Plot Twist

By Brett Schaeffer — April 01, 2002 22 min read
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src="/legacymedia/tm/gallery/vrbr.gif” width="1" height="150" align="left” /> Once a rock musician, Michael Flynn is now a 5th grade teacher whose kids read The Inferno and visit cemeteries. In December, however, he may have pushed his class too far.

The teacher steps over to the CD boombox, hits play, and nods his head as the unmistakable opening guitar riff of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” sails through the air. Zabdi Sanchez, one of 30 5th graders in the class, dances to the tune while erasing the chalkboard. Her fellow students giggle as she hams it up, shimmying back and forth across the front of the room.

This is rock ‘n’ roll 101 as taught by Michael Flynn. A former Los Angeles studio musician, he is now teaching 10-year-olds on Chicago’s near west side. Although he’s changed gigs, Flynn draws a parallel between the two professions. “It’s kind of the same job. . . . It’s performance art to me,” says the 41-year-old Chicago native who also worked as a janitor in one of the city’s schools.

Wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt and sporting long brown hair, Flynn still looks like a rocker. But he grew up in Canaryville, a working-class Irish enclave of the city, where typical vocations are policeman, fireman, and priest. So he’s familiar with staking out unconventional territory, which he does every day in class. His teaching methods run counter to the scripted curriculum that has become increasingly popular in Chicago’s public schools.

Flynn employs unusual tactics in part because he believes his students are better equipped to handle advanced material than kids of earlier generations. “There’s a body of literature that suggests . . . our sophistication level is four years behind what theirs is now,” he says. “In other words, a 10-year-old of this day and age is equivalent to a 14-year-old of my day and age.”

This may explain why Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile,” a hit among teenagers in the late ‘60s, is appreciated by Flynn’s 5th graders today. The song is meant to be nothing more than a musical interlude, a break between math and reading lessons. But, in fact, Flynn often makes use of pop music—as well as novels and poems—as educational material, a link between one subject and another. Earlier this week, for example, he played a recording of the Peter Gabriel song “Mercy Street,” which, he pointed out, is about the poet Anne Sexton. The final stanza of the song reads:

Anne, with her father is out in the boat
riding the water
riding the waves on the sea

The lines, he told them, allude to Sexton’s poem “Rowing,” which he then handed out and told the students to memorize for today’s class. Before seeking volunteers, Flynn shares more about Sexton. The troubled poet, he says, committed suicide in 1974, and on her tombstone is etched the following: “Rats live on no evil star.”

“What does that mean?” he asks. A few students toss out theories about planets and stars, but then Angel Gomez, a bright-faced boy with dark hair, gets it. “It’s the same backward as it is forward,” he says.

“Right,” Flynn says, “it’s a palindrome.” A collective “aah” fills the room.

This is a typical day in Flynn’s class. For the past four years, he’s been mixing and matching subject material and relying on works such as Hamlet and The Inferno not normally considered 5th grade fare. But he also has his principal’s backing, in part because Flynn’s students score well on standardized tests.

Two months from now, however, the former studio musician will be put to another kind of test. His annual holiday show—normally a palatable spoof of a well- known literary work—will get him into trouble. He’ll try to mix John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men with a Saturday Night Live-style skit involving George Bush and Islamic terrorists, with Jesus and the Virgin Mary thrown in. And his principal, who’s more than eager to talk about Flynn now, won’t be returning calls in December. Until then, it’s perhaps instructive to see what makes a teacher like Michael Flynn push as hard as he does.

The time has come to read “Rowing” aloud. No one volunteers, so Flynn picks Karla Ortiz, who stands up and, very softly, recites: “Rowing. A story, a story/ Let it go. Let it come. / I was stamp—"

Flynn interrupts. “I want emotion,” he says. “What are you going to do when we have the play?”

Karla begins again, this time with more volume and emphasis, completing the first eight lines of the poem without looking at the printout. Other students follow: Shy at first, they find their voices and finish their lines after prompting from Flynn.

Later in the day, James Cosme, the school’s principal, points out that Flynn’s students are often stereotyped. “People have a preset—I don’t know if you want to call it bias or opinion—[that] these kids can’t do much,” he explains. That’s not surprising. Otis Elementary is housed in a three-story brick building that sits in the shadow of downtown Chicago. Warehouses and factories line nearby streets. The student population is 85 percent Hispanic, and 93 percent of the kids receive free or reduced-price lunch. But Flynn, Cosme says, treats his kids as if, academically speaking, they’re quite capable, adding: “He challenges them to the nth degree.”

