Who Do You Serve?

I’ve shared this story before, but I feel like it deserves to be revisited.

A mother was teaching her daughter how to roast a turkey. In the lesson, the mother removed the drumsticks and wings and re-positioned them in the pan. The daughter asked why she needed to do this. Did it help the turkey cook faster? Did it make the turkey tenderer? “I never really thought about that,” the mother explained “It’s just the way I was taught by your grandmother. We should ask her.” The mother called the grandmother and asked why she dismembered the bird prior to roasting it. The grandmother laughed and explained, “the turkey wouldn’t fit in the pan we owned so I had to cut it up to make it fit.” And so, the family tradition began.

One of my favorite words I’ve learned over the last decade is the word filiopietism, which means an “excessive veneration for tradition.” When I think about the word, my mind always races to the opening song in The Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye sings “TRADITION! TRADITION!”

That’s filiopietism sung in its most artful form.

But filiopietism isn’t just the stuff of religious cultures (or of awesome Broadway musicals). It can describe the blind acceptance of norms or the inability to question established practices. Like the daughters who followed the cooking practices of their grandmother, traditions can unknowingly develop and take root. Some cut apart a turkey before they roast it because that’s what they’ve always did. But is that really the best thing to do? Who knows? It’s tradition! Tradition!

A colleague recently shared a newsletter from Michigan Arts Education Instruction & Assessment (MAEIA). In the newsletter, the author (Heather Vaughan-Southard) asks a simple question: “In your teaching, are you serving the tradition or the people in front of you?” As we approach the ten-month mark of social distancing due to the pandemic in the United States, Vaughan-Southard applies this question to arts education, but I believe it deserves more widespread attention.  In your teaching during these pandemic times, are you serving tradition? Or the students in front of you?

While I’ll let you reflect on that question on your own, I wanted to share an experience that has caused these concepts to burrow into my brain. My son is a student at a high school that moved to remote instruction in early December due to state mandates related to increased COVID infections. Despite these issues, one of my son’s teachers assigned a group project to be completed over the winter break. The project involved my son writing a script and recording a video with five or six other students. The group gathered a few days ago at one student’s house and wore masks as they acted out their parts and recorded their video. When I dropped off my son, I considered the appropriateness of the assignment considering the current pandemic conditions. While I remember my daughter doing a similar assignment five years ago when she had this teacher, was the teacher serving the tradition? Or were they serving the students in front of them? I don’t know.

Just to be clear, I’m not criticizing the teacher’s decision. More than anything, I’m offering a lens for each of us to review our own instructional decisions and to help us identify the decisions guided by tradition and those informed by student-centered perspectives.

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