The play’s the thing

As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

How did you get through high school? If you are at all like me, your extra-curricular activities were the best part of the deal. The fun stuff — often what we worked hardest on — didn’t really count as far as many of the adults were concerned, but it kept us sane.

I bring this up because the Yale School of Music asked me to talk to 50 of the country’s best public school music teachers earlier this month. Perhaps foolishly, I accepted the invitation — but then had to figure out what I (not a musician) could say that might make sense to them. That got me thinking about the centrality of school’s ‘non-essential’ activities like music. And then I remembered how another ‘non-essential’ activity — drama — had rescued my own teaching. Here’s part of what I had to say:

You are music educators, but because I don’t have the bona fides to talk to musicians, I will try to say something worthwhile about education. But what? Well, Last week I arrived at a recording session early, before my producer got there. The sound engineer and I had some time to talk, and he asked me what I was working on. I told him that I had been invited to speak to some of the nation’s best music teachers and was grappling with the challenge — what to say.

‘That’s easy,’ he said. ‘Thank them for me.’

What do you mean, I asked?

‘Well, I wouldn’t have made it through high school or college if it hadn’t been for my music teachers.’

Tell me more, I said.

‘I played an instrument, but that wasn’t what made it matter. In music, the rewards are right there for the taking. You work with others and are only as good as the group. But you can get better — and know you are getting better — by practicing. In other classes, the rewards are external and symbolic (letter grades) but not in music.’

So, from 40-something Richard Fairbanks, thank you. I am certain there are hundreds of thousands of Richard Fairbankses out there, adults who survived school — and later prospered — because of you.

From me, congratulations. I am proud to be here with you.

I have read your biographies, and all I can say is ‘wow.’

Why teachers matter….

I think schools are teetering on the edge of a cliff marked ‘obsolescence.’ In my new book, I argue that two of the three reasons for having schools no longer apply. Now I realize there’s a fourth reason, one that involves you.

Here’s the story: I taught high school in New York in the mid-60s right after graduating from college. I write about that experience in The Influence of Teachers. One story I didn’t write about in the book I’d like to tell now, because it’s about how we turned to the arts — even then officially a non-essential activity — to energize our class. Looking back, I think it was the best teaching I ever did.

As a rookie teacher in a rigidly tracked school, I was not allowed anywhere near the kids who were on track to go to college. They were the ‘ones’ and the ‘twos.’ Instead, I was given five classes of ‘threes,’ the borderline kids that no one really cared very much about. They were Italian-Americans or working class Jews, with one or two Hispanics. For one class I was assigned to team-teach with an older Social Studies teacher named Patty Ecker (she was perhaps 24!). We struggled to interest the kids in the two subjects, without much success, until one day Patty said, “Let’s have them write a play.”

John Merrow teaching in 1966
John Merrow teaches at Paul D. Schreiber HS in Port Washington, NY in 1966.

Bingo! We told them that they had to come up with a story, explained plots, talked about ‘beginning, middle, end’ and all that stuff. They could decide on characters, action, plot, and so on. Once they realized that they had a blank slate, they took off.

Maybe predictably, the main characters of their play were tough but misunderstood teenagers, kids the adults looked down on because their hair was slicked back and they wore leather — girls and boys alike.

The plot involved shoplifting from a store in town. Cigarettes, maybe. The owner accused the greasers, of course, and I think the football captain actually fingered them.

You can guess the plot twist pretty easily. The goody-two-shoes guy and his perfect girlfriend were the thieves, and so on.

Word spread that Miss Ecker’s and Mr. Merrow’s class was writing a play and acting it out in class. Which we were. Kids would say their lines, and other kids would critique. Is that what Rocco would say? Is that how Vinnie would say it?

As enthusiasm built, someone suggested actually staging the play in the auditorium. That meant building at least two sets, because some of the action took place in a kid’s garage, some in an official office, maybe the principal’s, maybe the police chief’s — I don’t remember. They scrounged up props, including one kid’s chopped and lowered and louvered hot rod, if I remember correctly. Costumes. The whole nine yards.

For Patty and me, it was heaven. We were having — for the first time — the kinds of experiences that you have enjoyed throughout your careers, because we had engaged our kids in real work that both respected them and challenged them.

We had kids enthusiastically writing and rewriting. We heard from parents who had never been in touch with the school before. I remember a lovely letter I got from Joe Levy’s mother. Written in a loopy scrawl with a couple of minor mistakes, that letter touched me as very little has since, because she said that her Joey had been ready to drop out because he hated school but now he was jumping out of bed, eager to go.

When they put on the play one afternoon, those kids became heroes to a pretty sizable segment of the school, the large group of students who are barely visible to the adults. Their play stood up to the in-crowd, but that was only a small part of their triumph. They had flexed their creative muscles, something that hardly ever happens for most kids in “curricular” stuff.

Why these classes and activities are ever called ‘extra curricular’ is beyond me.

What we discovered, quite by accident, is something you know in your core: kids are not afraid of work, not if it’s work of value. Some teachers believe, incorrectly, that they can improve a student’s self-esteem with words and other easy expressions of praise (like high grades) even though the student isn’t doing the best work that he or she can. You know that accomplishment is the foundation of self-esteem. Students know when they’re doing their best, and they know when they’re being allowed to cut corners. They may grumble that their teachers are expecting too much, but good teachers know enough not to listen to that particular complaint.

So how do we save ‘extra curricular’ program like art and drama and music? I don’t believe that special pleading (“Save The Arts”) will work. We need a national conversation about our children, and I challenge you to help lead that.