Teacher Michael Flynn.
—Gordon Downey

Most 5th graders, for example, are taught to read via the basal approach with textbook, teacher’s guide, and assorted workbooks. But in the past, Flynn has had his students read the following: The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s coming-of-age novel featuring the quintessential teenage rebel, Holden Caulfield; On the Beach, Nevil Shute’s Cold War-era novel about survivors of a nuclear holocaust; and Dante Alighieri’s The Inferno, an epic allegorical poem about a journey through hell.

Cosme doesn’t object because Flynn delivers what all principals desire: solid test results. In 1996, the year before Flynn arrived at Otis, only 19 percent of the school’s 5th graders scored at or above the national norms on the reading portion of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the benchmark exam used by Chicago schools. By 2001, however, 44 percent were scoring at or above the norm. The results from Flynn’s group, one of only two 5th grade classes at Otis, helped boost the average. “Flynn’s kids test well every year . . . [so] I’m not going to bother him,” Cosme says. “He knows exactly what to cover.”

As the last student finishes Sexton’s poem, with a line referring to “many strange apparitions,” Flynn switches topics by asking the class to relate that particular phrase to another work they’ve been studying. “Remember from Hamlet?” he asks. “What’s an apparition?”

“A ghost,” says Kevin Russell.

Ghosts and tombstones are among Flynn’s favorite subjects, and Kevin’s reply sets the stage for the day’s final activity, a ghost story. The teacher draws the shades, cuts the lights, and begins the tale of “Resurrection Mary,” who, in the early 1930s, was a typical teenage girl returning home from a ballroom dance when, suddenly, she was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver. Although she was buried in a cemetery not far from the ballroom, she’s reportedly been sighted many times since.

In the late ‘30s, Flynn continues, a young man met a young woman in the ballroom and danced with her all night. He noticed that she didn’t talk much and her hands were icy cold. Later, as they drove home, she asked him to stop beside the cemetery. Then, without warning, she ran toward the gates, and with the man in pursuit—here Flynn pauses for effect—she disappeared!

“Ooh,” the class squeals, realizing that the woman was Mary herself.

Two weeks later, on November 2, the purpose of Flynn’s ghost story becomes clear as 25 of his students enter Graceland Cemetery, a city landmark that serves as the final resting place for many prominent historical figures. Those who qualified for this field trip had to pass a written test covering the famous Chicagoans.

If, at this point, it seems as if Flynn is preoccupied with the macabre, he argues otherwise. The culture of his predominantly Hispanic class, he says, is “laden” with ghost stories and symbols of death. And it’s no accident that this trip coincides with the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday when families remember the deceased. In fact, for many students, a cemetery visit is routine.

“Today is the Day of the Dead, and we give praise for all the dead,” says Anaid Pedroza, standing not far from the path that leads to architect Daniel Burnham’s grave. Anaid is smaller than most girls her age, but with her stylish haircut and calm speaking voice, she exudes maturity. “I brought a lot of pennies to put on their graves for good luck,” she adds.

Soon, the students are scampering from grave site to grave site, as Flynn shouts out questions and spins yarns about those buried around them.

Ingracia Perez, whose son Ricardo made the field trip cut, is serving as chaperone. Like many Otis Elementary parents, her first language is Spanish. She says, through an interpreter, that today’s visit, more than anything, makes for a good history lesson. She knows that preparing for the trip certainly sparked her own son’s interest in local lore. “He studied all about the history the day before [the test],” she recalls.

“I think what Flynn does is great,” says Jamie Rittoff as she corrals a few of the students around a grave site. Rittoff is a student teacher who spends two days a week in Flynn’s class. The 31-year-old is studying at National-Louis University, and her goal is to teach drama in a Chicago public school. Cosme, she says, directed her to Flynn’s class because of his techniques and the productions he puts on twice a year. “He has a dramatic style,” she explains. “He keeps the kids on their toes.”

This year’s holiday play, Of Mice and Men . . . and Christmas, got Flynn into a bit of trouble.
—Gordon Downey

One of the ways Flynn keeps himself sharp is by pursuing a Ph.D. in education policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where Professor Mark Smylie is his faculty adviser. “It’s really quite amazing what he’s getting the kids to do,” Smylie says of Flynn. “Michael has interesting takes on how to help the students to develop and think.”

For example, two years ago, as his students studied On the Beach, then turned it into a play, Flynn tied the novel’s theme of nuclear war to the science curriculum, specifically the atom and atomic energy. “We were also able to connect it to history by exploring the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings at the end of World War II,” he says. “Additionally, we were able to discuss the morality of the bombings. . . . Plus,” Flynn adds with grade school enthusiasm, “kids dig mushroom clouds.”

