“It” is what it is.

by danielagins

It was inevitable, I suppose. Today I had to inform my students that I would not be able to participate in an 8th grade tradition I created six years ago. It was painful for me. If you’ve ever had to scrap a favorite unit, one near and dear to you, take that pain and multiply it by the death of your first pet (hamsters and fish, not cats and dogs). That is what I am feeling right now.

For the past six years I have helped my 8th grade students put on a performance that we call “the ‘it’ show.” Essentially, the show is sketch comedy from the adolescent mind. Certainly a terrifying prospect for many, but then again, so is teaching middle school. Those of us that do teach middle school (especially 8th grade) will tell you that it is a magical place that teeters between the youthful innocence of primary grades and the complexity and maturity of high school. When the stars align, and you can find the perfect balance between the two – it is, in my opinion, the best experience in the world. It is a multi-layered never-ending pool of ZPD. The “it” show was the pinnacle of such feats. Imagine taking a large group of 8th grade students (last year we had 70 kids involved in some aspect of the show) and creating a production from the ground up. On day one, usually in the first or second week of March, we have nothing. We are a blank slate. We have no script, no skit ideas, nothing. By the second week of June, we have an hour long show (sometimes longer) written and performed by the students – complete with sets, lights, sound technicians and the works. We also have a shoe string budget, and can only practice on the stage the week of the show, as the stage is also the band room. Essentially the “it” show is DIY culture at its best. The show allows students the opportunity to be creators of content instead of consumers.

The general ethos of the show is one of originality. Themes change every year. No skits can be similar to any from previous years. Simply recreating a popular YouTube video is out of the question. Kids are pushed out of their comfort zones as they perform on stage for an audience of 400 people. Each year I go into a tailspin of panic as the shows draws close, and each year they pull it off – making me exceedingly proud of them. And they are so proud of their accomplishment. Kids who would never sit at the same lunch table are high fiving each other and hugging on stage. It then becomes part of their social curriculum vitae, and it also gets a dose of peer review. The previous 8th grade (current freshmen) come to the show in droves, and there are “it” cast alumni from grades 10, 11, 12, and even a few college kids who were part of the very first show. How is that for community building? The laughter that gets shared in the meetings and the bonds that get built in this setting are addictive to say the least. It allows kids to be awesome. It allows them to take a chance at performing. It allows them to create and solve problems authentically. In short, it is the most meaningful thing I do as their teacher.

And I can’t do it this year.

The show requires hundreds of hours of my time outside of the school day. We meet every weekday in the month of May, until 5pm sometimes. We work on it online on the weekends. I become nonexistent to my wife for about a month. She is begrudgingly cool with it. Last year we had a baby, and my time commitment to “it” shrunk. We are having another baby at the end of April, right when the meetings take off. I am also finishing up a master’s degree. We are also building a house. There is nothing I can do, except turn the show over to the kids. I will not deprive them of the experience. Just because I can’t do it, doesn’t mean that they can’t. I have found colleagues willing to help out (two have daughters in 8th grade, so their commitment to the show is personal). If there ever were a class that would be capable of doing this on their own, this is the class. What kills me is that I won’t be able to do it with them.

(here is a sampling of the 5th “it” show – the theme was time travel, and it was blended video with live on stage action)