Creating Winners in School

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big vs. smallBig or Little?

There is a trend for American schools to grow larger and larger.  Population growth and the economic down turn seem to have made this a reality whether we like it or not.  It makes more economic sense to build one large building rather than to furnish and hire support staff for two, claim the advocates for large schools.  (I know this opening sounds a little boring, but keep reading I have a story to tell).

But how do these larger schools impact students?  Some argue students can be offered a greater variety of subjects and activities when only one building is involved.  But even before I am a teacher, I am a parent and a grandparent.  I wonder how my own loved ones will find a place to fit in.  In the huge school where I live you have to be to a future professional athlete to make the team.  You have to be a future All Star not to sit the bench even after you make the team.   Teens must sing like an American Idol, dance like a Broadway hoofer and act with the skill of an Oscar winner to be cast in a play.  That leaves two thousand other kids trying to find a place to fit in.  And let me make a confession right here…

I Hate Try Outs!

feeling rejected

More importantly kids hate them too.  I remember my humiliation of trying out for cheerleading six times.  (Yes, that is a sad true story.  I’m demonstrating a maturity I don’t even really feel to admit that now).  But I hate it even more for my grand kids. Before the end of their  elementary years in a building with over a thousand other students, I had two granddaughters announce, they would never try out for anything ever again.  They already felt too rejected and excluded to try to participate any further and they hadn’t even reached junior high.

Why are we making younger and younger children audition in order to even participate?  Can’t we do better than Dance Mom? Seriously, is that woman not a bully?  Why do schools have anti-bullying hot lines while that gal has a TV show?  That’s a paradox I find hard to digest.

No try outsThink Differently

We need to think in news ways…ways that will benefit all our students.  If huge schools are the new reality, how can we make all students feel included in our schools.  Let me share a story with you.

When I taught in the elementary grades my individual class put on two shows a year.  First rule:  no try outs!  Everyone was in the play or song and dance production.  I don’t just mean some kids worked behind the scenes and some were on stage.  My hard and fast rule was that every kid had a speaking part in the show.  If you happened to have a big part in one production, you had a small part in the next, fair is fair, but everyone was in.

Is that challenging for the teacher?  Sometimes.  But the benefits for the kids far out weigh the challenge.  I once had a young boy with autism.  He couldn’t generate language on his own.  He could read words off paper, but he couldn’t produce words without reading them.  So on the stage he read his ‘proclamations’ in the style of a narrator between scenes.  I had another boy who couldn’t remember lines at all, but he could show quite a bit of facial expression.  What did we do?  We had him lip sync his lines off a recording of the words while he showed lots of facial expression and body gestures.  It worked great!

When you plan productions this way, you start with the skills of the students and then proceed with your show, not the other way around.  Humor was plentiful, some planned, some not.  Our shows didn’t have the polish of a Broadway production, but they showcased our kids to the best audience in the world…their parents.   One time we did a very, very abbreviated version of The Sound of Music.  All parts were played by twenty second graders and it was over in 20 minutes.

Four years after that mini show, I ran into Alex’s mom in a local restaurant.

“I’m so glad I ran into you,” she said as she spotted me.  She then told me that her sixth grade son Alex had just been cast in the Cincinnati Opera Company’s production of Amahl and The Night Visitors.  She beamed and I was very impressed.

“But what I really wanted to tell you was what he said when he got the part.” she continued.  “He said, Mom I never would have had the nerve to try out, but after all, I already played the part of Captain Von Trapp in second grade.”

We both laughed.  But I’ve never forgotten that conversation.   In a child’s mind, both of those parts had the same importance.  Alex hadn’t realized that every kid in that second grade classroom had a part.  That tiny production gave him the courage to try out for and win a significant role on the stage.  It took my breath away.  What wonderful seeds we plant when we give a young child a chance to shine.

TEACH...To Change Lives book cover

Author’s note:  Alex was a very academically talented young man, however, he chose music as his life’s profession.  He became a jazz pianist and has played the piano at two inaugural balls in Washington DC.

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