suppose it was inevitable. When the blurring between reality TV and, you know,
actual reality has encompassed things like marriage, parenting and Hugh Hefner,
it was only a matter of time until schools offered up their students--and their
integrity--for fifteen minutes of fame and $3500 an episode.
Danza--who wasn't even The Boss--appears to be headed for a well-publicized turn
as a fake teacher on a reality show based in a public school in Philadelphia. I
thought Channel One was bad--and renting
a brand-new school in my hometown as movie set for a stoner flick was
abominable. This is much worse.
Mayor Michael Nutter is all for it. His rationale? Students might be allowed to
serve as production interns, he says-- and such a reality show will make it
easier to recruit teachers.
represents a unique opportunity to highlight many of our city's dedicated
teachers and administrators, and the talented students they serve.''
gosh. If the show were truly going to highlight the city's best bona fide teachers,
I'd be all for it. And I'll believe that having high school students work as
gofers on a TV set in their own school is a good idea when I see the rigorous national
content standards for movie production. My thinking runs along the lines of
Philadelphia Daily News' Ronnie Polaneczky who said the idea was:
to pimp our kids' education to an unemployed sitcom actor who wants to
kick-start his stalled career on the backs of students who'll be distracted by
cameras and microphones.''
is actually something I have experience with; I can offer some first-hand insights
into how this will likely play out with Tony and the kids in Philadelphia:
years ago, I was asked to be a featured teacher in the Annenberg Foundation's
video series on teaching, The Learning
Classroom. It was a project with an excellent pedigree--the series advisors
were highly respected academics, and the mission was sterling: filming teachers
at work, hearing how and why they make teaching decisions, integrating theory and
practice. My segment was Feelings Count:
Emotions and Learning.
several conversations with the producer before they came to film. The plan was
for the crew to spend five full days in my classroom. Don't worry, she said.
You won't know we're even here. I was the one who insisted on notifying
parents, and getting release forms signed--a precaution the producer found
also spent considerable energy devising lessons that would tap into the
emotions of volatile middle schoolers to yield richer learning. My seventh
graders were working on Ashokan Farewell,
a lovely tune that Ken Burns used throughout his Civil War series, most notably during the heartbreaking letter from
Major Sullivan Ballou of the Union army to his wife, Sarah. One of my
students--a young man--read excerpts from the letter, and I shared some
thoughts about how music helps people through milestone moments in their lives.
Students spoke about songs played at a grandparent's funeral--or how they found
joy and consolation in particular songs. It was a terrific lesson, a nice blend
of rich content and relevant emotion.
none of that lesson--or any other bits of creative, solid teaching--ended up in
the final segment. At lunchtime on Day One, the producer (who turned my office
into her own personal Disgusting Starbucks) had a little problem. She wanted to
know when they were going to see some reality. The kids were so good. So
polite. Clearly, this was not the way they behaved every day. "I feel like
I'm in Mayberry," she said--and she didn't mean that in a nice way. Where,
she asked, was the emotion?
explained that it took months of hard work to build a functioning community of
65 12-year old musicians. She didn't buy it. She needed to see some
conflict--somebody crying would be ideal. On Day Two, the production crew moved
from my classroom to the hallway, hoping to catch a fight or a breakup. The producer went to the principal, asking for
permission to film all the kids. At a quick after-school staff meeting,
permission slips for the entire student body were distributed. I shared my apprehension
with the rest of the teachers. Some of them were concerned--but others were
hoping for a visit from the camera crew. "You're not the only good teacher
in the building, you know," one said. "Some of us would love a chance
to be on TV, too."
was a long week. The worst moment occurred on Friday. One of my 8th graders had
been out of school for several weeks, undergoing treatment for testicular cancer.
He came back for a quick visit, and was surrounded by friends, trying to figure
out what to say to another teenage boy who has a life-threatening illness. As I
hugged him, I heard the cameras whirring. They followed him into the band room
and filmed his interactions with friends attempting to be cool, and his own
struggle to describe his illness without telling them where his cancer was, or
what procedures he had undergone.
would never have interrupted these painful but essential conversations--but I
sure as hell did not want them exploited. I told the producer later that we had
no release form, so they would have to scrap the film they were salivating
over. We did not part on good terms. While I do appear in the video series,
none of the things that were important to me were captured or highlighted.
can only wonder what the producers of a reality show will find compelling. And
whose education will be compromised.