Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category



What teachers really need

A few weeks ago, The Boston Foundation (TBF) released a report entitled, “The Real Cost of the Contract.”  The report gained a lot of press; the Boston Globe published a front-page article highlighting the report’s findings, and Richard Stutman, the BTU President, wrote a response in the Boston Teacher’s Union Bulletin.

I do not blame any group for writing about their findings and conclusions.  However, I am afraid that what reports and responses like these tend to do is obscure the real issues.  Instead of raising higher-level questions, they create a polarizing dynamic that forces us to “choose sides.”  Do teachers make too much money, or don’t they?  Should teachers be paid based on their students’ test-score performances, or shouldn’t they?  Questions like these put us into opposing camps.

We need to have a different conversation – a conversation about what it means to professionalize teaching.  Teachers need sacrosanct “adult time” (as I argue in my response to The Globe’s article, posted below).  Currently, most teachers don’t have this time, don’t get paid for it, and don’t have control of it.  “Adult time” is simply not part of the way most of us think about teaching and schools.  This, I believe, is worthy of our debate.

My response to Boston Globe article:

THE MOST important issue in teacher negotiations is teacher professional time — what is called adult time (“Teacher salary system decried,’’ Page A1, Jan. 18).

Teachers cannot improve the quality of education if they don’t have sacrosanct time to talk about instruction, assessment, and their students.

Look at any successful school and then count the number of hours per week that teachers meet together.  See whether they have a clear purpose to raise student achievement, hold one another accountable, and nurture a continual feedback loop.

Schools will not improve if we continue to view teaching as an isolated task where one teacher alone could possibly be responsible for student achievement.

Linda Nathan
Co-headmaster
Boston Arts Academy

2011 ASCD Conference: Bold Actions for Complex Challenges

At the end of March, I will travel to San Francisco California to participate in the annual conference of ASCD, an educational leadership organization. This year’s theme is Bold Actions for Complex Challenges. While there I will join two other principals, Baruti Kafele (from Newark Tech in New Jersey), and Tim King (from Urban Prep Academies), on a panel discussing urban education.

I have posted a promotional video (below) made by the ASCD to publicize the event. The interviewer asked me to describe a time when I felt I had failed a student. I have to admit that I was caught a little off-guard by the question, and in the video, emotionally recall the difficult story of Shanita (from chapter six of The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test).

What School Can Be

An important milestone in the life of a Boston Arts Academy dancer unfolded last week as 17 seniors presented their 2011 Senior Dance Concert (SDC). How significantly this embodies RICO, our habits of the graduate. Students work for months on invention and revision.  Dancers from professional and pre-professional worlds provide a rigorous process of critique, including one of our own alumni! Seniors cast their pieces, work with lighting and costume designers and write a thoughtful description of their piece. Their writing briefly explains the process and the connections they have made to other dancers and choreographers. Most important, each senior must own the entire process throughout an often tumultuous rehearsal period until the opening night. These are skills that most adults never get to develop.

One of my students used his piece to explore the feelings of not having a father present as he grew up. He wrote in his program notes, “Entering a world where the term “Dad” or “Father” slowly drifted from my vocabulary… I go through life with just the satisfaction of my mother’s presence.” The piece was poignant, passionate and reflective and left me wondering how this young choreographer was only a senior in high school. Other students investigated themes of loss of loved ones, or the power of falling in love.  Some played with abstract ideas about shape and movement. Each piece was technically beautiful and allowed me, as an audience member, to enter into the worlds of my students and learn more about what makes them tick. What a gift.

Besides the obvious enjoyment of sitting in the audience, I loved listening and surreptitiously watching the reactions of other audience members. The 9th grade dance majors must write about each piece as part of their homework assignments in dance. They sat rapt and whispered to one another in between pieces about what they liked or didn’t understand. They know that, all too soon, they will be choreographing and casting, but for now they enjoy these moments of awe and even adoration as they watch their older peers perform. The sound effects of the young children of my faculty gave me such pleasure. Somehow two-year-olds manage to sigh or ooh and ahh in the loudest and most appropriate punctuations. I loved seeing aunts, uncles, cousins, former teachers from middle schools all clapping loudly as these young people performed. The dance teachers were all dressed up, too. Gone was the frustration and even anger at students who were late with their music or who missed rehearsals. All could be forgotten, at least for the performance. Later, they would talk again about deadlines and responsibility. Today we all celebrate.

