Thompson: The Essence of Inner-City Teaching and Learning
Watching Part 1 of PBS's "180 Days" is like gazing across the Grand Canyon. You want to share your feelings about it, but first you must silently revere its majesty.
This masterpiece chronicles a year at the District of Columbia's D.C. Met High School. When students like Raven Q., Raven C., and Rufus open up to the camera, this viewer forgot he was sitting on a couch. I was back in school, listening, sharing, contemplating, and feeling the same gratitude that fellow human beings would open up the way these teens do. School is not the place for adults to impose solutions. Our job is to contribute our experience, love and support, as we accept the invitation to join in their journey.
And, who would not commit to following principal Tanishia Williams-Minor wherever she dares to venture? Watching her coach the cheerleaders, I bet she could even teach me some moves! Ms. Williams-Minor understands that teaching and learning is an affair of "the Heart," not "the Head." She knows that the moral and emotional consciousness of students is the rock on which schools must be built.
I am glad that I missed the first five minutes which foreshadowed a problem with the D.C. Schools central office, so I forgot politics. For the next two hours, the filmmaker portrayed so much of humanity's most profound emotions that I completely forgot that the D.C. accountability hawks were also watching the school. Even the central office IMPACT evaluator seemed cool. Surely, any administrator could see the genius at work in leading D.C. Met.
Watching the previews for part 2, which show Ms. Williams-Minor crying before the faculty, I got sick at my stomach. I didn't feel outrage that some bureaucrats might think they know what is better for her students. I just mourned.
It was during the second viewing that disgust started to wash over me. How could bureaucrats see such a leader as accountable to them, as opposed volunteering to follow Ms. Williams-Minor wherever she and her students led? But, then again, I had only seen the preview. In part two, perhaps the central office will see what it really takes at schools like D.C. Met.
Of course, it was those extremes of emotions that make "180 Days" a work of genius. The courage and wisdom it portrays are responses to extreme trauma. No resolution is given to the paradox where we are allowed to celebrate the artistry of great educators and of great filmmaking, and bond with those wonderful kids, and yet be given no easy way out. It is a privilege to watch every scene where young people allow us into their journey, but we are not allowed to forget their travails or deny where most of their paths are going.
I must make one political point. It parallels the absurdity of central office "reformers" placing their theories over the hard-earned wisdom of Ms. Williams-Minor. Why are we fooling around with Common Core? We already have PBS's inspired curriculum-makers. Why not provide students and teachers with pbs.org (and npr.org) and then share ways of learning from them? Why reinvent the wheel instead of building on their excellence?
O.K. I know we need curricula, evaluations, and bureaucracies. They are minor annoyances compared to the burdens of Raven, Raven, and Rufus. But, where did we get the idea that "accountability" can play more than a bit part in school improvement?
I can't wait for Part Two. Who knows? Maybe viewers from all backgrounds will be inspired by Ms. Williams-Minor. Perhaps we will all be humbled by "180 Days," and we will all try to redefine ourselves as contributors to the team sport of teaching and learning. And, maybe there will be a happy ending or, at least, the happiest ending that we can expect in the battle against extreme poverty and trauma.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.