My First Class was Inspired by Dead Poets Society

Hikaru Hirata

In this issue’s Teaching Assistance, a graduate student shares her views on language teaching methodology. Hikaru Hirata notes how students who are training to be teachers can be easily influenced by the preferred teaching methodology practiced by their teachers.

I’ve been inspired by several people to become a language teacher. The 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai (2013) suggested, “One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world.” It made me think that junior high school students might be happy to hear a principal announce that they don’t need books or pencils, and they won’t have regular assignments or final exams. Principal Kudo (2018) at Kojimachi Junior High in Japan did just that when he declared, “My school has neither regular examinations, nor assignments, nor class teachers.” His new system looks quite different from traditional schools. Kudo has tried to change the education system in order to nurture his students more effectively. While watching the film Dead Poets Society (Haft, Witt, & Thomas, 1989), which is about a traditional American high school undergoing change, I reflected on how influential my former high school principal and teachers had been. My homeroom teacher had said to me, “Please choose the way that you really want to go. You can shine wherever you are.” During my high school days, I tried to get high scores on my final exams. My goal was to pass the entrance examination for a top university in Japan. I wasn’t sure what career path I wanted to follow once I got in, but I don’t think that was unusual. Thanks to the inspiration of several people along the way, I was finally able to reach that decision. Realizing that education can open up vistas of discovery, when I began university, my goal was to become a language teacher.

While studying education theory, I tried to update and adapt several traditional teaching methodologies to the current needs of students. In this essay, I compare and contrast two teaching methodologies based on observing the film Dead Poets Society and my practical teaching experience. I will start by explaining how the Grammar-Translation Method (GTM) and Community Language Learning (CLL) differ in purpose and influence.

The purpose of GTM is to memorize words, learn grammatical rules, and translate language from the learner’s mother tongue. In the case of my high school in Japan, we regularly had vocabulary and idiom tests at the beginning of each English class. When I couldn’t achieve full marks, I was instructed to correct the mistake and copy the correct word on a handout sheet at least ten times. During class time, we copied English sentences from the textbook, translated them on the blackboard, and individually checked the answers. Almost every day, we had to submit our translation homework to the teacher. This homework was given a score. These steps improved my translation skills, but didn’t seem to improve my speaking, writing, and listening skills. On the other hand, CLL is intended to improve all 4 skills (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) and it focuses on communication. In the inclusive CLL classroom, each student can play an active role. For example, the teacher could play the role of counselor and students could be clients. The teacher empathizes with the clients’ feelings. Those with similar feelings would be arranged into learning groups. Groups could share both a sense of achievement and of common struggles.

Students can be easily influenced by the preferred teaching methodology practiced by their teachers. In Dead Poets Society, students were encouraged to study Latin by repeating grammatical forms in a smooth, mesmerizing manner. The Latin teacher proactively drilled grammar. The teacher wrote words in a phonetic arrangement on the blackboard. Students individually memorized word forms and grammatical rules and constantly referred to the English to Latin dictionaries on their desks. GTM seems to work well for a class of 30 or more students, and it continues to be popular for language classes at high schools in Japan because it fits the concept of one teacher lecturing to a large, quiet class. Peering through the windows of these classes, one might believe that students look uncomfortable and seem to be bored because of the monotonous style of GTM. I decided to find out by talking with the university students I teach in a remedial class. These students, many in their freshman year, can’t keep up with regular classes. According to my interviews though, 18 out of 33 students responded that they thought English grammar class was the one of most influential classes in their junior high school and high school years. Even though they sometimes thought that the class was boring, they believed in the importance of grammar. In addition to that, 15 out of 33 students confirmed that they wanted to improve their grammar knowledge.

Grammar is one of the basics of language, so I feel that it is essential for me as a teacher to contrive a way of teaching it that incorporates ideas from CLL. For example, in Dead Poets Society, Professor Keating whispered, “Carpe Diem, seize the day,” in the ears of his students at the end of his first class. The students felt that his style was strange. After the class, they talked to each other saying, “He is unique.” I suggest that being “unique” is the first step that a teacher can take to exert influence and to include all the students in the class. CLL is effective for awakening students’ interest in English and helping them think by themselves. CLL requires that students react positively. If students can work together to achieve one common goal, that is a successful goal. In the CLL class, students don’t have much pressure because they study with their classmates. Each student has a role to play. CLL is one of the humanistic approaches. Advocated by Charles Arthur Curran in the early 1970s, the method underlined the importance of alleviating anxiety in students. Stress-free students can think creatively. Students who learn by CLL take exceptionally well to peer-correction and working together in groups. For example, I remember role-playing the learning activity “fake election” when I was studying abroad at Georgian College in Canada. Classmates from China, Columbia, and Mexico formed groups to represent a political party in Canada. We were instructed to make brochures and videos to announce our election promises to get support from voters (Figure 2). Students needed to cooperate to form a political party that could attract votes from classmates. We had to perform peer-checking, too. The Chinese students didn’t really understand such political activities, but they opened up to criticism. The South Americans, on the other hand, were passionate in declaring manifestos to the student body. The teacher’s role was a consultant. She provided advice on how to proceed with the fake election. She later explained that our classroom was a diverse community of students.

GTM and CLL both have good points, and I hold a special fascination for these methods in which teachers choose to instruct students either on an individual or a group basis. In Japan, and in the film Dead Poets Society, students passively accept any technique that the teacher uses to conduct a class, but I strongly believe that teachers should choose methodologies to match the needs of each of their students. Even in large or diverse classes, such as my remedial class, teachers can group students with similar needs and motivations. Having students communicate with each other to pursue and obtain their mutual goals is a worthy process.

In conclusion, in this essay I have shared some ideas about how to update and combine teaching methods. From my personal experience, I was initially disappointed because I didn’t pass the entrance exam for my first choice of university. But now, as a remedial teacher with my own class of 33 students, I don’t think students and teachers have to be restrained by traditional education systems in Japan. The film Dead Poets Society inspired me to think about what type of teacher can have a positive influence on students.


Haft, S., Witt, P., & Thomas, T.  (Producers), Weir, P. (Director). (1989). Dead Poets Society [DVD]. United States: Touchstone.

Higuchi, A. & Shimatani, H. (2007). 21 Seiki no eigokyoiku. [English education for the 21st century]. Tokyo: Kaiseido.

Kudo, Y. (2018). Gakkou no atarimae wo yameta. [We stop doing normal things in our school.] Tokyo: Jiji.

Yamada, Y., Sato, Y. & Otsu, Y. (2009). Eigo ga tsukaeru nihonnjinn wa sodatsunoka? [Are the Japanese going to be able to use English?] Tokyo: Iwanami Syoten.

Yousafzai, M. (2013, July 12). Malala Yousafzai: 16th birthday speech at the United Nations. Retrieved from