This concert came at the end of a week filled with Math exhibitions, Sophomore music recitals, 11th grade Visual Arts exhibition, Spanish, Arabic and American Sign Language final exams, preparation for science fair and final due dates for Humanities 3 papers. Every student at BAA had major projects due—snow storms and cancelled school days or not. The overarching message from everywhere was: school matters, your work matters, what you are showing, writing, singing, presenting, computing, explaining is important to this entire community. That is what school should be.

-Linda Nathan
January 2011

BAA and the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Some of you may know that the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Education Resource Center (BSOERC) is housed in the BAA/Fenway High School Library. The BAA/Fenway Library and BSOERC won the 2004 American Association of School Librarians National School Library Media Program of the Year and is an incredible resource for so many teachers, musicians, and students.

Allyssa Jones, Milton Wright and Myran Parker-Brass

BAA's Allyssa Jones, Milton Wright of the New England Spiritual Ensemble, and the BSO's Myran Parker-Brass (photo by Helene Norton-Russell)

We are lucky to have a fantastic relationship with the BSO and Myran Parker-Brass, their Director of Education and Community Programs. Last week I was invited to give the opening remarks for their professional development workshop, “Teaching African American Spirituals: an Interdisciplinary Approach.” The workshop was hosted by the BSOERC and co-sponsored by BAA’s Center for Arts in Education and the Massachusetts Music Educators Association (MMEA) Eastern District Outreach and Advocacy Committee, which includes one of our own music faculty, Allyssa Jones.

Tyrone Sutton
BAA’s Tyrone Sutton presents with Anthony Trecek-King of the Boston Children’s Chorus (photo by Helene
Norton-Russell)

After an amazing day spent tackling the question, “Why teach African American Spirituals?”, the workshop closed with a performance by the New England Spiritual Ensemble (both Allyssa and Myran are members of this group) and students from the Boston Arts Academy Spiritual Ensemble. I am so proud that BAA was featured in this concert and that the ensemble (directed by BAA music and humanities faculty member, Tyrone Sutton) has been in demand around Boston, performing at the Room to Grow fall gala in November, BAA’s Council of Advocates breakfast in December, and now, at Symphony Hall.

I was impressed with Dr. Anthony Leach (Associate Professor of Music and Music Education at Penn State University) who led the workshop, and was incredibly inspired by the nearly 45 teachers from Boston, Chelmsford, Rhode Island, Newton, and Lexington who attended the workshop, including teachers from the Minuteman Technical School (I have always argued that we need to see the arts also embodied as vocational skills, and Minuteman Tech now has a band, recording studio, and sound engineering!). I was honored to be in the presence of these dedicated teachers, and have posted my introductory remarks below.

Dr. Anthony Leach

Dr. Anthony Leach led the workshop (photo by Helene Norton-Russell)

Introductory remarks- “Teaching African American Spirituals”
BSO, January 10, 2011

We live in an age where educational policy makers believe that only things that can be counted matter. Sadly, education reform has become synonymous with raising test scores. What it means to be a whole child, or a whole human being, who needs a strong intellectual center with many outlets for creative and even spiritual exploration, has been forgotten.  The conversation is completely lopsided. Our obsession with measurement and comparison has led to a curriculum that ignores the aesthetic, the musical or the imaginative. No one would ever argue that reading and math don’t count and shouldn’t be tested, but when a 9 month school year is reduced to a 7 month school year because of the number of days spent on testing and test prep, someone has got to say: Stop! It’s time to change our paradigm.

That is when I look to the arts. The arts teach us that judgment counts—not just finding right answers and filling in bubble test answer sheets. The arts teach about perspective, critique, working together, and learning from our history. The arts allow multiple opportunities to walk in another’s shoes, sing another’s songs and appreciate and empathize with lyrics and melodies that may be foreign to us.

American spirituals are a way into understanding our past, our traditions, our trials and aspirations, our greatest hopes for what can be. I’m not sure there is a test to measure what a good spiritual sounds like – I certainly hope not. The assessment of good (or not good) comes from the audience’s response. Were you moved? Did you come to a different understanding, emotionally and intellectually, than you expected? Were you transported? And what do those explorations mean to you?

