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The Lessons of American Idol

Educators can translate what worked in the television show into their districts.

Seemingly eight or nine nights for the past several weeks my family and I were caught up in the American Idol phenomena. Thirty-eight million Americans joined us in watching the show's finale. I am encouraged that it is still possible to bring generations together around a wholesome event. In addition to being wildly entertaining, American Idol offers many lessons for educators.

All sorts of kids have talents we have yet to discover The extraordinary drive and talent of the young adults participating in American Idol should remind us of the untapped potential in our students.

Hard work pays off The contestants worked their tails off to prepare for each week's show. Teachers involved in the performing arts know how hard children will work to prepare for a performance. Similar opportunities need to become the norm in other subject areas.

Learning occurs best with an audience An audience for one's work gives effort greater purpose. It not only motivates the learner but also provides occasions for authentic assessment.

You need to be well-rounded Contestants needed to sing, dance and speak articulately. Only folks possessing the whole package would advance.

Cooperation is valuable Nothing is learned in isolation. While American Idol was a competition, the finalists were required to perform together. This cooperation gave the performers greater respect for one another and taught valuable life lessons for the future.

Achieving one's goals is not a zero-sum game I believed the "idols" who said that participating was reward enough, even if they did not win. The television show sustained this community of practice by having the "losers" in the top 10 return frequently for choreographed ensemble performances. Some of the "losers" have embarked on successful careers due to this exposure and their willingness to give it their all regardless of the situation. Clay seemed genuinely happy for Ruben when he was named "The American Idol."

Education is growth The contestants actually improved each week. That demonstrates their willingness to incorporate advice, experience, talent and risk-taking in order to improve.

You learn by working outside of your comfort zone While it was clear that some idols were better dancers than others, each contestant did their best to improve in areas outside of their comfort zone.

Respect history While you can hardly consider the Bee Gees or Neil Sedaka relics, millions of American youngsters were introduced to their songwriting talents. Great songs are timeless. The contestants benefited from the wisdom dispensed by elders.

Production values don't matter Educational software and television producers say that kids won't watch anything without the latest in 3-D special effects. Great storytelling or music trumps production values. The American Idol set was ghastly and the background videos were distracting.

Teaching is storytelling Part of what made millions of viewers tune into each show was the compelling use of storytelling that held your interest, recapitulated what you may have missed and introduced you to the lives and work of various musicians.

You care about great characters The biographical profiles of each finalist and footage of them clowning around allowed viewers to identify with the contestants and get behind their favorites.

Young people are willing to vote ... but apparently only if they like the candidates.

Americans are ahead of the media on race I frankly considered that Americans would not choose an overweight African-American as their idol, regardless of his talents. The selection of Ruben Studdard proved that Americans were a lot hipper to talent than the national media.

Gary Stager,, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.