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Ending School on a High Note

June 09, 2001|JEFF LANTOS | Jeff Lantos teaches in Pacific Palisades

If the sight of a weeping, middle-aged educator makes you uncomfortable, you'd best steer clear of Marquez Elementary School on June 22.

I assure you, this show of emotion is highly atypical. I'm usually a rock on the last day of school. In fact, some years I rejoice when they clean out their desks and walk off. But every once in a while I connect with a class in such a way that teaching seems less like work and more like an elixir.

This year's group of 11-year-olds, with their metallic smiles and their hair gel and their discussions that ranged from Harry Potter to the 2nd Amendment to Britney Spears' breast implants, this group was special.

Why? Well, first of all it sported an unusual array of colorful characters--kids so distinctive that they inspired nicknames. There was the Wanderer (who, of course, was never in his seat), the Peacock (who was either preening or prancing), Internet Man (who could find anything for me on the Web), His Tardiness, the Great Dustini (who could solve diabolical puzzles in mere minutes), the Swooner (who told me there was a girl in the room who he couldn't stop thinking about), Teton Stu (who played a Teton Sioux) and the plucky Kookaburra, who strode into class on her birthday and said (with her Australian accent), "There is nothing you could possibly say that could upset me today."

Second, they embraced everything I threw at them from math puzzles to cryptography to poetry to drawing political cartoons to playing bridge. Yes, bridge! Every afternoon, as soon as we finished a math lesson, you'd hear the cry, "Deal 'em out!" By March, some of them even knew how to finesse.

Third, and most heartening of all, was the way these kids sang and danced and debated their way through three historical musicals, each with 15 or so original songs. "Can we sing?" became the most often asked question. I have a piano in the classroom (which I play) and recess would typically find 20 or more students clustered around me belting out our show tunes, and then we'd segue into standards like "Route 66" and "Fly Me to the Moon." And there'd usually be another 10 kids standing on the desks doing their MTV choreography. Rare was the day when we didn't have one of these spontaneous classroom rave parties. And when the bell would ring, they'd plead for one more song. When we got to a sentence in the history book that reminded them of a lyric or a line of dialogue, they'd break out into song or recite an entire scene.

When throughout the day a classroom resounds with music and dance and drama, a point has been reached where learning and joy intersect, and there can be no finer moment for a teacher. Or, I suppose for a student.

One spring afternoon, a student who had not been keen on her ability in certain academic areas approached me and said that one of the characters in our latest musical production didn't have a song. And so during lunch this student and two of her cronies had written one. They'd come up with a melody, and they were eager to sing their tune for me and the class.

It's these kinds of moments, so rich with insight, critical thinking, initiative and collaborative learning, that have convinced me that the most meaningful teacher-student exchanges are not quantifiable. Test scores may be way to measure a narrow range of student achievement, but they can tell you nothing about inspiration and rising self-esteem and higher level thinking.

Today, sadly, the songs will cease. On the hot macadam, in the June haze, I will hug my students and wish them well as they move on to the bigger, tougher, hormone-crazed world of middle school. They will take with them their spirit, their promise and their joi de vivre. The suddenly empty classroom will seem sepulchral. The silence will sound awful.

I'll miss my little performers. For 10 months, they made teaching the greatest job in the world.

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