Archive for the 'Teaching and Learning' Category

First Annual Teaching Artist Conference

Life has made some dramatic turns in these last few weeks. For the first time in 35 years, the end of August brought no class prep as a teacher and no teacher prep as a principal. What it did bring was a wonderful opportunity to expand our work beyond one school to many schools in my new role as Executive Director of the Center for Arts in Education at Boston Arts Academy.

One of the Center for Arts in Education’s signature programs is the National Artist Teacher Fellowship. We will give approximately 20 fellowships each year to teachers working in public art-focused high schools.  With this program in mind, I traveled to Norway in August for the First International Teaching Artist Conference.  Read more here: Notes from the First Annual Teaching Artist Conference

Opening Day 2012

I was proud to be able to spend some of the opening day of the Boston Public Schools 2012-2013 school year in the renovated building that Mission Hill K-8 School and the newly founded Margarita Muniz Academy (MMA) now share. I am honored to have been on the planning team for Mission Hill so many years back, and more recently for the MMA. I have to say I didn’t even recognize this building, which used to be occupied by the Agassiz school… the BPS has done a wonderful job renovating the space!

Opening any new school is no easy feat, and opening a new school in a newly renovated building has additional changes – but I could feel Margarita’s presence in the purples and the reds that Dania had selected for the walls and the logo, and I know Margarita is approving of all the choices. I have full faith that Dania and Ayla will continue to keep the vision as they work on the many details of running a school- best wishes for a successful year to them both!

Even when districts sometimes seem to have trouble systematically bringing good work to scale, it is worth noting and celebrating all the good things going on in BPS this year, including opening another new school in addition to the Margarita Muniz (the Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School) and renovating two schools in addition to the MMA and Mission Hill Elementary (New Mission High School and BLCA at the Hyde Park Education complex). And congratulations to Fenway High School, which was just selected by the US Department of Education as a national “Exemplary Improving” Blue Ribbon school!

It is worth noting that Mission Hill K-8, Margarita Muniz, Dudley Street, and Fenway are all either pilot schools or in-district innovation schools. The question I ask is: What can we learn from the success of these schools to help the entire district be successful? And how can a district be more active in helping all schools achieve more autonomy?

Celebrating Another Year (and Transitions!)

The beginning of this school year marks a momentous and exciting change for BAA. Our Associate Head of School and founding Academic Dean, Anne Clark, has stepped into the role of Interim Headmaster for the coming school year. Anne leads with a brilliance that will usher BAA into its next era; already the rearrangement of space is giving the school a fresh new energy and life!

We continue to move BAA forward as I relocate across the hall to become Executive Director of the Center for Arts in Education at BAA, the professional development, dissemination, and advocacy arm of the school. The Center offers professional development institutes and workshops, provides consulting and coaching for schools interested in using the arts as a reform strategy, and runs a number of programs:

At the end of last school year, I gave my final celebratory speech as headmaster (excerpted below) to faculty and staff at our goodbye lunch, a tradition that has carried through our fourteen years. The enduring questions I raise here are ones that we asked after our first year in 1998 and continue to ask today. I believe these questions have universality for other educators, too:

  1. Would we be both a model of academic innovation and a model of arts education?
  2. Would we produce students academically and artistically prepared to enter our ProArts partner institutions or other colleges or careers of our students’ choosing?
  3. What would it mean to create an arts school that exemplified the best aspects of the Coalition of Essential Schools?
  4. Would we be able to emphasize depth over breadth, or would the frenzy of standardized testing knock out our best laid curriculum plans?
  5. How would we develop and communicate a shared understanding of our standards with students, parents, board members and others?
  6. What would developing and modeling democratic and equitable practices in the classroom, hallways and faculty room mean? (We did have a faculty room once upon a time!)
  7. As an inclusive school, how would we express our commitment to diverse learners and address ongoing shifts in demographics?
  8. Would we be able to create enough personalized learning situations for our students?  Did we have enough different pathways to graduation for our kids?
  9. How could faculty meeting time be used to spend more time talking about our students with the teachers who actually taught them, and more deeply connected to our own needs as developing teachers?
  10. How would our Habits of the Graduate (RICO) live in our classrooms?

