Sunday, January 25, 2015

A New Season of Love: Spring 2015 Opening Day Program

One by one, individuals sprung up from different parts of the auditorium, striding toward the makeshift stage. They bellowed from the top of their lungs, struggling to be heard above the buzz of the 400 or so students, staff, teachers, counselors, librarians and administrators waiting for the for the formal beginning of the Opening Day Professional Development Program for Spring 2015 semester, 

At first, the random strollers’ words were unintelligible over the voices of colleagues getting reacquainted, rushing to sign attendance slips proving they deserve credit for showing up, and clambering over each other to get keys for the classes and offices. 

The shouted words slowly  grew more distinct. Each of the fifteen or so interlopers hopped onto the stage, shouting out question, “How do you measure a year?” The lined up along the the mic stands that, now obvious to the rest of us, were waiting for them.  Once the amblers took their positions, they began singing together, I realized that the were singing “Seasons of Love,” the theme song to the 1996 musical Rent, and that the singers were cast members of last semester’s production of the show. 

What a smart and entertaining way to start. The song quieted us us down (the singing was marvelous!) without having someone up ringing a bell or a gong. We were immediately engaged. And, like a great lede of a smart essay, the activity performed a provocative statement about the day’s program, foreshadowing the purpose and content of the proceedings. Simply having students showcase their talents signals what we are here for at our institution: to help students develop their talents and to express their voices. Their voices, front and center, set an important tone. 

Folks alternately singing in unison with moments for soloists to take the floor, echoes with the way our campus community,(when we are at our best!)  harmonizes, allowing for single voice to soar. The chorus creates a backdrop for the individual, unique voice, just as that soloist fortifies the chorus behind and with her. What a beautiful example of how the individual expression often  relies on the voices from which her voice emerges. making her utterances intelligible. The more cohesive we are in our efforts to support students, the better we can facilitate their individual expression. Putting students first means we - staff, counselors, teachers, administrators - must be on key, on the same page.

The lyrics of "Seasons of Love" anticipated another of the opening day’s themes: love. The words suggest we can index the quality of lives in seemingly minor moments: “In daylights, in sunsets / In midnights, in cups of coffee/ In inches, in miles; in laughter, in strife.” This list answers the query the singers posed as they approached the stage, “How do you measure a year in the life?”. The lyrics state that small unit of times add up to a year, that year symbolizing life: “Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes,” And those minutes, if they are worth remembering, are measured in love.  

The keynote for the program, scholar and teacher Jeff Duncan-Andrade, elaborated on the them love. He proposed love is an important antidote for various traumas that may prevent students from learning, from expressing their authentic selves. Certainly. love isn't the cure-all. But, as Duncan-Andrade claims, love, the honest appraisal of our capacity to love, and the cost we pay for being disappointed by love should be at the heart of our profession. As Duncan-Andrade asked rhetorically, “If we aren't in it for love, what are we doing here?

The song also reminded me of what May Angelou said: I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Those moments listed in the song have more to do with feelings, the sort of love  Duncan-Andrade meant when he said, “Students don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” 

Ducnan-Andrade connected all those various threads - the song, my reminiscence of Angelou's quote - when he told an anecdote about Angelou's meeting with Tupac Shakur on the set of Poetic Justice where she showed great care to Tupac, a total stranger to her at that point, even after he rudely rebuffed her several times. 

Duncan-Andrade reminded us that if we are going to show compassion and care to students, some may not know how to react, may even be rude as Tupac initially was to Angelou. That's the risk of love, especially for students - and all people - who may come from disadvantaged backgrounds. We have to be ready to be rebuffed, our attempts to reach students to be stymied. What an important message for teachers as we begin the semester. 

On a different level, the way to program opener "Seasons of Love" threaded the themes of Duncan-Andrade's talk reminds me how important it is to open the semester, and indeed every class, with some sort of activity or teaser. Not simply to entertain. Not only to grab attention. But something that encapsulates or embodies the theme of the semester or day's lesson.

Though I've got business to attend to the first class (add/drops, book lists, and other necessary logistics), I don't want their first impression of the class is me reading the syllabus line by line. 


I want instead to give student an actual taste of the content, a flavor of how they will experience each other and the content.  And something that does somehow link to content and the theme love. 

Simply put, I've got to make my classes "perform" as effective composition do: open with a provocative, meaningful lede that introduces and fortifies the purpose of the piece. The opening day ceremony, with the speaker and the song, provided an apt lede for the entire semester. Spring 2015's season of love!