The band room is not the high school.

Gwyneth Paltrow was quite fetching on GLEE when she sang the Cee Lo song, “Forget You,” which I had heard many times on the radio.

I had no idea what I was really missing, though, until I went recently to open mike night at Brookline High School. My son Eli’s band, Hippos on Campus, opened my eyes and ears to Cee Lo’s original version.

The audience was mostly made up of high school students; some intrepid parents were there too. Grace was sitting next to me, and in the video you can see a shot of her at 02:14 . Also in the video at 00:48 you can see one of the high school music faculty, Carolyn Castellano, scurrying in front to give a student a megaphone.

Later in the night, from behind the piano, Carolyn reminded her students, “The band room is not the high school.”

I parsed her remark and took it to mean that, within the context of rules and right answers, there also has to be a place for subversiveness in education. Some teachers, like Carolyn, seem to manage this balance well: She drives her students to be ambitious and practiced musicians (Eli is the bass player in her jazz band at the high school), and yet prods them to think, act, and play with originality. Students find it hard to get praise from her, and yet the really serious ones want to work with her because she treats them as though they were musical peers.

It’s hard to teach inside these contraries, and although I value them, I’m not so sure I pull them off in a radical or dramatic way. On the one hand, I have a responsibility to teach the conventions of scientific writing and communicating. On the other hand, I have a responsibility to the student who aims to do work that is authentic and meaningful. In my practice, I seem to be more structured in the classroom as a lecturer and more open to individual work in small groups and 1:1 conferences. Interestingly, this may resemble the division between my public and private self in general, and my public and private teaching self.

I really admire professionals like Carolyn who seem to take public risks in their teaching while still upholding really high standards for their students. Funny, though, when I told Eli my interpretation of the band room/high school remark as slyly subversive, he wondered if Carolyn, whom he knows well, had really intended instead that her students remember to behave once they leave the band room.

Either way, the remark conveys the same dichotomy.
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For a more polished and still angry version of “Fuck You,” watch Cee Lo himself, in a Pepto pink suit, sing it here on a BBC special: Link.

4 thoughts on “The band room is not the high school.

  1. What a great video! The interaction with the audience is fantastic–such energy! Is Eli the singer?

    Re: subversiveness in the classroom…I think the definition of “subversion” changes as we get older and more experienced. I know there are things I did ten or fifteen years ago that I wouldn’t attempt now, and would probably look either idiotic, or like I was trying too hard, if I did. There’s something to be said for the more subtle subversiveness that comes mid-career–it can be just as effective, perhaps because it’s more surprising to students.

    And I’m sure you know plenty of teachers who would find small-group work and conferencing “subversive” in and of themselves!

    • Eli is the bass player in the back. I don’t know who the singer is, but I thought he was excellent.

      Rosemary, I’ve been thinking more about this since writing it, and my thoughts are traveling the same path as yours. While there may be less drama in what I do simply because I am not in a performing arts department, there may be other ways that we writing or literature people can be subversive in more subtle ways. Even by treating my students as grownups (and not “kids,” as a lot of our peers do), can in a way be subversive. Also, I am not afraid to be taught by my students, which I am all the time, and I am also not put off by having students who are intellectually more or differently gifted than I am.

      More and more, too, I have been thinking about Peter Elbow’s 1993 essay, “Rating, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting out Three Forms of Judgment,” and especially about the liking part and how important it is to one’s pedagogy. That we can judge and even rank our students’ work and yet find in it both intelligence and possibility — stuff we like, in a meaningful way — remains a kind of radical stance in this era of widespread assessment.

  2. I thought a lot about encouraging not exactly subversion, but certainly risk and creativity in students this past semester. Perhaps it’s because I’m back at Tufts and had forgotten how high the stakes are and how under pressure the students feel there, but I was surprised about their attitudes toward creativity and risk-taking in their coursework. I was training tutors, and was surprised and frustrated by how many of them equated creativity ONLY with fiction or poetry writing — or at best, all writing for English classes, but not any for, say, the sciences or even history. I was also a little frustrated by how many of them said they would not encourage a student to take risks or be creative with a paper; they just defended the idea that the student would not want to take a risk for fear of getting a bad grade (and didn’t even seem to realize that many professors would heavily reward risk-taking and creative thinking). It was a little upsetting. I think we got somewhere over the course of the semester, but I don’t know how much of it will stick.
    (I realize this comment is only tangentially related to your post, which I really enjoyed.)

  3. Pingback: Twelve nouns of Christmas | leaf – stitch – word

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