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The Wisdom of the Non-Rational: Revisiting Parker’s ‘Media Program’ 44 Years Later

2011 workshop revisiting Bill Idol's 1967-78 media program

Bill Idol, 1969

Bill Idol, 1969

It was Mr. Idol back then. In the 1967-68 school year, the Class of ’71 – as 9th graders – took part in Parker’s “Media Program,” which was a multimedia curriculum spearheaded by Bill Idol and taught by Bill and several other faculty members.

In September of 2011, we gathered at the school with Bill (via Skype from New Zealand) to hear stories, see pictures and share our own stories. It became clear that the Media Program had been a memorable experience for many of us.

James Marienthal was our moderator and he shared the story of his music recording company. After the event, James wrote this to Bill:

James Marienthal leads the workshop

James Marienthal

We all felt it was a big success. One, because the skype worked so well, it really felt like you were there with us. But even more so because there was so much open-hearted communication. Many of us connected with each other in ways we never have before, going to deeper levels of conversation than the usual chit chat. Leaving with the question “What are you passionate about?” was perfect. 10 of us went to lunch and kept the conversation going, and then again last night at dinner even more of us connected. It was quite wonderful and amazing to find these feelings of how much we really all care about each other. I want to thank you for bringing me on board for this. It has made my reunion experience exceptional. And thank you again for the wisdom you have shared with us, then and now. It is quite apparent that you have made a positive and memorable impact on many people.

After opening the workshop by sharing some thoughts about the program (see below), we watched Bill’s photos from 1967-68. He had photographed both the students working and the work itself, then saved these images for 44 years. Adding music and spoken word recordings from that era, he put it all together in this slideshow:

Please enter the url to a Vimeo video.

Here are Gardy and Edie’s contributions to the workshop, and Dan Frank’s report:

» Gardy Stern on Bill Idol’s “Propaganda” class

» Edie’s Story (a slideshow that starts with her childhood experience with books, through being a teenage at F. W. Parker School in Chicago, to adulthood and being an author of children’s literature.)

» Parker principal Dan Frank’s letter to the Parker faculty about this workshop

And a couple of articles from the period offer background info:

» Story from the Chicago Daily News on the program (“Media is the Message”) and a description of the program by instructor Mary Briault published in the 1969 Parker Alumni News (“Media Program – What Is It?”)

Bill Idol

Bill Idol

And here’s how Bill described – to his email list – this experience of reuniting with his students after 44 years. These remarks are similar to what he said to begin the workshop:

I’ve just been part of a wonderful reunion with adolescent friends from 44 years ago who were 9th grade students in the 67-68 school year. They were the beneficiaries (or victims) of a curriculum experiment based on Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium Is the Message” and our concerns about academia’s over-emphasis on print. These kids were growing up in a brave new world of technology, and we were not providing the range of skills and experience they would need to cope with the media bombardment already upon them.

Our experiment was called “The Media Program” and remains a high point of my life. Our goal was to give the kids insights and skills across a broad range of media while simultaneously encouraging an extremely high level of self-direction. The former we teachers knew how to do; the latter required stretching ourselves and the kids to make happen.

George and Steve examine a Polaroid photo

George and Steve examine a Polaroid photo

Each month began with a “Stimulus Experience” the kids all shared, and at the end of that month they were each to have created a mediaproject that expressed their response to that experience. Of course the tricky thing for us teachers who were so used to being “experts” was not to continue the old game of “figure out what the teachers want and give it to them.” This was hard for us and for them.

Realizing we had to keep the first experience totally free from any form of correct interpretation, we created a bizarre “happening” which the nine of us put on for those 62 freshmen on their first day of high school. We brought them into the auditorium, explained that what they were about to see was the basis for the projects they would be expected to produce at the month’s end. Some took out their notebooks – these kids came from families who expected a great deal academically from them.
This is part of what they saw.

