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‘Hopeful spirit’ fills Catholic school

Peter Howard

The house lights dim, the stage lights up, the music simmers, the curtains open, and multicolored middle school actors of the musical Matilda pop up from behind props. Their 90 minutes of magic has begun.

The last acts of my teaching career have brought me to this place, and to my first real experience with kids 10-14 years old. I have to admit I have it easy here — the kids are fun to work with and the days go by swiftly because there is always so much energy. I feel lucky.

There is something about this age group, these “tweeners,” that is at once predictable and mysterious. For the 10-11’s, there is a burgeoning of new revelations along with new freedoms.

For the 12-14’s there are the conflicting senses of personal responsibility, rebellion, and their first vague yet powerful feelings of love.

Yet there is a part of teaching that requires us to get beyond making generalizations. We must try to discover the core personalities of individual kids. It is in those often intensely protected zones where we might find the keys to unlocking their potentials and to helping them discover where they fit in and what they can hang on to in this unsteady world.

We are very fortunate to have at our school a talented and impassioned music/drama teacher, Janie Villella-Sharon, who has done just that. By double casting, increasing the number of shows, and pestering the principal relentlessly, she somehow managed to lasso over seventy kids to participate in the production of Matilda. She did this despite having no outside funding (we are not a public school, and the Buffalo Diocese is unable to contribute to these ends).

At the show I witnessed a shy and emotionally fragile kid who could hardly walk upstairs just two years ago strut across the stage like he owned it. I saw a girl who has difficulty reading because of visual impairments memorize all her lines and songs to take a leading role. I saw kids with learning disabilities get to their spots on cue. I saw shy kids take bold steps and express themselves in ways I never had thought them capable of. Most of all, I saw a strong and vibrant display of unity and joy.

For the past 20 years America’s education system has seen a decline in students’ performance in math, science, and reading by international standards (see PISA and TIMSS testing results). The knee-jerk reaction has been to put more emphasis on home-growing the next great American engineers by defunding the arts and increasing the amount of standardized testing. By all accounts, the efforts have not been successful, and general, well rounded education has suffered.

What I witnessed throughout the preparation and production of Matilda was education at its best. Janie epitomized all the essential skills of a teacher — modeling, motivating, directing, inspiring, one-to-one instruction and tutoring (along with some healthy yelling!). The kids engaged in memorization, interpretation, physical spacing and maneuvering, timing, collaboration, and emotional expression. It was the quintessence of cooperative learning.

Our House here in Dunkirk is very old and suffers from multiple infrastructure ailments. Some rooms are too hot, some too cold. Our gym is small, as is our budget. But our ceilings are high, and our windows are really large. Most importantly, we have a hopeful spirit that tells us that every time the curtains close, there is a magic cord somewhere backstage that will draw them open again.

Peter Howard, grades five to eight English Language Arts teacher at Northern Chautauqua Catholic School in Dunkirk.

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