Tuesday, October 2, 2007

I Need Spirits--Yes, I Do. I Need Spirits--How 'Bout You?

So, umm…I’m wrapped a little tight. I like routine, which is part of what I love about education. I think the comma really, really matters. So things like Homecoming and its preceding Spirit Week can make my eyes twitch. Sometimes Spirit Week made them roll in their sockets. Okay, to be fair, just the left eye…

It took me a few years to understand that Spirit Week is the week when adolescence trumps education, and that’s okay for one week. Theoretically, I’m all for school spirit, pep rallies, big games, parades, and formal dances; it’s just in practice that I get anxious. Early in my teaching career, I thought I could stem the Spirit Week tide, but I soon learned to go along for the ride. One week, right? It’s not like I was SGA sponsor! (God bless SGA sponsors…) Spirit Week winds the student body up like a top, and teachers just need to guide the spin through Friday…

What would Monday of Spirit Week bring? Pajama Day? Hat Day? The variance from normalcy started slowly. I actually liked Pajama Day. Not because I participated, but because teenagers who wear very little clothing on a regular day tended to wear darling, modest flannel p.j. sets, complete with pig tails or sleeping caps and the whole thing smacks of Peter Pan in a way I find charming. Because of my before-mentioned leaning towards tension, I did worry about a fire drill with so many students clad in stuffed animal slippers that didn’t lend themselves to actual locomotion, but I digress…

By Thursday, the pulse of energy amongst the students began to make my own heart palpitate. Thursday was often Mix and Match Day. By then, any students in my classes of disengaged learners who were invested in the school in any way were probably absent due to hallway decoration/float building/dance organization/pep rally preparation or the like. Those of us who remained eyed each other warily. My students dared me to teach a lesson of consequence during Spirit Week. Would I prove such a Spirit Week Scrooge? Mix and Match Day’s disconcerting visual montage exacerbated my anal disposition’s discomfort that the school had wandered from the rigidity I knew and loved. Students neatly braided half their heads but allowed the other half to flow freely. One high heel would be worn while a flip flop slapped alongside it. Jarring color combinations swirled around during hall change. Eventually, I found it easier if I stayed up ludicrously late Thursday night, for total exhaustion would make it easier to ride the surreal wave of Friday…

Ah, Friday of Spirit Week…Students wore the school colors on their…well, on every conceivable surface. Change of class became the center of the day; classes are merely where students must wait for the real action, doled out in four to six minutes of passing time. The bell schedule was modified to allow for the pep rally that would be held at the end of the day. I actually relaxed on Friday. In my sleep-deprived haze, I realized my world of forty-two minute lessons subdivided into six or twelve minute tasks could not exist. No administrators asked about NCLB goals or if my county objectives were on the board. “Thank you for coming in,” they said as they rush by with their walkie-talkies. “Let’s stick together!”

My first high school pep rally as a teacher scared me. Coming in rested, I remained completely aware that we, 172 adults, had grouped approximately 2200 students into one room, which pulsed like a hive and gave off heat from the bleachers in those strange swirly waves like pavement on a highway in August. Then, the band played music, and speakers encouraged the student-bleacher conglomeration to stand, to compete by grade level, to wave…Young girls in tiny outfits (yes, exactly like American Beauty) roused strong feelings in our hormonal crowd. The potential for disaster made my mouth dry. In front of the doors stood twenty or so of us adults, the rest of us peppered around the gymnasium as assigned by a diagram found in our boxes two days earlier…Our front line consisted of six to eight men, most of whom suffered from at least one of the following: bum knee, lumbago, high blood pressure, asthma, or gout.

With experience, I realized that total disaster rarely rages at a pep rally because the students mostly—wait for it—enjoy it! High school consists of a huge social component, and even students who don’t care for school spirit, sports teams, or competitions, certainly enjoy the anarchy Homecoming imposes on the school structure. Students who didn’t necessarily excel in my class might excel at the many venues Spirit Week and Homecoming provide, and because it happened right during school, I got to see and admire it. Heck, a pep rally can make stars out of the band members! I learned to wait a week to cure illiteracy and eradicate lazy thinking. Besides, the week after Spirit Week would be fantastic. Students took at least three days to replenish their stores of energy, and I got a lot done in that time…What kind of spirit does Spirit Week rouse in you?

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

2 comments:

Diane Waff said...

I am no longer teaching English in a high school but I do have fond memories of spirit week. It really contributed to building a stronger sense of community in the school and in the classroom. I always used the time to roll out my most interactive classroom experiences. Since my students met in journals groups as a regular part of their day, I invited them to journal about people’s reactions to their attire both in and outside of school. Since, I often wore dress to match the theme of the day, I too shared my observations of people’s reactions. On hat day, I had a whole collection of comments about my father’s sailor hat. A senior member of the maintenance crew at my school said it reminded him of the years he served on ship during his years in the Navy. He even brought in photos the following day to share. My students had similar stories of people who made connections with them because the hats they wore reminded them of people or events that were significant in their lives.

I recall colleagues who initially viewed Spirit Week as a time to endure, but most changed their reaction over time. Over the years, the number and diversity of school staff participating grew and even if they did not participate they began to comment more favorably. Personally, Spirit Week served as a reminder to me of the need to work daily toward building a classroom climate where the social dimension is nurtured and having fun is not seen as something that is out of line with learning.

Mary Ellen Dakin said...

Kate, you nailed it! There is something both maddening and endearing about the Spirit Weeks and Halloween costume days that makes teaching like never fully growing up -- we are Peter Pans all. I teach in an urban high school where there seems to be little school spirit on a daily basis. Yes, the hallways throb but not with the palpable enthusiasm of these crazy days. And though teaching feels more difficult when half of your students are wearing demonic face paint, I'm usually teaching Macbeth in conjunction with Spirit Week, so few adjustments are needed. In fact, the costumes and face paint seem appropriate!

On a slightly different note, I'd like to share one experience I had that your article reminded me of. It wasn't Spirit Week or Halloween, it was something more surreal: a terrorist drill. In response to 9/11, and in light of the fact that our school is situated less than two miles from a major international airport, the local police requested that we allow them to conduct a hostage drill. Somehow, with no input from me or my students, my classroom was chosen as the hostage-taking site. I gulped and talked to the group of students who would be meeting in my classroom at the appointed time of "the takeover." They thought this would be great fun, and in fact it sort of was because the "terrorist" arrived early (though a member of the local police force, he was dressed in casual clothing and looked like a regular, nice guy). So I handed him an extra copy of Hamlet, told him to open to Act 1.3, and we continued our dramatic reading with our guest seated at the back of the classroom. When his walkie-talkie started to crackle, he stood up, announced himself as an intruder, and asked for a student to volunteer as his "hostage." Almost every hand went up -- I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. He chose my best dramatic reader, a street-smart young man with a pony tail and tattooed arms, and used his fingers as a mock-revolver pointed at the head of his "victim." What was make-believe, what was real? At this point, the line between the two was blurred as it had never been when we read dramatic literature.

I learned a) to make it clear to my principal that he should never again volunteer me for such events, and b) that role-playing is a powerful thing. I had known that, but almost needed to see it in a new context to know it again.

So here's to Spirit Weeks, Halloween costume contests, and role-playing (minus the local police). Mary Ellen