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Why the Best Teachers Are Famous and Have Famous Friends

Every teacher should have at least one famous friend.  Even if the friend isn't really famous, he should be doing something unique and worthy of acclaim. Fame is not the end goal, but the inspiration, passion and quality of the work is.  

There are blogs after blogs detailing how school systems can beat up teachers, stomp the enthusiasm right out of us, if we let it.  A famous friend outside of education can inspire us to keep dreaming, keep pushing, and keep evolving into a force that will one day flip the field of education right side up.

Woe to the teacher who has no such friend! He is one jaded, stagnant, and miserable soul.  The joy that once set his classroom ablaze is now gone. Perhaps all he needs is a friend—a fabulously famous one, that is.

Let me tell you about one of most famous, famous friends.  She isn't a household name, and she definitely doesn't consider herself famous.  But fame is in the eye of the beholder, and her passion for writing revolutionized the way I ended my writing class last year. 

Paula Yoo and I both worked as journalists for People magazine in the late 90s—she in the Los Angeles bureau and I in New York City.  We had met in person only a couple of times, but we bonded over work-related phone calls about Jennifer Aniston's new hair do and Jennifer Lopez's overly publicized butt.

After several years chasing celebrities at People, we left to pursue higher callings.   She became an award-winning children's book author, as well as a TV writer/producer, even working on NBC's show The West Wing the year it won the Emmy. Having played the violin since she was four, Paula also juggled a music career that had her rocking out with heavy metal bands one night and playing Beethoven in elite orchestras the next.

I took a far different path. I worked at various in newspapers in New York before returned to Chicago to become a stay-at-home mom, then a public school teacher, founder of a nonprofit ministry for teachers, and an award-winning education blogger.

During this past spring break, I spent three days in L.A. visiting Paula (as well as my famous aunt, Dr. Joyce Newman Giger, who runs a university in Long Beach). We stayed up all night talking about her adventures in book publishing and TV writing.  She rekindled my dream of becoming an author of many books—a vision lost but not forgotten in the midst changing diapers, folding laundry, cooking dinner, creating lesson plans, and grading endless grammatically challenged essays.   

Enthralled by Paula's new job as Supervising Producer of Amazon Studio's new Internet streaming show "Mozart in the Jungle," I got an epiphany: I'm going to scrap my plans to teach short story and do a unit on how to write a TV sitcom!

It was a perfect way to engage apathetic students at the end of the year. I had taught flash fiction and speech writing earlier in the year, so now kids could put those skills together—brevity, setting, plot, dialogue, voice—for the most practical of purposes: TV viewing.

CBS' show Everybody Hates Chris was our mentor text. It had everything: hilarious humor; racial stereotypes that could push discussion and enlightenment; the vibrant setting of Brooklyn, New York in the mid to late 80s; well-developed characters played by a consummate comedic cast.

Better still, the protagonist, Chris, was a likeable, normal African American teenage boy—an image practically nonexistent in mainstream media but of high relatablity to my students.    

Everybody Hates Chis was a favorite for half my mostly Latino students. The other half, however, had never watched it.  Viewing clips of the show on YouTube invigorated up my classes.  We pulled scripts of various episodes from the Internet and annotated them like crazy. We analyzed each of the main and supporting characters on graphic organizers.  We built our own plots and subplots that we felt were true to show's intent.  We made sure each main action made the situation worse before things got better.  And at the very end, somebody (usually Chris) would get an unwelcomed surprise.

We dissected the setting, studying the fashion, music, and slang from the 80s, a generation they recognized mostly from a few songs on the Just Dance video gamesWe studied how the show told it's best jokes using techniques we hadn't previously learned like, voiceover narrations and exaggerated flashbacks and flash-forwards. The best part of it all was the dialogue.  

Rochelle, Chris' loudmouth, paranoid, and overreacting mother, and Ms. Morello, Chris' soft-spoken and well-meaning white racist teacher, were the best characters for dialogue.  One group of students wrote a funny scene in which Rochelle and Ms. Morello met for a conference about Chris' alleged gang signs drawings.  Taken out of context, Rochelle's yelling and outrage coupled with Ms. Morello's race-based words of comfort might appear more disturbing than ridiculously funny. Needless to say, my students nailed those two characters!

But kids argued their way through the entire writing process.  I called it "animated collaboration," and at times we had to review how to agree to disagree. This is how I structured the making of one mock episode of Everybody Hates Chris:  

  1. Each student wrote his own story mountain for an episode.
  2. Students shared their plot with their self-selected small group, and then they merged the best parts of each story mountain into one plot for the group.
  3. I called the students into a large circle and read aloud all five or six group story mountain plots. Students voted on which plot they wanted to adopt as their class episode.
  4. For two to three class periods, I facilitated a class discussion in which students refined the class episode, adding in new elements to the episode's main plot, as well as developing a subplot.
  5. Once we broke the episode into 10 to 15 scenes, including flashbacks and flash-forwards, each small group chose two to three of those scenes they wanted to write.
  6. After one to two class periods of scene writing, I stapled each scene together in chronological order and read the whole script aloud to the class. Students noticed inconsistencies in the script and suggested ways their peers could improve the dialogue and plot, as well as ways to make the scenes more cohesive.
  7. Students returned to their groups to make adjustments to their scenes.
  8. We repeated Steps 6 through 7 until we agreed we were ready for publishing.
  9. I took the handwritten scenes home and typed them into a complete script.  
  10. I copied one class set of each episode created by my four writing classes. Each class read all four episodes and voted for their favorite one.
  11. Each class voted their episode the best.
  12. I invited the instructional leader, middle school counselor, and a friend who works in my school's development office to spend one hour listening to a group of students read all four scripts.
  13. By a two-to-one split decision, this episode "Everybody Hates Chris: Poetry" won.

This winning episode was written by an 8th grade class that had eight special education students in it.  This unit made inclusion, scaffolding, and differentiation much easier and intuitive than normal. 

In the unit reflection survey, 95 percent of my students said they loved the TV scriptwriting project. It was student-centered, project- and inquiry-based, highly collaborative and engaging, and tapped into students' imagination, as well as their higher-order thinking skills. 

While the scripts wouldn't win Emmys, the kids learned a great deal about writing techniques and they certainly had fun along the way. This never would have happened without inspiration from my famous friend.

But make no mistake: I am Paula Yoo's famous friend, as well. I'm sure she brags about me all the time to those ritzy Hollywood executives and at those high-flalutin red carpet events.  One day she'll create a TV drama about a sexy but virtuous African American woman who juggles being a wife, a mother of three, and an inner-city teacher who knows her stuff and takes no prisoners. Yeah, she'll come a-calling me.

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