Margaret McGovern, a 4th grade teacher at Otis Elementary, concurs with Smylie. Flynn’s students, she says, don’t simply deconstruct a Shakespeare play the way a high school class would; they’re introduced to the work in a relevant way, one that applies to their own lives and will, perhaps, compel them to read outside of school. Otherwise, she adds, “most of these children stop with nursery rhymes.”

“When I first got started, I didn’t do any of this alternative curriculum,” says Flynn, who began his classroom career teaching 5th graders at Chicago’s Earhart Elementary School in 1993. Prior to working in public schools, however, he was definitely familiar with existence outside the mainstream. During the 1960s, Canaryville was known, as it is now, for being tough, Irish, and politically connected. And the adjacent neighborhood, Bridgeport, was home to Richard J. Daley, Chicago’s mayor and head of what was then the most powerful Democratic political machine in the country. Daley controlled city—and, to a degree, state—politics through an army of patronage employees, many of whom were family and friends from the two neighborhoods. Declaring an interest in rock ‘n’ roll was akin to voting Republican.

But that didn’t stop Flynn. After graduating from Curie High School in the late ‘70s, he aborted a brief attempt to study music at nearby Roosevelt University and headed to Los Angeles, where, for a few years, he earned a living as a studio guitarist. But then reality came crashing down. “I was going to give myself to age 24 to attempt to carve out some sort of career in music,” Flynn recalls. “Before 24 came, my daughter, Shannon, arrived on the planet. I married her mother out of a sense of obligation.”

The lifestyle of a fledgling rock musician didn’t leave much room for domestic duties, so Flynn, his wife, and his child returned to Chicago, where he joined the family business of sorts. “My Uncle Jack and Uncle Danny both worked in [the Chicago Public Schools] as building engineers"—aka janitors—"for many years before they retired,” explains Flynn. “My dad was an engineer at what is now called Lawndale Academy on West Douglas Boulevard,” he adds, noting that his father passed away in 1973, at the age of 35, after a battle with lung cancer. A year later, his mother remarried.

But it was Flynn’s Aunt Kate, a secretary for a CPS supervising engineer, who helped Flynn get his own janitor’s job at Piccolo Elementary on the city’s west side, where he worked for the next 10 years. During that time, he had another child (Neil, named after Neil Cassidy, the protagonist of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, was born in 1986); got divorced (in 1988); and received a bachelor’s degree and teaching credentials (in 1993, from the University of Illinois at Chicago). Flynn, who had custody of Shannon and Neil, says that fatherhood helped develop his teaching skills. “I think if I know anything about kids, it’s because I have kids of my own,” he explains.

But why choose 5th grade in particular?

“It’s just right before they hit puberty, and they’re grown up enough to handle complicated concepts, and they’re curious,” Flynn says. “I think that’s the age at which they’re the most curious about boys or girls, or about literature, or about anything. You’re reaching them right at that point. And they’re still really nice people, for the most part. They haven’t yet learned to rebel, and I would like to teach them to rebel—in a productive way.

“I think that a teacher should take whatever is good within him or her, or whatever they’re particularly good at, and pass that on to children,” he adds. “And that’s originally, I think, how education was done.”

Raising two kids, working full time, and going to school was a challenge, Flynn admits. But he did have help, mostly from his sister Susie and her husband, who’s a doctor. In 1995, Flynn received his master’s degree in elementary education from UIC, then decided to go for his doctorate.

Flynn says his interest in education goes back a ways. He remembers one of his own high school history teachers who, not surprisingly, preached and practiced alternative viewpoints. “Godfrey Thomas could’ve been in the Black Panthers. He was radical,” Flynn recalls. “He was an African American guy, and you’ve got to remember, this was the ‘70s, so he’s dressed like Huggy Bear from Starsky and Hutch. He’s got the brown leather jacket with the beret—a radical dude.”

Thomas taught U.S. history, but he didn’t stick to just one subject. “He would teach you how to interpret literature,” Flynn explains, “and he would teach you how to interpret history by who writes it.”

He also challenged historical interpretations, much to the chagrin of Curie High administrators who, according to Flynn, eventually fired Thomas. After Mayor Daley died in office in 1976, Thomas questioned—from what he claimed was the African American point of view—the glowing public eulogies heaped upon the deceased politician. “He brought up the issue in class . . . and he was out of there. He was gone,” Flynn says. “And I really admired him. He probably wouldn’t even remember my name, but I remember his. Every once in a while, you run into one of those guys, and you say, ‘I want to be like that guy.’ ”

Although Flynn doesn’t wear a beret or a leather jacket, he certainly mimics his idol’s contrarian teaching methods. Flynn’s approach to 5th grade classes is an anomaly in the Chicago system. Nearly 400 of the city’s 491 public elementary schools make use of Structured Curriculum—scripted lesson plans recently developed by CPS. A curriculum-in-a-box, as some educators call it, it relies heavily on rote learning and, critics argue, teaching to standardized tests.