Even (and especially) after 14 years, we ask these questions so we can serve all our students well… We want to keep learning how to take professional risks together- artistically, academically and emotionally. We want to continue to push one another on issues of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and other societal realities… What I want to celebrate today are those values of getting better, of patience, of figuring it out, of saying NO! to the rest of the world when mandates make no sense. If I have a legacy, I want it to be that you all know how to talk to one another, to disagree respectfully, and to come together in complete solidarity- as the powerful group that you are- in order to do what is right for kids… BAA will continue to soar if you remember to build from love, respect and collaboration, and always with students at the center. 

The BAA class of 2012!

I am so proud of what BAA has and will continue to become, and am excited to bring more of that work outward in my new role. I am taking off for Oslo in a few weeks for the first annual Teaching Artist conference and will be sure to blog about it when I return! As always, please leave comments and questions and I am happy to respond!

Design Comes Alive

During the last week of the school year, thanks to the support of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and TERC, we were able to select three artist-engineers to work with our 9th grade Engineering classes for “Design Comes Alive.” The projects culminated in presentations on the last day of  school.

Click here for video of the Design Comes Alive process and presentations!

Students present their electronics project in BAA’s black box theatre

Our BAA STEAM team was excited for the opportunity to provide students with an interdisciplinary, collaborative project that required them to use both the engineering and design processes as well as habits of studio thinking to problem-solve, design, and create.

Ed Moriarty (MIT) and his BU and MIT students worked with BAA students to design and build water fountains. These fountains used the principle of total internal reflection to create a large number of small glowing streams that changed properties based on ambient sound or other environmental conditions.

Students learn about total internal reflection while building water fountains

Zachary Katz taught fundamental electronics concepts and students created a functioning electronic musical instrument or light display. Visual pieces were installed, and musical pieces were performed.

Designing an electronic musical instrument

Tabaré Akim Gowon’s project was entitled LightMotion – The Illuminated Movement Orchestra. Students designed six unique wearable “Movement Instruments” that consisted of electroluminescent (EL) wire, a microcontroller, and a wireless networking device for communicating to a master user control system. A seventh student “Light Conductor” used a motion input device—the Xbox 360 Kinect—to transform body movement into a method for determining which Movement Instruments were illuminated during the performance at a given time.

LightMotion movement performance

I was blown away by the students’ enthusiasm for their work, especially since the projects occurred at the end of the school year, when students can tend to “check out.” As STEAM faculty Ramiro Gonzalez reflected, “The project was seven days long, and it occurred at the end of the year and after the MCAS test. What I witnessed in those seven days was student frustration, disorientation, stress, anxiety and failure. I also saw the adults challenge the students and give them support and resources. Slowly I saw envisioning, collaborations, commitment and engagement, and finally I saw pride and accomplishment. I also saw differentiation and a great deal of risk taking.”

Congratulations to the guest artist-engineers, the STEAM team, and especially our 9th grade Engineering students for their amazing work!

Collaborative design process comes to life!

Celebration of Fernadina Chan

On Saturday, June 23, we celebrated a remarkable woman and educator as she retired from BAA: Fernadina Chan. I have the privilege of working with some of the most amazing teachers at Boston Arts Academy, and it was an honor to celebrate Fern at The Boston Conservatory with both a reception and surprise dance performances and a video.

Below is an excerpt from my remarks to Fern on that evening, as well as some photographs of the dance faculty and past and present dance students.

– – –

It is hard to stand before you—Ms. Chan’s family, friends, colleagues and students—and talk about a friend from whom I have learned so much. There just aren’t enough words. I had to write a book and put Ms. Chan in chapter 3 in order to really do her justice—and even then the editors pared it way down. But with Ms. Chan there is no paring down.

BAA students dance in the window of The Boston Conservatory to welcome guests to the reception

Fernadina, or Fern, to so many of us, is a force of nature. She is the founding teacher of the Boston Arts Academy. She fought for years to make this school a reality. She has succeeded. As our founding artistic dean, she has set the standards for excellence in the arts and in academics… As the founding chair and now co-chair of our dance department, she has helped create a dance program that is now known nationally and internationally. Her many “children,” as she affectionately calls her students, are off in the world continuing her legacy as dancers, both professionally on renowned stages and vocationally in studios around town and beyond. Even those who are no longer actively dancing all remember their time with Master Chan!

