Thursday, November 15, 2012

What can I Learn from a Rock Star

We had a motivational speaker in for a convocation today.  It was an assembly that I have to admit I was somewhat skeptical about.  I am always nervous when you have someone come in and talk to students about the mistakes that they made in their younger lives, and that they were now fine and had gone through those tough times to come out on the other side in one piece, if not always completely whole.  My fear always is that the students will get the message that the speaker went out and partied and lived it up and was then able to turn their life around and be productive.  I am not a person who doubts that this can, and does happen, but I am enough of a realist to know that the success rates in those cases are a lot less than the rate of failures.

This evening, as part of the convocation series, our school hosted a concert by the motivational speaker's band.  It featured his band, and two other bands that I had never heard of.  We had a packed auditorium as students from around the county came to take advantage of the free show.  The music they played was not overly memorable, I cringed as one of the bands did a metal version of Phil Collins In the Air Tonight, a seminal song of my youth, and did an equally sour face for the rock version of Beat It, but I also noticed something else.

The 2 intro bands, and band leader, who barely knew our students, could elicit from them great expressions of enthusiasm about anything they said or did.  When the son of the lead singer came on stage and lead the crowd in cheers, they responded more vocally and physically then when our cheerleaders exhorted the crowded during home games.  He ran from one side of the stage to another, having the students do a vocal and physical wave as he ran by.  It made me wonder, what do Rock Stars know the educators may not have tapped into?

As I sit in our now empty auditorium, and watch the roadies pack up the equipment to head out into the night, I still don't have any real answers.  I know that I watched the motivational speaker be very frank and honest with our students.  I watched as he was able to connect with a large number of them during only a 15 minute talk.  I also know that these are not last relationships or contacts, but could in a large part be the thrill of being out of class for 50 minutes, and seeing a very charismatic individual perform.  But there was something else at work.

Each person on that stage was willing to be themselves, was willing to risk being a little foolish.  They were able to be real in front of our students, to be fully human, and in doing so were able to connect.  One of the skits that the convocation crew did was about wearing masks.  In watching what happened throughout the night, it made me wonder what mask do I wear in my role at school, and what might happen if I simply took it off?

Update to Post:
The morning after the concert I opened my email to find a message from Michael Delp who teaches Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II on our staff.  He wrote what I call a Jerry Maguire message.  Many of you probably remember the scene, Jerry wakes up in the middle of the night and writes a manifesto about how to change their business.  It is a revolutionary moment for him, and it was for Michael.  He was so fired up that he had to email our staff at 2:30 AM before he went to sleep.

The next afternoon I made a point of going to Michael's room and watching him teach his students.  It was amazing, he was unmasked and teaching like a rock star.  He took off the mask, told his students he was standing on a professional cliff.  I confessed that he makes them learn things simply to jump through the hoops that the state has set up.  He revealed that he believed there was a better way and that they would be trying to incorporate those kinds of activities into class.  He also said that they would have to jump through some hoops, but he explained why they had to do this.  More importantly he explained why learning those concepts was important as well.

The response from the students was the best part.  They were engaged, energized, excited to be learning math.  Mr. Delp spent the next 15 minutes going through a problem about fixing a bicycle.  The students continued to be engaged and work through the problem.  At various times he had to remind students to stay with him, as this was a review of the day before, but he continued to hold their attention until they got to the problem for the day, which he introduced by showing this slide and telling the story from his life of how he came up with this problem.

It was math in a real life context, that most of us have never thought of.  It was math that engaged his students.  It was teaching without a mask.  Teaching that took a risk, not of the learners, but of the teacher and then the students as a group.  It was teaching that I believe will make a difference.  It was an example of what can happen when we are willing to take off the mask and teach from the place that we really believe education should come from, our hearts.

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