Was school inspiring today? | VailDaily.com

Was school inspiring today?

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
Kristin Anderson/Vail DailyMinturn Middle School Principal Toni Boush, right, and master teacher Chris Mayhew answer questions Tuesday during a Teacher Advancement Program training session at the Vail Cascade.

VAIL ” How would you rate Robin Williams as a teacher?

Or, at least Robin Williams as John Keating, the Walt Whitman loving, Henry David Thoreau quoting English teacher in the 1989 movie “Dead Poets Society.”

The movie is filled with memorable classroom scenes in which Keating inspires bored looking teens at a stiff and traditional prep school to love poetry, think for themselves and seize the day ” “Carpe Diem!” as it’s repeated in the movie.

What if this unorthodox but effective educator were a teacher in Eagle County School District. How would his motivational skills hold up to the scrutiny of the Teacher Advancement Program, known as TAP, which puts teachers through frequent evaluations to better their performance?

As part of a weeklong training institute for TAP at the Vail Cascade, several teachers and principals actually did evaluate one of Keating’s movie scene lessons much like they routinely do with their own teachers.

The quick activity was one of many ways teachers are smoothing out the stressful and often debated evaluation process which helps determine how well a teacher is performing and how much a teacher gets paid.

“The most important component in a quality education is the teacher,” said Traci Wodlinger, TAP coordinator.

Since TAP started, some teachers have been skeptical about the frequent evaluations and tying their performance to pay. Other teachers love it, enjoy being paid more and believe it gives struggling teachers something to strive toward.

It can be pretty intense around evaluation time though, when even the most confident teachers become stressed. After all, pay is largely based on how teachers perform on these evaluations, and the district wants to ensure that they’re being done fairly and consistently among all the schools, officials say.

“It’s a rigorous process,” said Liz Qualman, the secondary instruction coach for the district. “You can’t evaluate a teacher on how you feel. You have to be very specific with evidence whether they are meeting the criteria.”

That’s where viewing classroom lessons as a group becomes helpful, even if it’s a scene from “Dead Poets Society.” During this training session, principals and mentor and master teachers, who do all the evaluations in a school, watched a handful of taped lessons together and discussed with other teachers how they would have rated them.

This helps give teachers the same knowledge base and creates consistency throughout the schools, Qualman said.

“We have to make sure they are being evaluated in a way that works with the pay-for-performance system,” Qualman said.

To become certified to evaluate other teachers, a mentor or master teacher has to fill out a full evaluation for videotaped lessons, and the scores must match national standards.

Let’s put “Dead Poets Society” under a microscope, just like the teachers did. At the training, they were looking specifically for how well the Robin Williams character motivated his students.

Williams asks a student to read the stale introduction to their poetry anthology. It’s an essay titled “Understanding Poetry” that teaches students how to rate a poem based on its perfection and importance and how to plot these qualities on a graph. It was obviously written by an academic, a J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D., to be exact.

“Excrement,” is his response to this mathematical and soulless approach to poetry. He tells his class to rip the page out, then he tells them to rip the entire introduction out. After a moment of disbelief and hesitation, the entire class is ripping out the introduction to their poetry books.

He ends this frenzy of ripping in a huddle with the students, and says, “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion.”

So why did this work? First, look at the demographics ” upper class, white, teenage boys. What would excite them?

“Challenging authority,” one teacher calls out. And that’s exactly what he did.

Was it gimmicky? Sure, but who doesn’t use gimmicks from time to time in class?

It got them out of their desks. It tapped into their fears. From the word “excrement” on, the teacher has their full attention. You can guarantee the kids will talk about that lesson after class. He somehow made a dead man’s poetry relevant.

So, did Robin Williams do a good job of motivating the students? The teachers thought so. They’re on the same page.

Staff writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.

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