06/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Rose's Rockettes

From Joys of Teaching: They Touched My Life, 2009, Amazon.

In my second year I had a terrific bunch. There were six gifted children in my sixth grade class who became my teaching assistants. Melinda of the straight A's was one of them. I found that if I taught them the concept or skill first, then they were excellent intermediaries. It is the basis of what is known as "peer teaching."

Actually, it is a step approach. Sometimes the intellectual and explanatory distance between a teacher and the middle and slower students is almost unbridgeable by many teachers. By first explaining it to a small cadre of students who are closer to their peers in understanding, they can communicate the idea or skill more easily.

During this era in L.A. (early sixties), there was fierce competition between sixth grade teachers in what was the year-end culmination of their social studies units. All the academics were supposed to flow from and be integrated with these units. They were similar to the presently popular "thematic units." Educators constantly rediscover the same old things. Teachers were allowed to be creative and the fanatic focus on the basics was relaxed as children were encouraged to sing, dance, perform skits and plays, and draw murals.

I cannot sing well. I'm a good dancer, but not a knowledgeable square dancer or one familiar with the dances of many Latin countries. I took my gifted six and let them listen to the music I'd managed to scavenge and their task was to come up with songs and dances. Actually, there were directions on the albums, but I could not figure out the easy instructions.

During every lunch they would listen to the music of a country and pick a few songs and dances they liked. Once they had come up with a dance and were struggling with the choreography, I'd be called in. They had done the hard part of getting the rhythm and a pattern and then I would come in and shape it into a show-stopper.

We'd work all the bugs out during a few lunch periods. Finally, I'd bring in the rest of the class who would watch the super six perform. Then, each of the six would take a group of five and teach the dance or song to them. The rest of the children were average to slow and some of them had a hard time learning some of the patterns and steps I had added to make it look more professional.

The scintillating six made it possible for me to create a program that lasted an hour and a half. For sheer quantity, we had the culmination to end all culminations. But, it was not just quantity; it was quality. After each set of dances and songs from a South American country, a piece of the map was added to the wall. When the last dance, song, report, and skit were done, there on the wall to the right of the stage was a gigantic map of South America. It was impressive!

The afternoon of the performance there must have been close to three or four hundred people in the audience. I was very nervous, but the children didn't notice anything except how cool and calm I was.Before we marched into the auditorium, I gave them a little pep talk.

"Listen, guys (I was a male chauvinist, too), I know you're nervous and afraid that you'll make some mistake and embarrass yourself and the class. Two things to remember! First, it's your parents and friends in the audience and they love you, so you can do no wrong.

"Second, and this should make you feel good -- they have never heard these songs or seen these dances, because I got the albums this year. Since they don't know what to expect, if or when you make a mistake, they'll think it is part of the song or dance. If someone else makes a mistake, don't look at him and shake your head; that'll only make it worse. Just concentrate on doing your own part correctly.

"Oh, one more thing. In rehearsals I have seen every one of you execute your part perfectly at least once, so I know you can do it. Believe in yourself. Finally, I guess that's four things (they laughed nervously). I am so proud of each and every one of you that I'm about to burst my buttons in pride." I was getting choked up. "Now, go out there and break a leg! That's show biz talk for, 'Do Good'."

They lined up quietly and marched out of the building and into the auditorium. I followed, but as they went up the aisle and lined up for the first dance, I left them on their own and sat in the last row.

They had three circles of six on the stage and three circles in the area between the stage and audience. The audience quieted as the boy running the phonograph player turned it on and searched for the proper record. The class and the audience were silent. Very slowly, he walked away from the player, down the stairs, up the aisle, and stopped to say, "Mr.Rose, I think I left that record in the room."

Calmly, but with my heart in my throat, I replied. "It's alright, it's no big deal. Here's the key, get the record. But, run."

He tore out the door as the audience stared at me. I smiled as if it was all part of some planned test of our responsibility. It took about three minutes for him to get the record, place it on the player, and for the class to begin the dance. The audience had been courteous, but there had been a low buzz of conversation. However, the thirty-six students had stood like stone pillars; none of them had moved a muscle.Later, many of the parents told me that their poise had been astonishing. The best was yet to come.

It happened during a dance in which they were lined up in three rows of twelve. They did one of the turns correctly. The first row was to turn, the second, and then the third. It was almost flawless as each child moved with the other twelve in his row. The second time they were to make the same movement, the child at the beginning of the first row, first column, moved a fraction of a note earlier. But, the two behind him turned too; then the next column, then the next, right down the line until the last three. It moved like a colorful wave and the audience gasped at its timing and beauty.

I shook my head thinking that we could have practiced for years and never have gotten it so perfect. They were as exciting as the Rockettes. I still get teary-eyed thinking of that moment. No man could be more blessed. Move over, Steven Spielberg!

That was the highlight; but the entire show proved that by interacting with children (rather than imposing things on them) and by letting them take the responsibility for their lives, they could create something educational and meaningful. I think every one of those children had an experience that they have spoken of as one of the most memorable from their school days.
It was hard work and I couldn't do it now because of the energy necessary, but I remember vividly sitting there, teary-eyed and overwhelmed at what they had done. Except for giving the boy the room key, I never moved nor helped them during the entire performance.

This class was the beginning of what I now call the Self-Sustaining Classroom. (See The Complete Teacher, 2009.)