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Archive for January 2014

Documentary film traces a teacher’s triumph and sacrifice

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aBoaz films dancers

Boaz Dvir films students using the rhythmic learning methods pioneered by the late Gloria Merriex. (Courtesy photo)

Yes, one person can make a difference — if she or he pays the price. And that price may be steep.

For Gloria Jean Merriex, the difference was in the math scores of her elementary school students. And the price, says the producer of a documentary on her, was her life.

“We’re often told that everybody can make a big difference, but that’s not quite right,” says Boaz Dvir, currently booking screenings of his film Discovering Gloria. “They don’t show how. The person has to transform. And it comes at great sacrifice.”

Discovering Gloria, scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 22 in Miami, tells the story of teacher Gloria Jean Merriex, who was alarmed in 2002 to learn that her school, Duval Elementary in Gainesville, Fla., failed a statewide achievement test. She studied her students to see what approach would work best.

Filmmaker Boaz Dvir.

Filmmaker Boaz Dvir.

She finally hit on a blend of rap, hip-hop dance, funky music and chanting in the call-and-response style of gospel choirs. She also began teaching several lessons at once, even starting with the hardest lessons instead of the easy ones. And she wielded old-fashioned toughness, taking no excuses for work undone.

Merriex began teaching her methods to other teachers as well, and the following year, the whole school scored an A in the same test — and it won as well for the next five years. Her achievements won recognition from educators at the University of Florida, where Dvir works, and a curriculum grant from the Kellogg Foundation.

Tragically, she died of a diabetic stroke the day after getting the grant — apparently from neglecting her health while she worked day and night for her children.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that Gloria worked herself to death,” Dvir says. “She sacrificed her life.”

But those children have gone on to higher levels such as acting and college — one student, Charlie Brown, is a pre-med student at UF. Many of them regard her as their godmother, Dvir says; one even says on camera that Merriex is still with her spiritually.

Raquel Diaz

Raquel Diaz

Stylistically, Discovering Gloria (see the trailer here) is spare and realistic, yet with a joyous infusion of music and rhythm. The 39-minute film uses some subtitles but no narrator, instead telling Merriex’s story through friends, family and colleagues. Dvir also uses some footage in her class.

Dvir, 46, learned about Merriex through the Lastinger Center for Learning at UF, where he was working. At first, he was just planning a film on a top-scoring school in Florida. “But it became clearer what a force she was, not just in schools but in education.”

Without Merriex herself to interview, he took dozens of interviews and shot 140 hours of film.

Did it wear him out? He says no. “I feel energized. And privileged to tell the story.”

Two coordinators of the Lastinger Center in Miami are eager to show the film there. They’re inviting both principals and teachers, especially math teachers, hoping to fill the 900-seat auditorium at Miami Jackson Senior High School.

Timing of this screening is crucial: just before the next round of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, the test that spurred Merriex herself.

“Many teachers are demoralized; they’re in a testing crunch, almost like a Code Red,” says Raquel Diaz, who helps coordinate Lastinger’s Teacher Leadership for School Improvement. “My goal is for teachers to feel empowered.”

bMagdi Castaneda

Magdalena Castaneda

Magdalena Castaneda, the main coordinator for the Miami screening, agreed. She said Gloria Merriex’s work inspired the Florida Master Teacher Initiative, which includes the teacher leadership program.

“We want to inspire teachers to know they can be powerful and effective for students and for other teachers, as Gloria Merriex did,” Castaneda says. “I tell teachers that if they want to be remembered, let them be remembered for positive things.”

Beyond the educational lessons, Discovering Gloria is a typical Boaz Dvir project: a story of an ordinary person who made a difference. It was the theme of his documentary Jesse’s Dad, about the father of a murdered child in Homosassa, Fla., who became an advocate for child protection.

And it’s the heart of his next release, A Wing and a Prayer, about Americans who volunteered to fight in Israel’s War of Independence despite their nation’s prohibition.

In Dvir’s films, the theme has an added dimension: the need to change inside — even transform totally — in order to make changes around oneself.

From his interviews, he concluded that Gloria Merriex was at first an ordinary teacher, as well as an average mother, and didn’t attend church. Then, as some of her associates noted, she even began walking, talking and dressing differently.

“When she transformed, she became a more caring mother, daughter and sister, and a more involved community member — and she went back to church,” Dvir says. “It all happened at the same time. She had an almost theological sense of purpose.”

If you go

  • Event: Discovering Gloria
  • Featured: Documentary on how a teacher turned around poor grades in an elementary school class
  • When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 22
  • Where: Miami Jackson Senior High School, 1751 NW 36th St., Miami
  • Cost: Free

James D. Davis

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Written by Jim Davis

January 21, 2014 at 2:34 am

Holiday Almanac: The Twelfth Day of Christmas

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Written by Jim Davis

January 2, 2014 at 4:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Holiday Almanac: The Twelfth Day of Christmas

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Photo credit: luis tapia via sxc.hu

Photo credit: luis tapia via sxc.hu

Monday, Jan. 6, will be Epiphany, the traditional “Twelfth Day of Christmas,” recalling when Christians say Jesus’ divinity was revealed.

For Western churches, especially Roman Catholic, Epiphany is Three Kings Day, when they believe the Wise Men visited the young Jesus. In South Florida, Hispanics celebrate Three Kings Day, with floats and bands in an exuberant parade along Miami’s Calle Ocho.

For Eastern Orthodox churches, Epiphany marks Jesus’ baptism, when a dove settled onto him and a voice from heaven declared him “my beloved son.” Some parishes, or groups of parishes, gather for a colorful “‘Blessing of the Waters” ceremony, in which youths retrieve a cross that has been thrown into a waterway.

Most liturgical churches will hold formal Epiphany observances on Sunday, Jan. 5. Many parishes use incense as a fragrant reminder of the magi’s gifts to jesus. Eastern Orthodox priests use the day to bless their baptismal fonts by dipping a cross into the water.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

January 2, 2014 at 4:37 am

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