Half Nelson Essay

Communication is a system where ideas are exchanged between a sender and receiver. In educational theory, knowledge is grasped based on the way authority is exerted inside the classroom; a space where ideas, perspectives, and facts, constantly circulate and grow. Charles Bingham introduces his two communication theories; the sender-receiver model and performative model, discussing his ideas of authority enactment in pedagogy.

Bingham’s performative communication model, in particular, is thoroughly explored in the film ‘Half Nelson’ (2006) by Ryan Fleck, where a teacher, Dan Dunn, encompasses a dialectical teaching approach in educating his students about history. ‘Half Nelson’ (2006) delves into the performative teaching practices of Dan Dunn, a White American eighth grade history teacher in Brooklyn, whose class is majority of African American students. Dan disregards the curriculum when teaching about the Civil Rights Movement, and instead, teaches his students the role of power in shaping the society they live in.

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In one scene labelled ‘Opposites,’ Dan walks into the classroom and drags a desk to the front of the room and writes on the board before sitting down on the table. By observing Dan’s position inside the classroom, he has arranged himself that allows for first-hand communication to travel back and forth effectively that supports his performative pedagogy. Bingham’s performative communication model recognises that differences in communication occur as a result of verbal and non-verbal staging. Dan’s amiable and laid-back character supports his dialogical teaching approach that favours performance.

His edgy attitude liberates the stereotype of an educator with moral authority, and as a result, authority circulates the classroom that creates a welcoming environment to nurture communication and relationships. Dan’s language is articulated in a clear and concise manner that consists of appropriate terminology and is moderately paced with pauses to allow students to reflect whilst listening. By emphasising on the saying itself as much as what is being said, such performative interventions influence the way students gain authority, not merely through listening, but with interpretation (Bingham, 2006, 58).

Bingham’s sender-receiver model, on the contrary, suggests that authority is understood by a rational community and assumes that communication is established when the receiver understands the speaker’s single intention (Bingham, 2008, p 56). “What is history? ” (Fleck, 2006) are Dan’s initial words to the class which immediately ignores the sender-receiver communication model. His question promotes a vague intention, however, a sense of authority is embraced due to the fact that he has said something rather than ‘what’ he has said, hence communication still occurs (Bingham, 2008, p 59).

Dan introduces his students to the meaning of ‘history,’ by breaking down the broad concept into basic elements, written on the board that reads “1. Opposites,” while leaving “2. ” and “3. ” blank. Bingham (2008), states that “differences in understanding are as important as consistencies in understanding” (p 59) and Dan is initiating a conversation from scratch. Preceding his question, a student yells out “Opposites” and Dan mocks, “You can read the board, so happy to see that” (Fleck, 2006).

It is evident that Dan establishes a sense of authority by instigating thought though the word “Opposites,” however avoids the sender-receiver model when he uses wit to recognise the student’s submissive response. He attempts to pass authority onto his students by exposing them to an open-ended question and his incomplete list on the board. Dan instigates a second authority by stating “No what is it, what does it mean? ” (Fleck, 2006) and a student raises her hand and hesitantly suggests “Change. By expressing perspectives on a broad topic, the students embrace authority by offering him material to teach; hence a greater understanding is established due to building on students’ familiar knowledge. “History is the study of change overtime. And what’s changed? It’s this. It’s opposites” (Fleck, 2006).

Bingham’s sender-receiver model conveys a conduit metaphor where ideas are translated into words and obtained by the receiver (Bingham, 2008, p 54). Dan reverses Bingham’s sender-receiver model, which is presented, where the student provides an answer (receiver) and Dan laborates on her response (words), linking it back to the meaning of history and opposites (idea). Dan physically emphasises the notion of ‘opposites’ through performance, by pushing his fists together to indicate that “opposites are two things that push together in different directions,” (Fleck, 2006) alike the opposing mentalities in the Civil Rights Movement. His performative hand gestures allow students to visually translate the concept of opposing forces and interpret that imagery into the idea of culture clash, for example.