I walked across the stage pompously reading a passage from Schopenhauer that I never did understand. Upon finishing, I slapped the book shut and handed it to Chauncey Griffith, our distinguished music teacher. He put the book on his head, turned and walked over to the grand piano where the PE head, Greek god Mike McBride, was kneeling underneath and grunting as he struggled to lift the piano with his back. Chauncey plinked the highest key, and Mike collapsed as if defeated. Next shop teacher Steff came across the stage continually trying to bounce a deflated beach ball, and modern dance leader Geri Spillman came the other way blowing bubbles. Through the entire thing a huge ostrich feather hangs spotlighted in the middle of the stage – and no one ever related to it at all.

When we conclude, I say, “Okay, that’s it. See you with your projects at the end of the month.” And these kids just sit there with their mouths hanging open.

While I taught the photography portion of the program, the best thing I got to do was meet with the kids in small groups to help them process what was going on and to support them in taking on the burden of self-direction. I’ll never forget that first small group session.

I say, “So what do you think about your first ‘Stimulus Experience’?

They say, “It was fine/cool/interesting – so what are we supposed to do?”

I say, “Create your response to it in one or both of the media you work in this month.”

They say, “Yeah, yeah – so what are supposed to do?”

I say, “Whatever feels right to you.”

Then things turn a bit hostile.

Bob says, “Stop playing with us, Mr. Idol, and tell us how we’re supposed to do these projects!

I have a sudden inspiration and say, “Okay, Bob, I’ll show you. Go to the door.”

Bob walks to the door of the classroom.

I say, “Well done, Bob – let’s give Bob a hand for his performance.” The rest of the class dutifully applauds with me. Bob returns to the center of the classroom.

Then I say, “Now, Bob – go.”

Bob stays put. “What do you mean – go? Go where? Out into the hall?”

And while Bob stood confused, the rest of the kids got it – the problem was to decide not just how to go, but WHERE to go. Then Bob got it, too, and we were off and running.

Marilyn viewing student projects

Marilyn

So that’s a little bit of what “The Media Program” was, and the class of ’71 made revisiting our shared experience part of their 40th reunion. I was very much looking forward to being with them September 23-25, but I needed to return early to NZ. How lucky I was to have James Marienthal, Rick Ray, Brad Donahue and Sarah Wagoner assist me in being part of the presentation by Skype from NZ! It’s almost as if this was “media karma” as we shared old and deep feelings 10,000 miles and 18 hours apart – it was perfect!

So these musings are really to honor those wonderful people, then in First Age and now in Third Age. In a role-reversal, I created a “project” that contrasted the beauty of these young beings with the horrors of the year we worked together. The pictures were of these delightful 13-14 year olds in all manner of creation, appreciation and interaction. The contrasting the music of Simon & Garfunkel, Joan Baez, Dylan, The Beatles, Leonard Cohen and many more expressed my despair at that time: the Newark and Detroit riots, the My Lai massacre, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, George Wallace’s segregationist candidacy, the Democratic Convention and beating of demonstrators only blocks from our school.

James shared a story about his intuition in leadership of own company, SilverWave Records, read a letter from TV producer Gardy Stern, showed slides from author Edie Patou, and facilitated a beautiful sharing of memories and feeling among his assembled classmates. He sent me this email the next day:

“…We all felt it was a big success. One, because the Skype worked so well, it really felt like you were there with us. But even more so because there was so much open-hearted communication. Many of us connected with each other in ways we never have before, going to deeper levels of conversation than the usual chit-chat. Leaving with the question “What are you passionate about?” was perfect. 10 of us went to lunch and kept the conversation going, and then again last night at dinner even more of us connected. It was quite wonderful and amazing to find these feelings of how much we really all care about each other.”

If some of you reading this are wondering why I’m spending so much time on such a personal experience, I can’t blame you. It was amazingly powerful for me. What I hope is that James’ last line…

“It was quite wonderful and amazing to find these feelings of how much we really all care about each other.”

…inspires us all to remember and reconnect with a few of our oldest companions, too. I’ve found such rediscoveries to be a most fulfilling part of my Third Age.

Love, Bill Idol

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