May 2015 Teacher Feature: Dr. Mike Scott
8:45 am, 11th grade students shuffle into their Social Studies class and seem to be in a surprisingly good mood – for teenagers. Dr. Scott exchanges a few good-humored jokes with his students, throwing his voice into comedic impressions, purposefully looking for laughs. His students oblige and are comfortable enough to “jab” him back with a few of their own creative responses.
This is Dr. Scott’s first year as a Social Studies teacher, but 17th year teaching in Morrisville High. Like many other districts across the country, budget cuts eliminated the incredible music and performance arts department that he worked very hard to establish for the students of Morrisville, PA. Not too long ago, music from an award winning Jazz Band and Marching Band filled the halls of the schools and the streets of the city. Dr. Scott wrote and directed several plays that brought enrichment to education and an appreciation for the arts throughout the district. The parents and kids of this blue-collar town felt a strong sense of pride as they watched several of their own leave for college to pursue careers in music and the arts. Today, the halls are a little quieter, but the dreams are still big and the enthusiasm for the arts is still quite prevalent in the teaching style of Dr. Scott.
A picture of Rosa Parks is projected on the front wall.
“Tyler, would you have a problem if I asked you to get out of your seat so I can sit down?” Dr. Scott asks his 11th grade student, sitting in a seat towards the front of the room. “I’m tired, my back hurts, I’ve been standing all day.” Everyone looks at each other, exchanging smiles since it is not even 9am.
“Nope, I don’t have a problem with that, you can have my seat.” Tyler goes to move but Dr. Scott stops him.
“Thank you Tyler, but the reason you have no problem giving your seat to me is because of this great lady right here.” Dr. Scott points to Ms. Parks.
And so the lesson on racial tensions in the 1950s and 1960s begins. Dr. Scott describes the events in such detail that the students can easily imagine the frustrations and injustices that so many people suffered for so many years. The murders of young black men for no other reason but looking the direction of a white woman, some as young as 16 years! The lack of legal support and an imbalanced justice system sent many innocent black men, women and children to jail. The segregation of schools, restaurants and of course, busses took its toll and one day, one small, frail, sweet woman decided she would do her small part to end it.
“Would you go to jail, or give up your seat?” Dr. Scott poses the question, then pauses. “Defend your answer.” The classroom comes to life with pertinent chatter and the majority of students agree the law was wrong but they would not go to jail over a seat on a bus. A new found respect grows for the woman who did allow herself to get arrested, who did go to jail in the hopes that many people would see the injustice of the oppressive laws. One person did take notice.
A picture of Martin Luther King Jr. takes the place of Rosa Parks. The confident smiles and chatter in classroom reveals how familiar his students are with this great man.
“Hey, Dr. Scott, we know him, that is the King Jr.” A few students exchange stories told by their own parents and grandparents. Dr. Scott (enjoys story-telling) joins in now and again, adding comments, encouraging even the shyest students to contribute. He acknowledges the great changes that would come about because of the non-violent acts and powerful influence of Martin Luther King Jr.
“Can someone tell me what is happening in Baltimore right now.” Bam! Dr. Scott is about to make this topic very real to his students by connecting current events.
Comments fill the classroom:
“The city is burning.”
“People throwing rocks through the windows of the businesses and stealing.”
“They are throwing bottles and rocks at police.”
“It is scary there.”
“Why are they doing this?” Dr. Scott directs the question to the whole class.
Comments are taken from random students.
“People are mad at the police.”
“The police are not being charged for killing black people.”
“It’s not fair.”
That seemed to be the comment Dr. Scott was looking for, so it is repeated.
“It’s not fair? Well, if something is not fair, is throwing a brick through a window going to change things to make it fair? Will being violent, makes things better? Think about this, if you were a business owner, would you want to start a business in Baltimore?” Dr. Scott pauses for the thoughts to spin around in their heads and adds that level of critical thinking, “Defend your answer.”
The students discuss the events in Baltimore and naturally make the comparison to the non-violent protest marches of the 60s. This leads to information on the bus boycotts and how people had to walk to work, sometimes 5 miles, everyday for over a year. The establishment of CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality), The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee were the organizations that greatly influenced legal reform in the country…a quiz question for next week! Dr. Scott continued to weave from current events to the content he was delivering, making it real and relevant for his students while keeping things light with appropriate wit. Dr. Scott’s teaching style is a gift infused with theatrics and humor.
When I asked why it was so important to use humor with his students he responded, “Because it works better than sad stories and tragedies. I’ve tried both and using laughter almost always gets me better results than depressing stories.”
As the lesson continues, he encourages his students to examine their own lives and how individuals need each other to make changes. Martin Luther King Jr.’s non-violent approach was not an original idea. He understood how powerful non-violent protests could be, by learning about Ghandi. He also needed someone to spark the movement, someone unassuming but powerful to be the poster for injustice, like Rosa Parks.
Dr. Scott proposed one last question to his students before the bell rang. “We have all agreed that violence does not solve our issues, but everyday our teachers break up some stupid fight in the cafeteria. It might be easy to sit here in a safe classroom and say you would never resort to violence. Is it different when you are angry and have an opportunity to cause harm? What will you do next time you are faced with an issue? How can you better channel the anger into progress?”
The classroom discussion revolves around student choices, anger and frustrations of not just cultural injustices but less complex and more real confrontations that happen in school. Trying to understand the social skills needed to resolve issues today by what they have learned about the vast injustices of the 60s.
Creating connections comes effortlessly to Dr. Scott but are intended to have a much deeper impact:
“I try to relate what they are learning to what they are living. If they see examples of success beyond sports stars and other celebrities – more realistic examples, they may accept more realistic options.”
Just before the bell rings, Dr. Scott ends class with one final thought for his students. “You are not going to like certain things in life but that doesn’t mean things have to stay that way. You be the activists. Be brave enough to be the change.”
Before I left the observation, I asked what his hope was for his students who will very shortly become working adults and active members of the community.
“I am hoping that they have the tools they need to be successful when they graduate. We get caught up in giving facts and information sometimes. It’s important to make sure that they learn how to learn. That way when they get out of school and into their chosen fields, they have more tools to use, more experiences to draw from and methods of solving problems and as a result, more choices.”
Dr. Scott has been an avid musician since the time he was a child. Playing the saxophone from the age of 8 and picking up incredible skills with the guitar and piano without ever having a lesson. Music and performing arts is in his blood and he has shared his love of music and theatre with hundreds of students throughout his teaching years. Currently, he plays the sax in a blues band called The Mojo Gypsies and enjoys teaching his two sons how to play several different instruments (saxophone, piano, guitar, drums). He is a shining example of the creative, resilient and passionate activist that equips our students with the tools for success in the 21st century. I am fairly sure Dr. Scott hadn’t planned to teach Social Studies at this point in his career, but watching him bring the past to life in such a theatrical manner convinces me that he is exactly where he needs to be.
Bravo, Dr. Scott! Act 2 seems to be working out well for you!
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