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Preview: Urban Education Smackdown! 

Will Coviello on playwright Jim Fitzmorris' one-man show about the remaking of New Orleans schools

click to enlarge Jim Fitzmorris' new drama is about schools and education reform
  • Jim Fitzmorris' new drama is about schools and education reform

Hosea is a student at Jim Fitzmorris' fictional 7th Ward charter school Plessy v. Ferguson. Here's how Fitzmorris describes the boy in his one-man play Urban Education Smackdown: "He moves like a wet piece of string, like the last piece of spaghetti on a fork that you can't control. He's like a mini Satchel Paige. He jingles when he jangles. He's got the biggest eyes you've seen in your life. He moves through the halls of Plessy v. Ferguson like a flanker in a Wing-T offense — I make so many NPR comparisons, there's one for the ESPN crowd. He writes and speaks completely like he thinks: rapid, fluid and incoherent."

  Fitzmorris discovers Hosea doesn't have Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder one morning when Hosea faceplants in a bowl of grits. He asks Hosea when he went to bed the night before, and it leads to a convoluted tale of going shopping at 11:45 p.m. Hosea went shopping after work. With bottle caps on his shoes and his body painted silver, he danced on corners in the French Quarter, and then went shopping because his family depends on his income.

  It's an absurd and not entirely fictional or real tale in an 80-minute show about local schools and education reform. But it comes from the front lines, since Ftizmorris spent the last year working in a local charter school.

  "I was hired as a substitute English teacher," Fitzmorris says. "But then I stayed on. I ran an afternoon reading group. I was for one-week the in-school suspension supervisor. I monitored lunch for pre-K through second grade, and I walked the sidewalk after school for the kids who walk to school and the riders who were picked up."

  An academic year's worth of observations unfold in Urban Education as he introduces the students, teachers, administrators and parents of his imaginary school. It's a dramatic show that's both funny and serious. And though it's a one-man show, it's billed as a title fight between "Urban Educator" Jim Fitzmorris and Bobby "The Hall Monitor" Jindal.

  Fitzmorris is full of analogies for his role as the messenger/informant on the state of education.

  "The Lorax speaks for the trees. He's busy," Fitzmorris says. "So I am the best they could do."

  He also compares his work to Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. He challenges the conclusions of the education documentary Waiting for Superman. And he has bad news for fans of Dead Poets Society.

  "Robin Williams is a horrible teacher," Fitzmorris says. "He's a motivational speaker, not a teacher. You better have a dazzling speech every day, because that doesn't work."

  The playwright has expertise in educational areas and a long list of original works about local institutions and politics. Most recently his play about post-Hurricane Katrina recovery and the Catholic archdiocese, From a Long Way Off, was produced by Jefferson Performing Arts Society. He also created the one-man shows The Island of Dr. Fitzmorris and Jim Fitzmorris Puts Marlin Gusman in a Hurt Locker.

  "The joke of that play was that (Orleans Sheriff) Gusman was only mentioned in the title," he says. "There were so many other politicians to talk about first, I never got to Gusman."

  Fitzmorris also has plenty to say about schools and what works and what doesn't. Not surprisingly, he offers a lot of support for teachers, whom he believes have been the victims of education reform in Louisiana.

  "Our illustrious governor came up with a hell of a reform education plan," Fitzmorris says. "He let the administrators off the hook and the parents off the hook, provided they would grab the teachers by either arm so he could kick them in the nuts."

  Schools are complex places and Fitzmorris revels in describing their various factions: different types of students, teachers, administrators and parents. He says some of the politically incorrect things that are left out of public debates about schools. And he has his own plan for helping schools and kids, likening it to Gen. David Petraeus' surge plan during the Iraq war. It calls for more boots on the ground, meaning teachers. It calls for addressing bad actors, finding ways to reach, suspend or expel problem students. And it calls for getting the local good actors together to stand up to troublemakers. That, especially, involves parents.

  It's not an easy plan, but quick fixes sell better as political slogans than they work as classroom solutions. Fitzmorris' description of frontline education: "Teaching is an incremental, grinding, small victories/big defeats heartbreaking trench warfare where you need to check the map to see if you have made any progress, and just when you have made a gigantic breakthrough something blows up and puts you back in the trench again."

  He's optimistic when he says that, because he's seen success in the field.

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