10/29/10

Classroom Notes - 'Teach: Tony Danza' - Season 1: Episode 5, "Solidarity"

     Maybe I’m being too hard to Tony Danza as a teacher and the reality series he’s starring in.  We’ve been through five episodes, and Danza has clearly had to struggle with the self-sacrificing demands of the classroom, with the significant obstacles presented by the mix of students found in any large urban public school, and with his own unique paradox of being a guy with a great heart who’s spent too much time amid the narcissism of show business.  Being a first year teacher is very difficult.  Education degree or none, expertise in the subject area aside, with mentors or without, finding your way in the classroom is a challenge that defeats even the most idealistic and determined wanna-be educators.  Some of them, when defeated, know enough to get out of the classroom.

"Join me, Tony Danza, and we will rule the high school!"
     In my first full year teaching – and I had come to be a full-time educator after six years teaching in the summer, serving as a long-term substitute, tutoring in many different subject, even working as an adjunct university instructor – in my first full year, I was not very good.  I taught five sections of 10th grade English – 75 students – and we worked our way through vocabulary words, a series of essays, and a whole bunch of literature that included Macbeth, Catcher in the Rye and (heaven help us!) Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd.  I didn’t have too much trouble with teaching writing, and the vocabulary work took care of itself for the most part, but the bulk of our time  -- probably 60 percent, or three days a week -- was spent dealing with the literature.

     I write “dealing with literature” because that’s what it felt like – a task, a chore, a burden that became increasingly tedious and numbing as the weeks passed.  At a certain point – during November’s run through Far from the Madding Crowd – you have to explain even the title! – I was burned out on the book.  Three lit days a week, five lectures a day – even five teacher-led discussions – were grinding me down.  I was bored, the students were bored.  I didn’t change my approach at that point, however, and we finished the novel unhappily.  At least it wasn’t Jude the Obscure, which is unhappy no matter which way you parse it.

     When we started with Macbeth, though, I had realized finally that I needed to make a chance.  I am sure that, at some point, I talked with my father – a longtime teacher and education professor – and he simply reminded me that the students needed variety in their lessons and, more importantly, they needed to be the focus of what was going on.  For the Macbeth unit, built a few lectures in here and there over three weeks, but most of what the students spent their time on were their own productions of particular scenes.  I had chosen some of the shorter key scenes in the tragedy, drawn up some assessment guidelines, and simply cut them loose.  I served only to advise, make suggestions, answer questions, and provide materials and encouragement in their dramaturgical work.

     One particular scene I had given the students, Act 3, Scene 3, deals with a certain dramatic question, “Who is the Third Murderer of Banquo?”  One group answered the question in a impressively creative way: Darth Vader.  What ensued the day of this group’s presentation is one of the few things I remember from my first year teaching.  Not only did they nail all their lines and put their full effort into their performances, but these students brought in a fog machine, dressed the Third Murderer in a full Darth Vader costume, and, best of all, had a spectacular fight with light sabers in the classroom. “Fly good Fleance, fly fly fly!” ZWOOSH!  We all gave the effort a standing ovation.  I learned that day the true gift you can give to students in the classroom, which is to create the circumstances for their minds to be fully engaged to the point where their intellect, imagination, and souls are engaged.  They will surprise everyone in the room – including, most importantly, themselves.  I could never have imagined what those students chose to present for Act 3, Scene 3 – but after that day, I am always waiting for Vader to show up again.  I do my best to make sure the classroom is a welcome place for the Dark Lord of the Sith.

     Mr. Danza had his Vader moment when, in Episode 4, he finally allowed the students to take the stage in showing off their mythology presentations. It was slightly interesting


    In Episode 5, the issue of school uniforms arrives early in the the story.  Danza explained to his students that he wears the same outfit each day -- he has six shirts, six pairs of pants -- and that in solidarity with the students, he'll be wearing the school tie along with them. In the same act, the issue of theft and fighting among some of Mr. Danza's students also comes up.  Both of these matters are much more realistic problems facing schools these days -- the tensions between conformity and individualism, and conflict resolution.  To deal with the latter problem, Mr. Danza proposes to teach some of his kids to box -- that is, how to fight and when to fight.  So far, the episode sets up much more promising issues than the previous episodes' hand-wringing over Hollywood Tony's struggles in the classroom.


     The comments on uniforms from students and teachers run the typical gamut -- with the arguments in favor appealing to me.  Uniforms simplify much of the social coding of clothing and encourage students to focus on their learning.  Depending on the uniform, a certain degree of sexual dissplay can be de-emphasized, further encouraging a focus on academics and activities.  Uniforms, oddly enough, encourage an unconscious sense of community, but allow students to express a certain degree of individuality in how they might work within the dress code.  Even the debate among members of the school community about uniforms is beneficial to creating a sense of purpose.


     But, to return to the issue of fighting, over the simple theft of an iPod, Mr. Danza is wise to offer the young men involved the constructive outlet for their aggression -- boxing.  In my experience, again, young people, especially young men, are looking to test the limits in all kids of way, and most of the time its best to provide the proper outlet for whatever impulse that might be.  As Mr. Danza, a former professional boxer himself, puts it in regard to fighting,  "In my experience, once you really know how to do it, you do it less."  There's nothing wrong with aggression in and of itself -- one just has to find the right way to use it to teach young people skills, discipline, diligence, resilience, grace, self-confidence, and self-control.  If there's an argument for having sports in school -- and having real contact sports in school -- it's because some kids need to hit and get hit.  At the same time, the scene of mediation between the students who had been fighting was touching, as the young men involved attempted to explain themselves -- however unclearly or vaguely.  I've been in those meetings; these scuffles happen; the most important thing is to use them as teaching opportunities and not react too punitively.


    The kid who gives the dog biscuit to the assistant principal is to be commended, as disrespectful as his action was -- indirectly suggesting the administrator is a bitch.  If you're in a job like that, you have to take insults like that from time to time, and deal with them professionally and appropriately.  "I understand fully your clever insult.  You have Saturday detention, sir! Have a nice day!"


     What worked about this episode so much more than the previous four was that this time around, Mr. Danza was a witness to some of the real problems that young people face -- alienation and frustration with the institutional setting, and the simple dynamics of being young and male.  As we suspected, Danza's heart -- his capacity to care, to persist, and to remain open -- are serving him well as he steps into the background of the drama and lets his students assume more and more agency in the narrative.  I'll be tuning in next week for sure.  Solidarity.




    

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1 comment:

J said...

Nice review of the show.

I think Tony is getting better in knowing when to say something, and when to allow the students to speak for themselves - a fine line, I'm sure.