I am so proud of the spiritual ensemble at BAA where our students work together to create a sound that helps us ask about our collective humanity and our history. That, to me, is why we are teachers

So, I welcome you to this wonderful day where you will work and learn together and where you will remind one another, and your students, that music – and this music in particular – is the stuff of life. We can never forsake it lest we forsake ourselves. I know we can struggle through these dark days of budget cuts and reforms that are a parody of what is actually needed. Remember the words of our spirituals: “I ain’t got time to die” and “don’t let nobody turn me around.” Stay focused on your good work. You know what is right for kids. Thank you for being here today… enjoy and sing!

Orlando Lightfoot of the New England Spiritual Ensemble sings with BAA student Anthony Lewis (photo by Helene Norton-Russell)

 

Ask the students

In a departure from blogging about the world outside of Boston Arts Academy, I am going to switch things up for the new year and return to life inside the school. While my travels over the past year and a half have taken me to many amazing schools and introduced me to so many incredible people, I feel I am ready to get back to the home front and the business of asking those hard questions.

 

Educators gnash their teeth and wring their hands about parent engagement in schools, especially in urban secondary schools. There is a great deal of research that suggests student achievement increases when parents/caregivers are involved and know what is going on with their children in school. There are three references in particular that I think are great: Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family/School Partnerships, by Anne T. Henderson, Vivian Johnson, Karen L. Mapp, and Don Davies; School, Family, and Community Partnerships: Your Handbook for Action, by Joyce L. Epstein and Associates; and Trust In Schools: A Core Resource For Improvement by Anthony S. Bryk.

Recently, I brought together a group of secondary school principals and educators at Boston Arts Academy to brainstorm different ways to encourage parents/caregivers to connect more to their children’s schools. Our first idea was to ask our students. How would they define family engagement and what would they say were the challenges?

The first activity involved watching a short play called, The Waiting Room. Four theatre majors at Boston Arts Academy co-wrote this piece with their theatre teacher, which explores questions of what constitutes family. The action occurs in hospital waiting room in which two sets of siblings who have never met anxiously await to hear if their beloved mother or “Mama T” will live. One pair is the mother’s biological children; the other her community center-formerly-gang involved “children”. Both sets claim Mama as their mother. The group of educators watched the performance along with the 40 ninth and eleventh-graders. Afterwards we engaged in a discussion with actors and audience.

First, the actors spoke. “This play is about how you make your family with blood or not,” said one of the gang involved-children.” Another actor-child said, “The play speaks to the importance of nuclear or extended families and also how important it is that your parent or caregiver know you.”

Sitting in a large circle, students spoke passionately about the barriers for their parents to become involved in school. “My mom can’t participate because she knows there won’t be an interpreter. She’s embarrassed cause her English isn’t good. And also, she works at night so if the meetings are then, she can’t ever come.” Lots of kids nodded their heads. Another student suggested that the meetings not be just about talking about school issues, but that different activities should be offered (like cooking, computer classes, and personal finance). Cece, a ninth-grader, said that there should be more incentives to come up to the school. Deirde, a sunny-faced junior with energy bursting out of every pore, seconded that idea. “My mom doesn’t even get why she should come up to school. ‘What you do wrong?’ she asks whenever there is a call or a letter. “Why they want me to come up there?’ But if you could bribe her—like she’d win a raffle or a big prize then she’d come. You have to trick parents.” Others concurred, and Tishana said that parents are ‘old school’ and think that the only reason teachers ask parents to come to school is to be told that your kid is doing badly.

Students suggested that advisors call home every Sunday to tell a parent or caregiver something good or funny that had happened that week. “That way you have a relationship that isn’t about the bad stuff,” Stanley said earnestly. Tyrone agreed and said that he didn’t want his parents to have a real personal bond with the teacher—“That’s creepy. But I feel better if my mom knows what’s going on in school. It affects me if she doesn’t have a clue. But a teacher’s got to balance with parents and not get too close.”

Connor thought the idea of a carnival would be fun. “That way every family can share their culture and it’s a way to create a community where everyone comes together and you get to taste everyone’s food. That’s a good way to get to know people you know.” Again, the affirmative nods moved like lightening around the circle.

