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Does Everyone Get to Be on Stage in Student Performances?

Back when outcomes-based education was the Next Big Thing, a meme got passed around teachers' lounges and internet bulletin boards: Outcomes-based Basketball.  OBB (yes, a satire) declared every player, no matter their skill level, a winner. No scores were kept, everyone got a trophy, and the better players--when they weren't sitting on the bench while lesser players got an equal turn--helped coach, sharing skills and tips, so everyone could feel good about themselves.

Of course, the folks sharing this were usually outraged about something: We need to recognize and nurture our best and brightest! Public education is dumbing our kids down! No more participation trophies! No more self-esteem baloney! Bring back competition! (As if it ever went away.)

As a teacher, I found this phony righteousness beyond irritating. Basketball necessarily has a different value structure than the daily work done in schools. Everyone understands it is a competition. The kids who choose to play go in knowing that only the best players (in the coach's judgment) will be selected, and the purpose of games is winning.

There are lots of valuable, beneficial lessons along the way--sportsmanship, strategy, loyalty and even kindness and generosity, if the coaching is good. But in the end, it's about getting the highest score.  And--key point--it's voluntary. Trying out for the team is a choice.

I thought about the farcical Outcomes-based Basketball when I read this disheartening story: Dad upset after autistic boy cut from school concert.

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. -- Zander Miota, an 8-year-old student at Northview Elementary in Howards Grove, attended all the practices leading up to the school's spring concert and excitedly talked about the upcoming performance with his parents. But after the final rehearsal, he came home with a note alerting the family of the school's decision to not allow him to participate. 

Why?

Because Zander's autism caused him to be "overstimulated" and "disruptive" during practices.

Zander's dad poured out his heartbreak and anger on social media, and pretty soon we had a bona fide news story, although this kind of thing happens all the time in schools--somebody gets cut, shut out of an opportunity to be "on stage" in a school-sponsored event.

Nearly all the commentary (lots and lots of it) was divided into two camps:

  • Outrageous! Poor kid! Terrible music teacher, school leaders and (why not) the whole district!
  • Hey, if this kid's going to act out, it will ruin the show for the other kids and their families. Just say no.

As a 30-year music teacher, I would be the first to say that the general public--read: hostile commenters-- has NO idea of what the right thing to do is, in this instance. Until you've been in a music classroom with a severely disruptive child, day in and day out, you can't blithely pass judgment on the best way to handle public outbursts, even if your empathy button gets pushed.

It seems to me that perhaps a few steps which may have been helpful were skipped. Not making a decision among school staff first, then sending a note home to mom and dad, for instance.  The most dodgy part of the story: when thing blew up in the press, and the superintendent got involved, he claimed that the child "wanted" to stay home. Which is not evidence of genuine leadership.

The larger question is just who deserves a fair shake here--the cooperative many or the unruly few? The fact that Zander is diagnosed with a medically definable condition is also a big factor. Is it possible that everyone on stage and in the audience can learn from a child with behavior tics--if that child loves music and wants to participate?

Teachers are not always good at deciding who gets the spotlight and who is benched (or forced to stay home) when trying to present their best face to the public. Often, students rise to a special occasion. A backup plan can be put in place in case a child becomes over-stimulated (which happens to kids who are not diagnosed as well). Can what's best for Zander also be good for his classmates, as they learn about getting along and making music--a community activity? Could this be a teachable moment?

Here are the questions I wrestled with for all 30 years of teaching music: What's the real purpose of this concert, festival of show? To impress, to showcase learning, to compete against musical standards? Was it ever good enough to say we had fun and learned something--even if we missed the highest levels of performance?

Did I have an outcomes-based music program, where everyone got recognition and a real opportunity to participate, even those whose talent was a tiny flame, rather than a brilliant starburst? Did I embrace the kids with issues--everything from hearing impairment to significant learning disabilities--that might impact the overall quality of a performance? 

I hope I did.

These questions also apply to school and learning in general. We used to believe, in the home of the brave, that everyone was welcome in our public schools. We take them all, and do our best. Lately, we've seen more (publicly-funded) schools where outlier kids (and there are lots of them) get rejected, their learning limited and their prospects truncated.

I don't want to think that's who we are now. What do you think?

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