In my new role as instructional coach at the school where I teach, I have the honor of observing my colleagues in action. The other day, a friend asked me what I had seen during a drama class. I could have said that I saw the teacher instruct his students on how to perform a skit. I could have said that I saw students collaborate and perform vignettes about memorable moments from their young lives. What I actually said was, “I saw the birth of a unicorn.”
Everything about that class was magic. There was magic in the way the teacher created space to allow the students to be vulnerable, in the way he gently redirected two boys who had surrendered to a giggling fit, in the authentic applause and loving cheers they gave to each other after every round. A standardized test measures none of these things, but they are worth experiencing nonetheless.
A few students missed that drama class, just as students miss my own. Technology keeps us connected. Absent students send me thoughtful emails asking, “Did I miss anything?” I try my best to describe what we did, sometimes sending lecture notes, sometimes sharing a PowerPoint presentation. But how do you fill in a kid on the birth of a unicorn? An education is also what happens in the spaces between the words. There are lessons between the lessons.
I see the encroachment of technology into education every day. Students and parents check online grades with alarming frequency. Computer lab spaces fill up months in advance. Before too long, technology might look like an attractive replacement for teachers. Computers will allow students to work at their own pace. Computers will individualize instruction and also the assessments that measure that instruction, But computers can’t create the magic. A computer can’t mid-wife a unicorn.
I ‘m lucky. I see wild births almost every day in my new role. Some are unicorns. Some are jackalopes. And some are leprechauns. They’re all magical in their own way. What happens in a classroom, on those days, is nothing short of a miracle. It’s the stuff that legends are made of.
With a Perspective, I’m Steve Hettleman.
Steve Hettleman teaches English at Redwood High School in Larkspur.