As Dan realises his authority is demotivating his students when delving into complex subject matter, he interests them by conducting an activity where students share different types of ‘opposing forces. ’ By merely providing an explanation, Dan is unable to assess whether or not his students are grasping his idea of ‘opposites’ in relation to the Civil Rights Movement, whereas the student are proven to learn from his variety in class engagement such as discussions, questioning, metaphoric examples.

Cole and Chan (1987) state that in order to maintain a high interest value from students for effective learning, complex subject matter is easier to understand through a basic and interactive approach (p. 92). As a result, Dan’s adjustment of his teaching practice is influenced by the circumstances that surround his communication, as opposed to planting knowledge in the students’ minds (Bingham, 2008). Following Dan’s example of “night and day,” various students offer suggestions such as “big and little,” “left and right,” and “you and I. A student, Roodly, mischievously challenges Dan’s interpretation of ‘opposing forces’ by asserting “Just wondering if you could count me and Gina’s bald-headed sister as opposites” (Fleck, 2006). The class erupts with laughter with some crying out “Insult! ” and Dan provokingly encourages Gina, “Gina, come on, tell me you’re not going to take that. You’ve got a bald-headed sister? Is your sister bald? Give me something” (Fleck, 2006). Gina responds to Dan’s test stating “May 17th, 1954,” as she glances at Roodly.

Dan proceeds to write Roodly’s name followed by “May 17/54” on the board, under the heading “Insults. ” Fleck explains in the DVD commentary that this strategy is implemented as a ‘punishment,’ instead of assigning detention when a student insults another. The victim is to offer a date, which that student is to research the date and present a report on it to the class (Fleck, 2006). This form of ‘penalty’ banishes the conventional form of punishment where the students’ authority is removed, whereas Dan’s strategy gives Roodly an opportunity to retrieve his authority.

Dan then informs the class, “I expect some thought from you. I don’t want just dates and facts. I want to know why. I want to know consequences. I want to know what it means” (Fleck, 2006). Once again, authority fluctuates, as students’ critical awareness comes into play since “authority gets enacted through communication itself” (Bingham, 2008, 62). Bingham states that the receiver’s search for knowledge from misunderstanding is as learning effective as attempting to literally understand the speaker’s intentions (Bingham, 2008, p 59).

Inside Dan’s classroom, he dissects the Civil Rights Movement and teaches his students the ‘how’ and ‘why,’ rather than the ‘what’ of the event. He trains his students to make informed decisions by teaching them the metaphysical aspects of the Civil Rights Movement at this stage. Dan’s dialectical practice accepts misunderstandings, which in turn, provides scope for his students to question, analyse, and adapt the notion of power in society.

Communication is established when students learn to think for themselves, develop rational judgements, and understand ethics, as “every understanding is also, in part, a misunderstanding” (Bingham, 2008, p 59). Throughout the scene, Dan is seen to consistently maintain a positive learning environment where he frequently acknowledges his students and never rebuts their responses and behaviour. Instead, he uses humour to express his expectations such as asking the class “Am I boring you? ” and reconciling Roodly’s disruptions with “Now back to the bald sister, what’s going on with that? (Fleck, 2006). Through the use of humour, students respond with laughter and acknowledge Dan’s authority established by verbal and non-verbal cues. This mutual understanding correlates to Bingham’s idea that a relationship and communication is established by “the fact that something is said rather than what has been said” (p 59). It is here that Dan not only achieves a performative communication model in teaching, but also addresses classroom management, in order to avoid interruptions in his students’ learning, creating a casual environment to stimulate political discourse.

Ultimately, authority in performative communication is possessed by the sender based on the way they exert language to connect with the receiver, and the receiver in turn, acquires authority when they develop informed judgements. ‘Half Nelson’ (2006) successfully employs voice and gesture as a tool to influence authority upon the receiver, as students shift from an objective to subjective interpretation of ideas. In challenging a modernist view on authority, ‘Half Nelson’ (2006) overlooks pedagogy from a sender-receiver perspective and successfully demonstrates Bingham’s performative model.


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