Saturday, March 20, 2010

Grease is Really About Change

Lee High School is presenting the stage production of Grease the Musical this week, and when Danny Zuko belts out the lyrics, "I got chills, they're multiplying, and I'm losing control!" its in recognition that he finally wakes up to the fact he must decide between his boys or Sandy Olsson.  Like any red-blooded American teen story, the girl wins out.  If you left it at that, Grease would be nothing more than another teenage tale with a rock-and-roll twist (pun intended).  But the story of Danny and Sandy goes much deeper than that; it's actually a ballad depicting real-life struggle, regardless of whether that life is in the 1950's or the 2010's.

If you've never seen the stage production or movie version of Grease, this may not make sense right away so please bear with me.  Throughout most of the story, Sandy is torn between innocence and achieving something she desperately wants.  That something is Danny, an immature teenage boy, so-called gang-banger of the late 50's, who can't decide if he should continue living for the moment or pursue his dream.  That dream involves Australian-born Sandy so the two become embroiled in a classic coming-of age romantic battle.  In the end, there's a compromise that might be lost to the casual observer in that both wind up having to shed some - but not necessarily all - of their past, because only then are they able to realize their dreams can come true. This metamorphosis happens to be timed in the story with high school graduation, a tradition that anyone can certainly identify with.

Grease was an instant hit when it reached the big screen in 1978 and its popularity defied even the most staunchest critics. It's now considered a cult classic but one can only wonder if it would have been as popular had Sandy and Danny clung to their first impulses.  Not likely.  I can see the alternate ending now: Sandy headed back to Australia after a year as an exchange student, still wearing her pink dress and saddle shoes, wondering if she'll ever meet anyone nice. She winds up an old spinster.  Danny in the meantime ends up leading his T-birds into a life of crime and possibly even prison.  Who knows how their lives would actually end up, but this much we know for sure: they'd spend the rest of their days wondering what it could have been.

If you think I'm some sort of romantic philosopher, you're likely going to miss my point: As I said, Grease is a parallel for real life and so we could just as easily proclaim "Education IS the word."  You see, like Sandy and Danny, we we are finding ourselves at a similar crossroad, where we have to decide whether to continue clinging to a familiar past, or move forward to a new and exciting vision of the future. As in Grease, the past contains that irresistible feeling of innocence along with the comfort of others surrounding us who think and act the same way we do.  The future, on the other hand, is uncertain and unfamiliar, a feeling of discomfort that often accompanies fear of the unknown even when in our heart we know it's right. To move forward unabashedly requires a keen sense of adventure along with a healthy dose of courage.  It certainly was a struggle for Danny and Sandy, and isn't any easier for us.

I like to think that we've already taken a significant step forward. As a district, we've acknowledged that to cling sentimentally to a vision of K-12 education not recognizable by our students is akin to malpractice, and together we've begun to accept that change is inevitable. Many of you are trying out different approaches in the classroom or the lab to integrating the use of digital technology in your lessons.  A number are making your classrooms into more flexible learning spaces where furniture is used as part of the engagement process, not simply for control.  And still even more are attempting to give your students choices in how they learn and how they demonstrate what they learned, maintaining a rigorous expectation of mastery while providing a more supporting environment for your students.  And while our focus is on our students, many of us have come to recognize that social networking can take us beyond our classroom and district borders to engage with other professionals and develop our own personal learning networks.

This is not Rydell High School, and it isn't 1959.  But as we've seen before, life is an endless cycle of conflict resolution and problem solving, both of which involve making choices. A tired old cliche' claims that it's impossible to both have your cake and eat it too, a point that clearly illustrates that hanging on to the old makes it impossible to gain anything new.

In the end, Danny and Sandy each make their choice and together ride off into the future aboard their trusty steed, Greased Lightning. Each gave up an important part of their young lives to date in order to move ahead, together.  Now, isn't that really what continuous improvement is all about?

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