Saturday, February 2, 2013

Two Good Schools

Jim Papoulis, A Good Teacher

I watched a teacher at work today. This was at my daughter's concert. She is a member of her school's choir as well as another chorus, both of which were involved in an event today. The teacher I was watching was a guest composer who had involved the kids in composing a new song, one for which they composed the words. They world-premiered the song and it was, as you might imagine, incredible.

A few thoughts come to me from this experience.

I could tell that this guy was a good teacher from the way he occupied the center of the event. He was on stage with the kids, directing the assembled choirs and choruses. It was clear that he was in charge. Yet the spotlight was never on him and he never shined it on himself. He kept it on the kids at all time, talking about what they had done, what they had taught him, thanking the parents for allowing him the chance to be with them.

This is good teaching. It's not an act that good teachers put on. It is the firm belief that the teaching is nothing, the learning is everything. Good teachers take it as a gift to be able to work and play with kids. Good teachers aren't measured by scores on exams so much as by demeanor and the demeanor of their students. This guy was good and I know that simply because I know it. So did every other parent in that audience.

This was good learning. The kids did things that they have some experience with, but they all had a chance to stretch what they have understood as their limits. They did it with smiles on their faces that were genuine and which didn't get in the way at all of the learning. They did it through music which, for my money, is more important than the four subjects we teach in our schools. They learned through use of their bodies and their minds. Anyone who thinks that there is something more important than the arts doesn't understand learning. Luckily, all these kids understand the rankings. They haven't been talked out of them yet.

The whole session was joyous because it was creative and evocative. The kids had created the song (with guidance from a strong teacher) and then they created the performance together. That performance evoked strong reactions. I cried at least twice. The music was that beautiful as was my daughter's smile. It was stupendous.

All in all, it was a good school that I got to attend this afternoon.

I was at another good school earlier. The teacher this time around was me and the lone pupil was my other daughter. This class met at the Carrier Dome during the Syracuse University Women's Basketball game. She came to the game with my father and me. We found our seats and watched the women warming up on the court.

"How much do you want me to explain?" I asked. "Or do you just want to pick it up as it comes at you?"

She said that I could explain some.

I told her to watch the tallest player Kayla Alexander. She will play in the paint, under the basket, and the other players will dump it down to her so she can shoot over the other players. She's the leading scorer in SU Women's history.

I pointed out Brittney Sykes who hit the half-court shot to win the game a few days ago. And there's Carmen Tyson-Thomas who is going to graduate this year and came to the girls' school last year. And there's Brianna Butler who hit four three-pointers in the last game.

"What's a three-pointer?"

I explained it, pointing to the white line and explaining where it would be in our driveway if she was shooting on our hoop.

It was a good school because there was a lot more that I wanted to say but I could tell she had absorbed as much as she wanted and needed to at that moment. Instead of teaching, I asked her for a Milk-Dud. Before the game I told her to put her hand on her heart during the National Anthem. When she asked what a turn-over was, I helped her understand. And for most of the game we just watched, me cheering loudly on great shots, her watching intently as she always does.

There was no test. Instead, I understand that she will forget most of this stuff just as her younger sister will forget the words to the song that she wrote. It's only natural and it's just the way things are supposed to work. Forgetting doesn't mean that something hasn't been learned. We never stop learning and tests are just artificial endings that have nothing to do with the process. We keep writing and singing new songs. We play a new game each time. And every day, without fail, in this good school of ours that we call life, we learn, teach, and write on.