Ideas kept flowing—the idea of parents shadowing their kid for a day, an interactive newsletter where parents could ask questions and get answers from teachers or principal, facebook for parents, and a culture day. Arthur said that if his mom could actually do his art than she’d understand why he spends so much time in school, and she wouldn’t make him do so many chores at home. Other students laughed at this idea. “Naw, that wouldn’t matter. I’d still have to clean my room and do the dishes, but I would like my mom to understand what I do. When she knows things she feels better and then I do, too.”

I was impressed with the insightfulness and thoughtfulness of these young people. I worried, too, that even fourteen year olds use the phrase, “Coming up to the school” which seems to define school as a foreign, distant and even alien place. Our challenge is to change that perception and ensure that older adolescents see a positive partnership between their parent/caregiver and their teacher. Sometimes, as seasoned educators, or even as newly minted leaders, we forget to ask those closest to the issues: the kids. I learned a lot from listening to my students. Next, we will be sure to ask the parents and caregivers which of these suggestions they would like to implement.

As always, I’d love to hear your feedback about these issues. Feel free to leave comments!

A visit to the Boston Teachers Union School

I was so glad to finally visit the BTU Pilot School where my friends Betsy Drinan and Berta Berriz work. My first thought was that this school needs to give itself a “real” name; one that sings with the energy of the hallways! I kept thinking how much the students would love to engage in the process of naming their school. Regardless of the name, I was so impressed and joyful by what my friends have built at the BTU Pilot.

I loved weaving in and out of classrooms and seeing the energy and the focus of young people and teachers. I loved seeing Riana Good, a former BAA student intern, teaching the 4 year-olds. She was as expert with them as she was with high school students. I loved the squeak of those shiny wood floors. I loved how every hallway burst with student work and the values of the school. And, of course, I am thrilled that they have both an art and a music teacher!

I wondered though, about the Achievement Network testing program that the BTU School has adopted. I’ve heard a lot of schools are using it and wonder if it’s worth it, or if it’s just a time suck? Do teachers feel the value? I’d like to understand more about why they implemented it.  I’m always suspicious of company tests as opposed to tests that actual teachers construct and administer. Betsy mentioned a disconnect between the current curriculum and the test. How do teachers use the results and is this testing program pushing their practice forward, or holding them back?

Betsy, Berta, and I also sat down and discussed issues of governance and teacher evaluations. We also talked about strategic planning and the importance of starting the process early in a school’s life.

Mostly, I want to affirm what a terrific job they are doing at the BTU School. There is ALWAYS more work to do as educators and school leaders–it’s never-ending. But it’s important to be proud of what you’ve accomplished and to realize that there are many years to do all the rest. Go slowly. Deliberately. Don’t answer every district mandate and demand. You’ll drown and your school will suffer. Build the culture and the foundation. Ask the hard questions. Be open to critique.

Thank you to the BTU School for including me in a small way in your process. I’m proud to be your colleague and friend.

Giving thanks

With this being the season of giving thanks, I have been thinking a great deal about what I am grateful for, both personally and professionally. In my last post, I described my wonderful experience at the Coalition of Essential Schools’ Fall Forum. The Coalition is an organization that has shaped me as a teacher, school leader, author, and advocate for young people. I believe that the folks who read my blog are of a like mind and many of you out there have undoubtedly benefited from CES, even indirectly. Their work is so vital and far-reaching in our world and as things continue to be challenging with standardized testing, the achievement gap, budget cuts, Waiting for Superman, and everything else, I believe we need the Coalition now more than ever.

I haven’t used this blog ever to ask people for anything, but I am changing that today. If you are in any way able to make a donation to CES, large or small, than I urge you to do so as soon as possible. This vital organization is currently struggling financially and need every little bit of support they can get. I am asking everyone I know to do this, including my teachers at BAA. Another option to consider is joining the organization, which I am also urging folks to do. I believe that membership should be part of every teacher’s professional development plan.

I will also use this opportunity to make the official announcement that I have been invited to join the board of the Coalition of Essential Schools. I am honored and look forward to serving this outstanding organization, which was founded and is currently headed by mentors and dear friends. Thank you and have a wonderful holiday.

Click here to make a donation to the Coalition of Essential Schools

Click here to join the Coalition of Essential Schools


LIKE Linda on Facebook

Follow Linda on Twitter!

Archives

Support Independent Bookstores!

Shop Indie Bookstores

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 86 other followers

Join My Mailing List!

Blog Posts by Category


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 86 other followers