Channeling Springsteen: Teachers As Performers : NPR Ed The importance of a teacher's presence in the classroom has long been debated. Our 50 Great Teachers project asks: Does does a teacher's performance distract, or does it inspire?
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Channeling Springsteen: Teachers As Performers

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Channeling Springsteen: Teachers As Performers

Channeling Springsteen: Teachers As Performers

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Good teachers need to know a lot about their students and about child development and, of course, a lot about the subjects they're teaching. But should they also know how to work an audience - went to ramp up the energy like a rock star and when to rein it in? That's the question today for the NPR ed. team. Do teachers need to be performers? For our 50 Great Teachers Project, Gabrielle Emanuel filed this report.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: Amanda Siepiola is a second-grade teacher at Horace Mann Elementary School in Washington, D.C. When she steps into her classroom, she channels two role models.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN TO RUN")

AMANDA SIEPIOLA: This might be kind of silly, but I'm a big Bruce Springsteen fan. And when I go to his concerts, I end up leaving and saying, I want to teach like him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN TO RUN")

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) 'Cause tramps like us - baby, we were born to run.

EMANUEL: The other role model is Siepiola's own English teacher from the 1990s at Clinton High School in upstate New York, Ms. Hepburn.

SIEPIOLA: She was a performer, where she was on all the time. And that made me want to stay in that chair and be there for that whole 40-something minutes - whatever the class period was.

EMANUEL: Siepiola is naturally quiet and reserved, but in the classroom, she amps up her enthusiasm, mixing the energy of Springsteen and the drama of Ms. Hepburn.

SIEPIOLA: And you are going to shop around and see what makes you feel excited.

EMANUEL: This morning, her second-grade students are learning to browse the classroom books.

SIEPIOLA: See what makes your heart race a little bit, your face get a little hot. Which book adventures do want to go on? Do you have something to add on? You look real excited.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I know what it means by lost in a book.

SIEPIOLA: At those times, I really feel like, well, I'm performing now. But it's also myself. I would be that silly anyway.

EMANUEL: She swears this energy makes her students more engaged and motivated. I spoke to a lot of teachers for this story, and all of them said, they feel like they're performing. But here's a funny thing. This isn't something you'll find in a typical ed. school curriculum. It's rarely taught.

SIEPIOLA: I don't think I have ever learned any techniques in any kind of formal way.

EMANUEL: In other words, a basic element of a teacher's job - the very way in which they impart information - may not be a part of their training. Now, maybe that's not a surprise to anyone who's ever struggled to stay awake through a droning 90-minute lecture, but it raises a question. How much performance, how much pizzazz does a teacher need? For answers, let's go to the movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF")

BEN STEIN: (As Economics Teacher) In 1930, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the - anyone? - anyone? - Great Depression...

EMANUEL: Ben Stein in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" is probably the most boring teacher in movie history. At the other end of the spectrum, more in the Springsteen, Ms. Hepburn category...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEAD POETS SOCIETY")

ROBIN WILLIAMS: (As John Keating) Why do I stand up? Anybody?

GALE HANSEN: (As Charlie Dalton) To feel taller.

WILLIAMS: (As John Keating) No. Thank you for playing, Mr. Dalton.

(LAUGHTER)

EMANUEL: The late Robin Williams leapt onto his desk in the 1989 film "Dead Poets Society." For many, this prep school teacher has become a model of educational inspiration.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEAD POETS SOCIETY")

WILLIAMS: (As John Keating) I stand up on my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.

EMANUEL: He invites all the students up to take turns standing on his desk.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEAD POETS SOCIETY")

WILLIAMS: (As John Keating) Now, when you read, don't just consider what the author thinks. Consider what you think.

EMANUEL: He's excited. He's passionate. He's theatrical - all the things a great teacher should be, right? Well, Bruce Lenthall says, maybe not. He runs the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Pennsylvania, and he says, some teachers bristle at the idea.

BRUCE LENTHALL: Remember that's not what they've signed on for and that can, in fact, be alienating to them because they say, but I'm here to convey my ideas. I don't need to get into this stuff that seems ephemeral.

EMANUEL: Sure, but what if they're really boring?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF")

STEIN: (As Economics Teacher) Anyone? Anyone?

EMANUEL: Lenthall says, that's not his primary concern. He's worried about what the students are learning, and he argues entertaining doesn't equal learning.

LENTHALL: There's not a clear relationship between whether students enjoy paying attention to a lecture and whether they learn from the experience.

EMANUEL: So it's more complicated than Ben Stein versus Robin Williams. Lenthall and others say, it's not supposed to be about the teachers. It's about the students. They're the ones who should be fired up. The teacher's role? To guide, to encourage, to prod along - and that doesn't necessarily mean standing on the desk or playing the guitar. This model is called active learning. It's a popular idea that largely rejects the lecture. Instead of sitting quietly in the audience, the students experience the magic of discovering information themselves and exploring ideas.

LENTHALL: That's where a lot of the push is going on right now in educational theory.

EMANUEL: Of course, Lenthall doesn't think teachers should be boring. But he also doesn't think lectures are the way to go. In many ways, the performance question has gotten caught up in this fight between active learning and lecturing.

ROBERT LUE: We assume that performance only relates to lecture, only relates to the passive delivery. And thus, it should be discarded along with the lecture.

EMANUEL: Robert Lue is at Harvard Center for Teaching and Learning. He's a big fan of honing a teacher's performance gene, and he says, the absolute best active learning teachers have it, too.

LUE: And you look at these faculty faculty members, and you watch them. Oh, boy, they're performers. They are performers. I mean, you have to be, and our failure to recognize that is a problem.

EMANUEL: But maybe there's another factor here, too. "Dead Poets Society" showed us it's not just a question of which method imparts more facts or produces the highest test scores.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEAD POETS SOCIETY")

ETHAN HAWKE: (As Todd Anderson) Captain, my captain.

EMANUEL: What about a teacher's ability to inspire? Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR News.

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