Fern on stage with alumni dancers performing her pieces

More than anyone I know, Ms. Chan figures out how to help students connect to their core, to their heart, to their imaginations and to their emotions. How she does this is a secret I have wanted to learn because if we could just bottle her ability to bring her students to the truth they need to tell we would change the educational landscape in this country, if not the world.

Me, Fern (Founding Artistic Dean), and Anne Clark (Founding Academic Dean and now BAA Interim Headmaster)

Her secret may be the way she screams and chastises kids until they get in line and do as she insists; her secret may be the way she giggles and then laughs with her students as they work through choreographic problems; her secret may be her determination to introduce the great dancers and choreographers of the world to her students and the school through residencies and master classes; her secret may be the fact that she assembled the most fantastic dance faculty ever; her secret may be in the way she produces a concert that uses technology in ways never thought of before; her secret may be her incredible dedication to her students and their transformation; or her secret may be in how she approaches her own creative work with students.

BAA dance faculty: Tatiana Obeso, Billy McLaughlin, Fernadina Chan, Chris Alloways-Ramsey, and Sheryl Pollard-Thomas

I think it is all of that and then something more. Fern understands that teaching is fun! Sure, it is hard and enormously stressful, but each day is new and the transgressions of yesterday are not part of the studio or classroom today. Each day with Ms. Chan, class begins again- vibrant, inventive and fresh. Ms. Chan is a master teacher and we are all lucky to have been part of her journey.

So thank you, Ms. Chan, for the legacy you leave us—as our Artistic Dean, our teacher, our colleague and friend… You will be part of BAA forever. We thank you for so many years of hard work and vision [and]… we look forward to your new creations.

Fern on stage being honored by her dancers


Intervention into Personalization

One of the ten common principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools is personalization. This is explained as: “Teaching and learning should be personalized to the maximum feasible extent… the goal is that no teacher has direct responsibility for more than 80 students in the high school and middle school and no more than 20 in the elementary school. To capitalize on this personalization, decisions about the details of the course of study, the use of students’ and teachers’ time and the choice of teaching materials and specific pedagogies must be unreservedly placed in the hands of the principal and staff.”

Who could disagree with this? In fact, with budget cuts so rampant, getting the numbers down in any school so that teachers can see fewer students and focus on them well requires creative scheduling, and maximum flexibility in all aspects of school. Further, given our current steady diet of “teacher-proof” curriculum that aligns with tests, fewer and fewer teachers make decisions about what and how they will teach. Given this gloom and doom picture, I still insist that personalization is something all schools must work to achieve.

Last week, I witnessed personalization at its best.

At BAA, although students audition in the arts and profess to have that passion, we choose to know nothing about their prior academic skills or their behavior issues. When school opens in September, our 125 new freshmen jockey for attention. That one student who was a uniquely great dancer in her middle school class is now in a class with 24 other students. In addition to dancing for 2.5 hours a day, students take a full load of academic classes.

For a student like Aidelys, that is not easy. She came from a large middle school where she distinguished herself on stage but not in the hallways or academic classes. At BAA she has a hard time learning to control her impulses. She reacts to a look or a perceived insult as “disrespect.” She has two channels: angry and angrier. She cannot seem to find the dial to turn the knob to anything else.  She is frustrated by her own emerging skills; she wants to know what words mean but experiences too many she doesn’t understand. Studying at home is hard. She hasn’t learned that to be successful one must be willing to make mistakes and to refine again and again one’s work.  In middle school, she just got by. In fact, in order to actually get her diploma she was sent to an alternative placement.

Not only is she behind academically, she struggles behaviorally. Carmen Torres (co-headmaster at BAA) has suspended her too many times—for violent outbursts, threatening teachers or students, or disrupting classes. Each time Aidelys gets a little bit more discouraged. Yet we can see that behind that tough exterior is this amazing dancer who wants to be successful. When she first came to BAA, her dance teacher, Sheryl, saw that natural ability.

