On Friday Night Sept 8, Laurene Powell Jobs produced a star-studded TV show, XQSuperSchoolLive that was broadcast on all four major networks simultaneously.
The premise of the show was that High School needs to be redesigned to be more exciting, more relevant, and more current. That idea is certainly worth the conversation she and the performers ( pop icons Kelly Clarkson, Justin Timberlake and Chance the Rapper; and actors Viola Davis, Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Hanks and others), insisted that we need to have. Her case that it takes all of us to produce schools that are responsive and supportive to all children is, in my experience, undeniably true.
Jobs' efforts to make sure the country focused on this topic for at least one Friday night, and that we discuss Education is laudable. I'd like to thank her, and thank the presenters for what I’m assuming was their well-intentioned participation.
The show brought to mind three different show experiences for me.
1. Disney productions like High School Musical with lots of flash and production glitz.
2. Up with People- the 1970’s singing and dancing show meant to steer easily influenced young people away from the excesses of the 1960’s counter culture, and
3. Cappies Galas I attended when I was teaching High School theatre.(Cappies is a competitive program that combines journalism and theatre productions across a region or state. )
The first two recalls might be read as negative comparisons, since neither High School Musical nor Up with People will be remembered for their authenticity or great cultural contribution, but the Cappies connection actually has a positive element to it.
The formula for Cappies is that high school theatre programs across a region produce shows (as my students did) which journalism students attend and review. The top reviews are published in commercial media outlets as well as school papers and non-profit outlets, training a new generation of writer/journalists. At the end of the year the shows and performers are nominated and winners awarded in a range of categories comparable to the list for Oscars or Tonys, encouraging and developing another generation of designer, director, performers. It is a phenomenal program that introduces many high schoolers to more discerning ways of approaching their art.
Our Cappies Awards Gala for the mid-Atlantic is a grand red-carpet do at the Kennedy Center in D.C. Tickets are much sought after-- for High School theatre, because each show nominated for Cappies show of the year does a musical number or scene: Musical numbers from shows like 42nd Street, Amadeus, Les Mis, Rent, and Sound of Music, and play scenes from Streetcar, Long Day’s Journey, Raisin in the Sun and others. It’s a grand night, attended by local dignitaries and proud parents, and the performances are staggeringly well done. Like the XQLive show, it showcases the bright beautiful performances of highly talented young people. At both you could see:
- Young people tightly choreographed and smiling broadly for the audience.
- Lighting and Tech designs crafted to maximize excitement and impact.
- Punchy spoken segments interspersed with professional quality musical numbers and staged dialogues or monologues.
The only difference being that at the Cappies productions students themselves contribute much of the lighting design, choreography, and production choices.
The writing resonances of what XQLive raised were less positive because at the beginning, its stated thesis was that current public High Schools still operate like they did in the early 1900s. Having taught English or Theatre for the better part of the last 20 years, I knew this could not be further from the truth.
The classroom photo with an old chalk board and blank walls around a set of single rowed student desks shown on XQLive was nothing like the classrooms I taught in or that my colleagues outfit each year for their students. From whiteboards/smartboards and projectors to tables that could be grouped differently unit to unit, to highly colorful decorations and student work displays, current classrooms are about flexibility of instruction, inclusivity, and incorporating current technology in the most engaging ways.
From that moment on, when the show misrepresented what is really going on in public High Schools, I couldn’t take the rest of the show seriously as an unbiased open invitation to the Education discussion. Already, built into the base premise was the idea that teachers were teaching in dated, uninteresting ways that did not support young people in developing 21st century life skills; something I knew to be antithetical to what teachers do.
The claims coming out of the initial network journalists’ bits were equally misleading and flawed, and I had to wonder if the journalists had done their homework about the words they were saying. Had they fact checked for balance and factuality the things they were saying, as I taught my Cappies journalists to do?
Anyone knowledgeable or informed about education would know the high stakes standardized tests factoids that they were quoting were invalid measures of school performance, and that efforts to streamline High School to produce those data points were exactly what is pushing schools away from creative design cycle and interactive learning—even as teachers struggle to hold onto differentiated and individualized learning.
One could excuse the performers for not having been in the classroom for a while, or could we? Were they simply repeating what the PR firms had given them to say? Or had they brought to this show the kind of dramaturgy that my theatre students brought to developing the authenticity of the pieces they produced and performed? Had anyone done their table work, their research, their due diligence? Did any of them realize the subtext? Or its effect?
No one can deny that meeting the needs of the wide variations in experiences and talents among contemporary adolescents is hard.—even sometimes almost impossible. No one can deny that the challenges of inspiring widely different students is complex and requires much of contemporary teachers. No one can deny that there is wide disparity in what is provided to schools in different districts and states that can impair the quality of what teachers can deliver. No one can deny that all students do not and will not like high school, some do, some don't, some are mired in much more than high school as their personal work during adolescence. No one can deny that the test and punish movement (data and accountability) of the last 20 years has taken a toll on both students and teachers in the high schools of our country. All those things do need to be discussed, and Jobs' case that communities need to come together to address them and all Ed issues is critically important.
However, to insist that high schools haven’t changed in the last 100 years denies the innovations created by high school alumni of the recent past, who have led the way to the most dynamically changing culture ever known. It denies the skills and talents of all those handsome, smiling, singing and dancing faces and bodies that performed so adeptly on Friday night during XQLive, because it is the programs in high schools across America that have nurtured the beginnnings of those skilled and innovative performers and thinkers.
It is our Science and History, our Math and Arts & Humanities, our Languages and Cultural classes that have given rise to so much of what we can be proudest of and hopeful about in our world.
Sadly, XQLive and XQSuperSchools misses that and chooses to demean it rather than build from it. What a disappointment.
Our Cappies productions are much better, even if not nearly so well-funded.