Teaching like Questlove

Quest Love is my favorite drummer. Truthfully, I don’t know a lot about drummers, and I don’t really love his drumming. I don’t even know enough about drumming to love anyone’s drumming. I do like The Roots and I love watching them on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. What makes him my favorite drummer, though, is that he does so much besides drumming.

I’m pretty sure he’s a genius and every time I’ve heard him talk, I get excited to hear what he says. He is a renaissance man, a story teller, who makes things that are foreign to me sound natural, so accessibly cerebral, so meaningful and reflective. Plus his stories include lots of amazing people, like Bruce Springsteen, Prince, even Barack Obama, which make them more fun. I don’t have to be a music historian to appreciate his musical acumen.

His latest story that captured my imagination also allowed me to do one of my favorite things – analogize something seemingly unrelated to education to teaching. During the second part of his interview on the podcast “Broken Record” with Malcolm Gladwell and Rick Rubin, Questlove told the story of what was meant to be his greatest DJ gig ever – the final party at the White House for Barack Obama.

After nailing a recent gig, connecting songs in his cerebral manner, DJ-ing for six hours in central park for the Hamilton Afterparty for the Tony Awards, he did it all. He nailed it and the crowd loved him for it. Two days later he DJ-ed President Obama’s last night in the White House party. Trying to recreate perfection from the two nights before didn’t happen. The president tells him, “You’re doing a good job. I love the Donna Summer, the old school hip hop and the jazz, but look at them, they want to have fun too,” pointing at his children who were clearly not enjoying his perfectly orchestrated set.

Questlove did not. He describes becoming the DJ he hates, looking up anything and everything to appease the crowd. Requests poured in, including those that made Questlove cringe at the thought of playing those songs in the White House. Yet stories are still being told about that night.

“They considered it the best night in their lives.”

“I had planned to make my grand statement. They were going to declare a national holiday after me, because I am the feng shui DJ… I knew I was going to get a MacArthur Genius Grant for this.” As Questlove goes into a panic attack, because the party had deteriorated in his mind from his high expectations, everyone else is ecstatic about it’s success.

Later, President Obama explains to him:

“You’re like an artist and you planned your grand artistic vision for how you thought the night should go. And it didn’t work out, and you’re overthinking it. You’re thinking, I sucked.”

He then tells the story about his Dillon Roof speech after the Charleston shooting, realizing that the perfect speech he had written wasn’t working. So he goes off script, sings “Amazing Grace,” and everything turned around. “You know what I did, I served the people. I served the people. I saw that something was wrong. I figured how can I fix this. I took a moment. I breathed. Collected myself and I served the people. What you did tonight…

You served the people. We had the time of our lives. You should be proud of yourself.

Now, do you feel better?”

“No, I don’t.”

A wonderfully imperfect ending to a wonderful story about imperfection. What resonated most with me is that feeling of creating something magnificent only to be let down by reality. Teachers plan tirelessly to create learning experiences that go above and beyond their student’s expectations. Sometimes, however, they fall flat.

We think, this is my magnum opus. I am going to teach life lessons today. I am going to create an experience that is unforgettable. My students will remember this lesson, this day, for the rest of their lives. (As a former elementary teacher, the idea that my students will remember anything I said to them is beyond wishful thinking.) Magnum opus it is not.

The truth is that those lessons usually go well. The students learn something important, though they might not remember anything about when or where they learned that life skill you passed along to them. But they don’t go as planned. The kids might arrive late from art class and you have to revise your introduction on the fly. The ink from a pen burst during the previous writing lesson, so you have to coordinate cleanup while you set up the materials for your beautiful-mind-worthy lesson. You make your adjustment, you move on to the critical points, and the kids get to learn some valuable skill or concept.

Do you feel better? Nope.

Teaching often feels like that. But every once in a while, you get to feel like Questlove at the Hamilton Afterparty. Students glow as they move through the activities you planned. Other teachers stop you in the hallway to ask about this lesson they heard about from a student at recess. Parents send you emails about the conversation they had on the car ride home with their child. The energy you receive from one of those gives you the energy to keep seeking out another. But most of the time, we serve the people. We adjust to the kids we serve. We make changes on the fly to give students what they need. And, sometimes, those revisions lead to what later becomes a magnum opus lesson. We find an unexpected gem and use it in our teaching for the next 10 years.


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