I get kidded sometimes about belonging in the 1940s, when people listened to big bands, read long books, and used words like “trousers” and “asunder.” One fellow administrator once explained to a parent why he blogged less than I do by saying: “Bjorn just talks like that.”
It happened again today when I was talking with some fellow principals about a history lesson I’d seen on the Harlem Renaissance. We were discussing the students’ reluctance to dive into a discussion of the topic, and I suggested that it was the academic approach that was slowing the kids down. “They were discussing jazz,” I said to the principals, “and syncopation, and the kids looked lost. If they could have heard a cut of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington’s ‘Drop Me Off in Harlem’ they would have gotten it. That song could have been the synecdoche of the Harlem Renaissance they needed.”
“Did you just say synecdoche?”
“I heard syncopate.”
“Bjorn,” someone offered, “you’re doing what you just were critical of.”
And I guess I was. Sometimes when we get into our heads it’s easy to lose sight of the effectiveness of our communication. Making a point can take a back seat to making a quip, cleverness can replace clarity.
Great teachers guard against this. They know that the best way to reach students is to find the way that both makes material accessible in a language they understand and pushes kids to grow academically.
I saw this later in the day, when I visited an English class and listened to a marvelous English teacher lead her students through “The Long Night of Little Boats.” Adeptly managing antiquated vocabulary, prompting her students with a gentle: “Does anyone know what ‘motley’ means in this context?” she showed me how a strong instructor can help students connect with the material at hand. She didn’t feel the need to be showy, just real, and the students responded with engagement and curiosity.
The next day in a science class I watched a gifted teacher use an online “Alien Juice Bar Lab” to teach acids and bases to a group of 8th graders. With a smile and an engaged approach, she circulated the room, asking questions, laughing with her kids, and using her knowledge of students to inform her language and approach as she made the material accessible to them. No “synecdoche” here, just good teaching and learning.
We can’t unring a bell, and I know I’ll take some syncopated ribbing for my synecdoche line at the next couple of principals’ meetings, but if I could go back in time I’d make my point in a smarter way. “They’d dig jazz,” I’d say, “and understand the Harlem Renaissance even more if we played some Duke Ellington. Academic language is great, but it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”