The influence wielded by a teacher over a child’s potential and transformation is unparalleled. Exceptional teachers possess the ability to shape lives, leaving a lasting impact on their students. They can be the architects of a person’s success or contribute to their challenges. This transformative power takes center stage in ‘Radical,’ a Mexican comedy-drama film that unfolds the story of a teacher striving to introduce innovative teaching methods in a school situated in a neglected, forgotten town. In this challenging environment, where resources are scarce and children face limited opportunities, the teacher endeavors to make a significant difference in their lives.
Helmed by Christopher Zalla, ‘Radical’ not only captures the challenges and obstacles faced by the protagonist but also delves into the evolving dynamics with other key characters. The movie earned acclaim and recognition, securing the Festival Favorite Award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. The cast is led by Eugenio Derbez, who delivers a compelling performance as Sergio, the passionate teacher at the heart of the story. Daniel Haddad takes on the role of Chucho, the principal, whose initial opposition transforms into a crucial alliance. Jennifer Trejo, Mia Fernanda Solis, and Danilo Guardiola portray students whose academic excellence unfolds against the backdrop of their teacher’s newfound passion. The realistic narrative makes many wonder whether there’s any truth to the story.
The Real Story Behind Radical
Driven by a screenplay written by director Christopher Zalla from Joshua Davis’ 2013 report for Wired magazine, titled ‘A Radical Way of Unleashing a Generation of Geniuses,’ ‘Radical’ is based on the true story of a teacher Sergio Juárez Correa at the José Urbina López Primary School. The school serves residents of Matamoros, a town situated along the US-Mexico border, which was strewn with cartels and drug trade. In this challenging environment, students had lost the motivation to study, teachers lacked the means to educate them, and the value of education in society was insignificant.
Encountering a diligent 12-year-old student named Paloma Noyola Bueno in 2011 proved to be a turning point for Sergio Juárez Correa. Despite teaching with a degree of disinterest for five years, witnessing Paloma’s hard work and dedication to her education inspired him to embark on a transformative journey. Motivated by this newfound enthusiasm, Sergio began exploring alternative teaching methods. His quest led him to the work of various academicians, most notably Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the UK.
Mitra’s research suggested that students, when given the space to explore solutions to problems independently and with minimal interference, tend to learn more creatively. Importantly, they engage in learning not out of obligation but out of genuine interest and curiosity. Swiftly implementing these innovative techniques in the classroom, Sergio was pleasantly surprised to witness a positive transformation among his students. They began working collaboratively in teams, teaching each other, and employing logical reasoning to solve problems and enhance their learning.
While recognizing the potential benefits of having access to a computer and the internet, the resource constraints compelled Sergio to utilize these tools on his own to address his students’ queries. As the curiosity among his students continued to grow, Sergio discovered the untapped potential within them, with Paloma emerging as an especially promising learner. While ‘Radical’ takes creative liberties with certain details of the real story, such as relocating the setting to an American town on the US-Mexico border instead of a town in Mexico, the film maintains authenticity by drawing on geographical and political similarities.
The backdrop remains true to the real-life challenges faced by the characters, with the looming drug trade and the presence of criminal groups echoing the harsh realities of the actual events. Set in 2011, the film aligns with the timeframe when Sergio’s innovative teaching methods began making a significant impact on the lives of his students, providing a temporal context that mirrors the genuine progression of the narrative. In June 2012, the 2-day national standardized exam unfolded, revealing a remarkable achievement for Sergio and his students. The average class performance surpassed the national average, signifying the success of the unconventional teaching methods implemented by Sergio.
Notably, the percentage of students who had struggled with the exam in previous years witnessed a significant reduction. Paloma Noyola Bueno, in particular, emerged as the top performer in the entire country. The success extended beyond Paloma, with ten students achieving Math scores, placing them in the 99.99th percentile, and three securing similar accolades in Spanish. Despite the students receiving attention and accolades for their outstanding performance, Sergio’s recognition for his role in this transformative journey was noticeably absent. However, he found satisfaction in the fact that he had provided them with an environment conducive to active learning. ‘Radical’ is an accurate representation of events that transpired in reality.