“Part of the mission that I’m on is to get away from the idea that education can be prescriptive, that someone can give you this folder and you follow steps A, B, and C,” Flynn says. “I don’t think that can be done.”

One of his inspirations is the Junior Great Books curriculum, to which he was introduced at Earhart Elementary. The program’s reading list, he says, consists primarily of classics by such authors as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Thoreau, and John Steinbeck. After reading a work, he adds, students are encouraged to participate in a Socratic dialogue between child and teacher, as opposed to simply listening to a lecture.

Flynn’s revamped doctoral thesis examines First Amendment rights in elementary schools.
—Gordon Downey

Great Books served as a springboard for Flynn. It was at Earhart that he formulated the idea of adapting Dante’s The Inferno to the stage. “Kids love hell,” he says by way of explanation. “They’re drawn to that.” He put on one production at Earhart, then took the show to Otis Elementary after joining its staff in 1997. Every year since then, Flynn’s 5th grade classes have either staged the work or hosted “Dante Jeopardy,” which is modeled after the popular game show. It’s been a success, he says, because of the students.

“Kids will propel you,” Flynn explains. “You’d be amazed. You say: ‘Look, you gotta know these lines, man. You’re gonna be on stage. You gotta hit your mark, and you gotta shout it out.’ And they come back in a day, and they’ve got it. And it may not be the best scholar in your room. It may be the kid that’s a pain in the behind. When you do this type of stuff, you may get that kid. He may find something.” In fact, last year Flynn was given an interesting suggestion. “There’s a parking lot downtown with different songs [piped into] each level,” he says. “This one student says to me, ‘They should do a Dante parking lot with the different levels of hell.’ ” Flynn laughs at the recollection, then adds: “It’s a good idea.”

For the past four years, the day before winter break at Otis Elementary has meant a vacation send-off with a satirical holiday play, courtesy of Flynn’s class. Each fall, the 5th grade teacher picks a classic novel, shortens it, then adds bits of current events and a seasonal theme. In December 2000, for example, Catcher in the Rye became Christmas in the Rye, by Michael Flynn.

Earlier this school year, he considered doing a “road” book, but couldn’t decide between Kerouac’s On the Road and Steinbeck’s Depression-era novella Of Mice and Men. “I really like Steinbeck; plus it’s not too long,” he said in October.

Because the annual staging of The Inferno, at the end of the school year, tends toward seriousness, Flynn strives for a light, comedic touch with the holiday play. It helps if the source material isn’t too dense or long. “If you’re going to go through heavy material and break it down and deconstruct it, you can’t do Crime and Punishment,” he explains.

Strong characters are also important. With Catcher in the Rye, Flynn says: “You’ve got Holden Caulfield, and what kid doesn’t understand Holden Caulfield? . . . My son is 15, and I gave him Catcher in the Rye, and he doesn’t like to read, and he said: ‘This is great. This is the greatest character; he’s just like me.’ Well that’s the appeal, he’s just like everybody.”

By early November, Flynn had chosen Of Mice and Men. He’d also decided the terrorist attacks of September 11 were, somehow, going to make their way into the script. His students had discussed the attacks in class, and like every other 5th grader in America, they’d been inundated with television, newspaper, and magazine reports on the war in Afghanistan. It was time to let off a little steam. “We’ll undoubtedly have terrorists in this year’s production and have a good laugh,” he said at the time.

He then set about writing Of Mice and Men. . . and Christmas, with suggestions from his kids thrown in. By the time the script was done, Steinbeck’s itinerant California farmhands, George and Lennie, had been replaced by George and Billy, two characters modeled after the current U.S. president and his silver-haired predecessor. George and Billy, however, were not down-and-outers searching for work; they were tracking terrorists in the California foothills.

That’s why today, December 17, just four days before the scheduled performance, Flynn’s students are rehearsing a scene that takes place at an airport security check in. Jorge Lopez, who’s blind, is playing the security guard—a blind security guard, with cane and guide dog in tow. He has lots of lines because he’s supposed to ask several characters questions before they board their flight. Among the characters are singer-actress Jennifer Lopez, three terrorists, and Flynn’s recurring holiday-show players: Santa Claus, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary.