In perhaps a fit of madness, I asked Carmen if she would bring Aidelys to my Harvard Graduate School of Education class final exhibitions. My grad students have worked all semester on writing their visions for a democratic school. Last week they had the chance to visually display their ideas. I wanted students to be there to critique. I knew that Aidelys, with her frustrations about school, would have something to say. I didn’t know how profound her comments would be. Carmen sighed when I asked her. “I just suspended her last week, Linda,” she told me patiently. “I’m not sure what message it would send if I brought her.” But as soon as Carmen had spoken we both knew that she would come with Aidelys. For an afternoon, and evening, Carmen would demonstrate what Carmen does best: look at each young person with new eyes every day. Let yesterday’s transgressions be yesterday’s and today be a chance to start anew.

Aidelys arrived with Carmen bright eyed and eager to begin. She had dressed appropriately and even put a cute cloth flower in her hair to show that she understood this was a special occasion. I explained that I wanted her to listen to my students describe their schools and then each one would ask for feedback. “What’s that mean?” she asked me quizzically. I explained that my students needed to know what she thought about their ideas and that was called feedback.

“I’m ready!” she announced and off she went to learn about a bilingual elementary school in Denver. When I next noticed Aidelys, she was intently bent over the rubric giving written feedback to my grad student. She waved me over. “I need some help. I really liked her school but I don’t know what this means,” she pointed at the word feasible. I explained and Aidelys kept writing. Another wave. “And this?” She asked about the words holistic and inclusive. After my explanation she kept writing without pause until she was ready to listen to the next presentation.

Aidelys giving feedback on a student’s presentation

In my debrief with my grad students, I asked about audience feedback since over 50 people visited the presentations. All of my students who had Aidelys said without a moment’s hesitation that they most appreciated her insights. “She had the most useful feedback for me, and listened so well and was so interested in what I was talking about.”

I smiled inside. I didn’t want to give too much away about Aidelys’ struggles. Later when I thanked Carmen for bringing her and shared the feedback, we both grinned together. As veteran educators, it was an important moment for us both. Even in the hectic pace of our days as school leaders, we needed to remember to take time out to pay attention to our students who need it most. We needed to remember that those who act out most profoundly often are doing so because they haven’t learned yet how to be a student. We know that failure begets more failure and success begets more success. When we forget to personalize, or to go the extra mile to pay attention to a student, then often nothing can change.

At BAA we talk about walking down the hall to see a student in her or his arts being successful. They reaffirm our determination to help that same student figure out math. But what about the Aidelyses who after eight months in school have yet to settle down and be successful anywhere? How can we find within ourselves to give them what they need – more attention, not less. More love, not less. They disrupt. They are rude. They annoy their peers and us. Still we must find a way to redirect and to love them. Carmen reminded me of that last week when she thanked me!  She wrote:

“Thank you for inviting us and encouraging me to take Aidelys. Sometimes we have to close our eyes and take the leap with kids.  I feel so fortunate to have shared this experience with Aidelys because we both took a chance and learned from it. It was a really soft landing this time.”

We won’t know for a long time if this intervention into personalization,n as I call it, will have the desired effect. But we know that had Carmen not done this, the opportunity for change would have been lost. We are now emboldened to do more, to keep trying to garner the resources to provide the best Aidelys deserves.

HGSE student Sara Gips, Aidelys, and me

OLA Workshop at BAA’s Center for Arts in Education

Last week, BAA’s Center for Arts in Education hosted Darcy Rogers for a full-day workshop on her Organic Language Acquisition (OLA) technique. I first met Darcy at her school, Crater Renaissance Academy in Oregon, and then I ran into her again at the Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum, where she presented her workshop on OLA- a kinesthetic approach to learning a language. I knew we had to get her in to BAA, so when I learned she was coming to the Parker School in Western Mass, I jumped at the chance!

We had about 15 educators from Boston and the surrounding areas as well as Boston Public Schools central office folks (including Yu-Lan Lin, the World Languages Program Director for BPS) attend the full-day workshop, which included BAA students actually learning the technique alongside the adults!

I see Darcy’s work as one of the many valuable techniques that innovative teachers develop to counter the increasingly high-stakes-testing-obsessed culture we live with in our schools. In my new role next year as Executive Director of BAA’s Center for Arts in Education, I am excited to sponsor more workshops and institutes featuring work like Darcy’s… We were so glad she could join us at BAA for this high-energy workshop!

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