(That’s my bumper sticker for you: DON’T PLEAD. LEAD.)

We have to ask a number of questions: What do we want our children (grandchildren, in my case) to be able to do? What kinds of people do we want them to grow up to become? What values matter? Are test scores a valid surrogate measure of our hopes for children, our own and those of others?

Then ask how we get there? Ask what the role of the school is? Ask what kinds of programs help kids grow in those directions?

If we ask those questions and if citizens and business leaders and politicians answer them honestly, the inevitable conclusion has to be that the arts in all their forms are fundamental, as important as — maybe more important than — the so-called basics.

When that day arrives, when we finally get our priorities right — and I believe we will — I hope you will be magnanimous and keep English and math and history on the list of ‘basics.’

But if you don’t, I will understand completely.

Again, my congratulations on your richly deserved honor, and thank you for the privilege of speaking with you today.

Does any of that ring a bell for you? What on earth can we do to get the people in charge to wake up to the importance of art, music, drama, journalism and even recess? They’re all being cut in the name of ‘academic rigor.’ And that insane policy is hurting children and youth everywhere.

12 thoughts on “The play’s the thing

  1. I suppose you might say that I am a Richard Fairbanks, too… I credit an extra-curricular activity for laying the foundation for my career. In my case, it wasn’t music. It was art and yearbook.

    A mediocre student who liked writing as well as visual arts, I enjoyed teamwork but wasn’t athletic enough to join my school’s sports teams. I found my high school yearbook to offer me the opportunity to bring all of the things that I liked to do together, as well as a place for me to learn and develop new skills. Mr. Cardell, the art teacher for the school and yearbook supervisor (who STILL teaches at my alma mater, and has for over 30 years), was the first teacher I had who managed to connect the dots between what I was learning in English, Social Studies, and Art along with how one could apply those things to the “real world.”

    While participating in yearbook, I learned the many steps involved with putting together a publication. We had to write copy, edit copy, fit copy to pages, take images, edit images, and layout every element on every page (back in the 80’s we did this without computers– measuring picas and points and cropping by hand). The process was invigorating as a learner. To have the finished product mass produced and held by my entire school was one of my greatest thrills in high school.

    Little did I know at the time, that Mr. Cardell (as well as a few other teachers) would inspire me to become a teacher– one who aspired to engage my students in multiple “real world” experiences to apply the skills they were learning. And, little did I know at THAT time afterwards that I would eventually blend what I learned from teaching with the passion that I still had for writing and publishing books– eventually building a career in educational publishing.

    So, thank you, Mr. Merrow– for taking us down your memory lane and for allowing me to take you down mine…. I do believe that teaching and learning happens in many ways. The more hands on and experiential, in my opinion, the better!


  2. I often credit playing flute and piccolo in band from middle school through college as providing the best education and personal experience I received during those years. From competing in solo & ensemble competitions, to providing valuable leadership experience, to learning how to achieve a goal as a group – band and wind ensemble provided it all for me.

    And as you note, it also provided my most memorable experiences and, 30+ years later many of my closest long time friends.

    Thank you, music and art teachers, from the bottom of my heart and for all you do for today’s children.


  3. John, great questions. I just attended the best high school graduation ceremony I’ve ever experienced (neither ‘seen’ nor ‘attended’ would do here) in my long career and life in education. There was no keynote speaker, no valedictorian; rather, every student in the class had been invited to speak or perform. Those who signed up worked hard to perfect their presentations.

    Twenty, almost half the class, did; each was allotted two and a half minutes. As the school explained, this put the student at the center and all students (and I would add their guests) come away feeling that this final rite of passage was truly their own. My hunch is that the reason it works, year after year, is that art, drama, and music are central to the curriculum at that school. At this year’s ceremony 17 speakers, 2 singers, and one dancer presented clear and compelling answers to your questions, in particular:
    What is it that we want our children to be able to do?
    What kinds of people do we want them to grow up to become?
    What values matter?

    Hey, I’m a math teacher, but I vote for art, music, drama, and possibly community, as the basics of education. The others can follow.



  4. John –

    This talk, thoughtful and creative, demonstrates, at least to me, why organizations that may appear only tangentially connected to your world ask you to address them.

    Nice job.



  5. These are wonderful and thoughtful responses. Joan, let’s hope more schools emulate that approach
    I think we are heading for a Howard Beale moment: “we’re mad as hell….” regarding the dominance of tests. Who will it be?


  6. The picture that you paint of an enthusiastic group of kids doing “their own thing” while learning all the skills they need to survive is a wonderful message to all teachers. Congratulations


  7. I agree 100%. The other important point that needs to be made is what are children doing who don’t participate in extra curricular activities? I work at a high poverty school where many of the children live in communities that are engulfed in violence.

    Too many of the students come from dysfunctional homes. Being in a safe environment where children can be deeply engaged in an activity they find fun and fulfilling is huge. But the focus and all of the energy is put towards standardized testing. It is a real shame.


  8. Agreed that it’s a shame, but what can be done about it? And who will step up? We know what brings kids to school and keeps them there as positive influences, and yet we hamstring those programs? I’m a reporter, not an activist, but it pains me to see how we are shooting ourselves in both feet.


  9. The president is the most influential educator in America by his awful leadership when it comes to our educational culture. Culture is what drives education and when our leader agrees with the teachers as bottom line jobs education in our country is in real trouble Obama’s agreement that teachers have to show bottom line results instead of just being good teachers makes teachers no different than hedge fund guys. We are in deep trouble and since Obama agrees with this kind of accountability he is the most influential person on a bad way


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