During the mid-1990s, MTV aired a very popular series entitled “Unplugged.” The premise was to display the natural prowess of musicians in an acoustic setting. Famous artists from the Rolling Stones to LLCool J stripped down their various hits and stadium anthems to its aural essence. It was like seeing a trapeze artist soar in the air without a net. I remember marveling at bands like Nirvana shift their musical paradigm sitting on stools amidst flowers and a cello player as they played hard-hitting tune like “All Apologies” without loud amplifiers and power chords. I garnered a new appreciation for bands like Kiss who placed a pause on Heavy Metal and emphasized harmony and acoustic rhythm guitars. It was inspiring to see Robert Plant and Jimmy Page reunite on “Unplugged” and re-discover their musical canon in a whole new setting. MTV’s “Unplugged” proved to be a good excuse for musicians to demolish their electric walls of their respective comfort zones and embrace a new audio challenge.
What if all schools had the “Unplugged” Mindset? I am not referencing powering down technology? In other words, what if we could strip away the distractions and create a culture where the focus is on the essence of teaching and learning in a positive and inviting school culture? This takes courage, support and leadership. Education sometimes succumbs to being a magnet for misguided initiatives and negative mindsets. The freedom to “unplug” and focus on what is essential is viewed as being an exercise in futility. With the constant and tired given of high-stakes accountability, low educator morale and unfunded mandates, taking giants steps to embrace the Unplugged in Education is easier said than done.
During Paul McCartney’s stint on “Unplugged,” he famously forgot the words to The Beatles’ classic, “We Can Work It Out.” He stopped the song with this wry comment, “Hang on, hang on. I got the words wrong.” At that moment the band gently careened off course, but McCartney’s sincere and amusing transparency saved the day and he simply started the song again with the band. The band carried on and the audience cheered. How was this musical icon able to get away with this? I don’t think simply being a former Beatle gave McCartney a pass. He has been the subject of much critical ridicule and disdain over the year in some cases. (Check out the reviews of his album, “Press to Play to see what I mean.) I believe it was the positive culture that drove a mindset of support and acceptance to flub the pivotal opening of a classic Beatles song.
Imagine that happening in the classroom or schoolhouse as the norm. Envision a school or a district where it is accepted every day to focus on the essential in an atmosphere of professional acceptance. I do not want to take away from the places where this does happen. It is inspiring to hear about the authentic experiences students and educators have thanks to things like STEAM, Mystery Skypes, SketchNotes, Makerspaces, etc. We hear about pockets of this happening in very visceral and valiant ways thanks to educators blogging, tweeting and connecting within the positive neighborhood of a PLN. How might we create a collective culture where it is acceptable to do this without fear as a whole profession of Educators?
Recently, I was reading Mike Schmoker’s latest book entitled Leading with Focus: Elevating the Essentials for School and District Improvement (ASCD, 2016). This book energized me with its clear, call to arms for a collective focus on the essentials in the schoolhouse. Schmoker contends that schools should simply focus on three things and become great at them in a relentless and cooperative fashion. These three things are a coherent curriculum, traditional literacy tasks embedded in every class and effective planned lessons (Schmoker, 2016). Although, these things may not sound like a hip episode of “MTV’s Unplugged,” it is the stripped down journey towards focus that matters most. A compelling focus is refreshing, renewing and necessary. Schmoker makes a convincing argument in this recent book. I highly recommend adding it your reading playlist. The book is truly a great conversation starter on what is essential in Education.
I believe it takes a shared, compelling vision where school administrators and teachers are placing students at the center of that focus for the common good. As a principal, I have to promote, model and encourage that mindset. It is important for me to pause and prevent as many distractions as possible for seeping into the marrow of the schoolhouse. Sometimes, we simply have to tune up and lean into a clear path of focus in a bold, courageous and innovative manner.
These types of fearless steps encouraged Eric Clapton to unveil on “MTV’s Unplugged” his most poignant song. “Tears In Heaven” was written as an elegy to Clapton’s son. His four-year old son had died in a truly tragic accident. The song is unlike anything Eric Clapton had written and it was debuted in a live performance on “MTV’s Unplugged in 1992. The live album of this performance garnered three Grammy Awards for Clapton and it sold over 20 million copies worldwide. Literally, unplugging his electric guitar paid off for Eric Clapton and took his career into another renewed pathway. His courageous performance of “Tears In Heaven” is a healing anthem which still inspires and soothes today.
Being Unplugged in the Schoolhouse is risky, scary and daunting. It demands being fearless and focused within a supportive atmosphere. We can overcome the monoliths of mandates and initiatives if we all encourage each other to embrace being Unplugged in the Schoolhouse. A positive resonance awaits us moving forward within the Schoolhouse.