Security Guard: State your name.

Jesus Christ: I am known by many names—the Prince of Peace, He Who Is, the Lamb of God.

As the play’s main characters approach, George, played by Juan Trujillo, explains that he and Billy are on serious business, trailing terrorists. Jorge, as the security guard, is supposed to misunderstand and exclaim: “What! You’re terrorists? I need military personnel here immediately.” But his delivery falls short. Flynn urges him to act more alarmed.

“Remember, loudly,” he says. “And slow is always better than fast.”

‘Part of the mission that I’m on is to get away from the idea that education can be prescriptive.’

Michael Flynn,

Jorge tries again, but still, he rushes through the lines. In the interest of time, Flynn moves on to the next scene, in which the bumbling terrorists are thwarted in their efforts to hijack the plane, which ends up landing in Chicago. Once the action moves to the city, Flynn takes a few mild swipes at the current Mayor Daley, son of the ‘60s icon.

Flynn insists that, with his plays, he doesn’t push any political agenda. Daley’s often garbled speech and sometimes quirky mannerisms are lampooned regularly by the Chicago media, he claims. Two years ago, when his 5th graders staged On the Beach in the form of Bombs Away . . . The Last Christmas, the students had to decide who, among real-life and fictional characters, would most likely survive a nuclear blast. President Clinton was at the top of the list. “We had this kid who did the greatest Bill Clinton [imitation],” Flynn recalls. “He comes out dancing around, and he’s got two cheerleaders with him—because all the kids, they know about Bill Clinton’s foibles. It’s part of our culture.”

At the moment, Jovanny Martinez is trying to do his best Daley impersonation.

“I want you to waddle,” Flynn tells Jovanny, who shares the mayor’s short, stocky build. The student is wearing an oversized sport coat and an untied necktie. Without much effort, he gets the waddle down pat and ad-libs a few hand gestures that look mayoral. But he repeatedly misses a cue, so Flynn has him redo the scene until he gets it right.

A couple of days later, however, all the hard work has seemingly come to naught. The word is out that Of Mice and Men . . . and Christmas has been canceled. The school’s principal, James Cosme, who had nothing but praise for Flynn two months ago, won’t return repeated phone calls and explain why.

The rumor mill at Otis Elementary, however, has churned out two scenarios. One asserts that a specific teacher who has a grudge against Flynn pressured the principal into canceling the play. Another posits that several teachers heard about some of the show’s material—supposedly the script had not been shared with anyone outside Flynn’s classroom—and refused to let their students see the production.

Flynn has been uncharacteristically quiet. In fact, at this point, he’s chosen not to speak on the record. He’ll only go so far as to indicate that he’s still awaiting an explanation and that he respects the principal’s decision. Cosme, he points out, has been a big supporter of his work in the past.

By mid-January, Flynn is making plans to retool his doctoral dissertation. The new subject: a teacher’s First Amendment rights in elementary schools. This constitutes an about-face for the 5th grade teacher, who’d already begun work on a study of how his alternative curriculum at Otis impacts test scores.

In an e-mail to Mark Smylie, his faculty adviser at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Flynn writes: “I’ve already proved to myself that alternative curriculums taught by good teachers are superior to the standard fare in providing students opportunities to learn. . . . However, I now find myself interested in a bigger, if underlying, issue—the First Amendment rights of teachers with regard to curriculum. Test scores won’t matter if I make too many waves. I’ve made enough already and lived to tell the tale.”

Flynn still won’t discuss the recent cancellation in detail, but he doesn’t mind providing a sketchy outline of his new dissertation. His intention, he says, is to look closely at how teachers and principals at elementary schools perceive their First Amendment rights, then compare those perceptions with state statutes and court rulings. Flynn believes that because there are no clear-cut policies on First Amendment rights in Chicago classrooms, principals tend to err on the side of caution, which, he contends, is a disservice to students and faculty members.

Flynn has never had a play canceled before. In fact, he says no one has ever objected to any of the material or teaching methods he’s made use of in his classes. Then again, he does remember one parent, a few years ago, who complained about some of the gory costumes in one of his Dante productions. But that’s it, he says.

Then he mentions that, though Of Mice and Men . . . and Christmas may never see the light of day, he does intend to put on a play, at the end of the school year, about a Christmas production that is canceled. He’s already at work on the script, and he’s looking for a venue outside of Otis Elementary.

So in other words, it’s suggested, push is finally coming to shove.

“I’m from Canaryville, you know?” Flynn says. “We shove in Canaryville.”


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