I suppose it was inevitable. When the blurring between reality TV and, you know, actual reality has encompassed things like marriage, parenting and Hugh Hefner, it was only a matter of time until schools offered up their students--and their integrity--for fifteen minutes of fame and $3500 an episode.
Tony Danza--who wasn't even The Boss--appears to be headed for a well-publicized turn as a fake teacher on a reality show based in a public school in Philadelphia. I thought Channel One was bad--and renting a brand-new school in my hometown as movie set for a stoner flick was abominable. This is much worse.
Philly Mayor Michael Nutter is all for it. His rationale? Students might be allowed to serve as production interns, he says-- and such a reality show will make it easier to recruit teachers.
"Teach' represents a unique opportunity to highlight many of our city's dedicated teachers and administrators, and the talented students they serve.''
Well, gosh. If the show were truly going to highlight the city's best bona fide teachers, I'd be all for it. And I'll believe that having high school students work as gofers on a TV set in their own school is a good idea when I see the rigorous national content standards for movie production. My thinking runs along the lines of Philadelphia Daily News' Ronnie Polaneczky who said the idea was:
"...a way to pimp our kids' education to an unemployed sitcom actor who wants to kick-start his stalled career on the backs of students who'll be distracted by cameras and microphones.''
This is actually something I have experience with; I can offer some first-hand insights into how this will likely play out with Tony and the kids in Philadelphia:
Some years ago, I was asked to be a featured teacher in the Annenberg Foundation's video series on teaching, The Learning Classroom. It was a project with an excellent pedigree--the series advisors were highly respected academics, and the mission was sterling: filming teachers at work, hearing how and why they make teaching decisions, integrating theory and practice. My segment was Feelings Count: Emotions and Learning.
I had several conversations with the producer before they came to film. The plan was for the crew to spend five full days in my classroom. Don't worry, she said. You won't even know we're here. I was the one who insisted on notifying parents, and getting release forms signed--a precaution the producer found ridiculous.
I also spent considerable energy devising lessons that would tap into the emotions of volatile middle schoolers to yield richer learning. My seventh grade band was working on Ashokan Farewell, a lovely tune that Ken Burns used throughout his Civil War series, most notably during the heartbreaking letter from Major Sullivan Ballou of the Union army to his wife, Sarah. One of my students--a young man--read excerpts from the letter, and I shared some thoughts about how music helps people through milestone moments in their lives. Students spoke about music played at a grandparent's funeral--or how they found joy and consolation in particular songs. It was a terrific lesson, a nice blend of rich musical content and relevant emotion.
Unfortunately, none of that lesson--or any other bits of creative, solid teaching--ended up in the final segment. At lunchtime on Day One, the producer (who turned my office into her own personal Disgusting Starbucks) had a little problem. She wanted to know when they were going to see some reality. The kids were so good. So polite. Clearly, this was not the way they behaved every day. "I feel like I'm in Mayberry," she said--and she didn't mean that in a nice way. Where, she asked, was the emotion?
I explained that it took months of hard work to build a functioning community of 65 12-year old musicians, to the point where they could express emotion in class. She didn't buy it. She needed to see some conflict--somebody crying would be ideal. On Day Two, the production crew moved from my classroom to the hallway, hoping to catch a fight or a breakup. The producer went to the principal, asking for permission to film all the kids. At a quick after-school staff meeting, permission slips for the entire student body were distributed. I shared my apprehension with the rest of the teachers. Some of them were concerned--but others were hoping for a visit from the camera crew. "You're not the only good teacher in the building, you know," one said. "Some of us would love a chance to be on TV, too."
It was a long week. The worst moment occurred on Friday. One of my 8th graders had been out of school for several weeks, undergoing treatment for testicular cancer. He came back for a quick visit, and was surrounded by friends, trying to figure out what to say to another teenage boy who has a life-threatening illness. As I hugged him, I heard the cameras whirring. They followed him into the band room and filmed his interactions with friends attempting to be cool, and his own struggle to describe his illness without telling them where his cancer was, or what procedures he had undergone.
I would never have interrupted these painful but essential conversations--but I sure as hell did not want them exploited. I told the producer later that we had no release form, so they would have to scrap the film they were salivating over. We did not part on good terms. While I do appear in the video series, none of the things that were important to me were captured or highlighted.
One can only wonder what the producers of a reality show will find compelling. And whose education will be compromised.
Image: ianmc_p @ Flickr Creative Commons