociology, etc. However, the quality education is compromised when there are not enough funds. To move beyond this point, schools administrators think of methods to get attention of private sectors for funding purposes (Kumashiro, 2012, p. 61). This is a simple realization in the film that is conveyed to the audience. Another important realization in the film is the individual capacity of students of color and their self-perception. While white students do not have a problem identifying their race as superior, students of color are ashamed to be labeled as “brainy” because culturally speaking, they cannot identify with the term.
In contrast to other education-theme inspirational Hollywood films, the movie is straightforward with its problems and solutions, and it does not give a false reality to the audience. The film has numerous realizations for students, parents, teachers, school administrators and community in general. In retrospect, the film captures the real essence of being a student, of being a teacher, of being surrounded by a caring community, and of benefitting the modern education.