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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

Demanding Education that Matters: Notes from the CES Fall Forum

The 25th anniversary of the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) Fall Forum opened with words from Nancy Sizer, Ted Sizer’s widow. Nancy spoke eloquently of Ted’s vision–the importance of conversations amongst friends and detractors from the ten common principles. Even in times of budget-slashing in schools and disheartening claims about the importance of high-stakes testing and racing to the top, CES and Ted remind us to keep the ten common principles in the forefront of our work. These ten principles could not be more relevant today 1. Less is more  2. Depth over coverage  3. Learning to use one’s mind well  4. Goals that apply to all students  5. Personalization  6. Student as worker, teacher as coach  7. Demonstration of mastery  8. A tone of decency and trust  8. Commitment to the entire school—teachers and principal should perceive themselves as generalists first (teachers and scholars and artists in general education), and specialists second (experts in one particular discipline  9. Resources dedicated to teaching and learning  10. Democracy and equity.

While these seem like simple principles, they are actually deeply complex and take a lifetime of work to truly integrate them into any school. That was Ted’s brilliance. What CES offers is not a quick fix brand or model. Rather, it is set of ideas to bring to schools, classrooms, students, and family members so that we all can continue to ask the hard questions: How are we doing (with these principles)? Where do we see the principles at work in our school? What would it look like if they were more evident? (For a full explanation of the principles, visit the CES website).

I appreciated the questions that framed this year’s conference: What does it mean to each of us to demand education that matters? To our communities? Our students and families? How do we organize with a stance to demand education that matters?

Pedro Noguera, from NYU, was the Fall Forum keynote speaker and he shared some sobering statistics: the achievement of African American males is worse since the implementation of No Child Left Behind. He demanded we think about this question: “How can we put the most inexperienced principals and inexperienced teachers with the neediest students in the neediest schools? That’s called Teach for America!”

Nevertheless, he exhorted us to not necessarily defend the status quo either. He asked that we engage in educational debates without allowing ourselves to become sandwiched into rhetoric, to not simply say, “I’m pro or anti-charter or pro or anti-union” without looking at the complexities, particularities, and nuances of each institution. Unions need to change andwe must acknowledge that some charters have done a good job, Pedro asserted. (Later Linda Darling Hammond quoted a Hoover Institute study that cited 17% of charters outperformed “regular” public schools serving similar students, about 37% underperformed public school counterparts and the rest (just under half) did about the same. Here is a link to that study). Pedro also warned the gathered audience about the challenges of electing public officials who truly know how to listen, or are affiliated with powerful interest groups, lobbies, or corporations. My sighs here were audible. How do we do that? The federal officials seem so far away and disconnected from what we need in urban schools. There is a podcast of Pedro’s speech available online–It’s worth listening to!

These big ideas were the framework for our conversations over the next few days.

I was proud to have two outstanding teachers: John ADEkoje and Juanita Rodrigues, with me, as well as four remarkable students from Soul Element. All four had been well-trained as ambassadors by Corey Evans, Director of our Center for Arts in Education, and coached not only by their BAA theatre teachers, but also by a BAA theatre alum!

BAA students and faculty

BAA theatre students and faculty

On the first day, our students led a youth forum for 40 students from eight different schools around the country. The title of the workshop was “Transforming Through the Arts” and was about creating personal narratives using the methodology of Soul Element. I witnessed all of the scenes that students wrote and performed (under the direction of our students) and  they were excellent— exploring issues of race, culture, class, family dynamics, peer pressure, etc… When the workshop ended, no one wanted to leave. I was impressed by the power and focus of these young people, so determined to create a more just and equitable society.

Students learn from students

The next day I was privileged to have the students and John ADEkoje join me in my session–one that was specially featured at conference. We had again, about 40 people, including a contingent from the Netherlands. We spoke about BAA—both from places of pride and also of the places we wanted to improve—and our students were quite persuasive about the role of RICO and shared values in our school. We also shared how we think about creating artists-scholars-citizens. We began and closed with theatre warm-ups.

Students teaching teachers!

The students joined me for a book talk at Book Passage, an independent bookstore in Marin. There were about 20 folks gathered, ranging from a doctor who studies wellness with adolescents, a midwife, retired and current educators, to personal friends of mine.

We also had time for some picture-taking and fun, thanks to one of our supporters, Lilli Ouyang, who fought horrendous SF traffic, jamming all five of us into a small car to get us across the Golden Gate Bridge in daylight.

Classic Golden Gate Bridge shot of me with kids

We had a great visit to Marin Academy (a private school) which was an interesting experience for all of us. Yes, we  developed edifice envy seeing their jewel box theatre AND black box, as well as beautiful arts spaces—ceramics, painting and drawing, photography, dance and an outdoor ping-pong table area. Again, I was reminded painfully, about the ability to truly expand learning when the space compliments learning expectations. I kept saying to the kids, “Edifice envy is an ugly trait, but I have it badly!”

Marin Academy

In addition to the visit to Marin Academy, we also visited our 2010 Principal Intern, Michael Lee, now a Vice Principal at a large comprehensive high school. Mr. Lee took us to visit both Mills College and UC Berkeley, and also took us sightseeing. We also had an opportunity to visit another Principal Intern, Laura Flaxman, at the ARISE charter high school in Oakland. All in all, we (as usual) were able to squeeze quite a lot into a very short time!

On a more sober note, I do hope that CES will sustain these bad economic times. Educators truly need these opportunities to come together and engage in conversations at a national level. An example is a great workshop that I attended, lead by George Wood (Director of the Forum for Democracy and Education), Deborah Meier, and Linda Darling Hammond. Linda is such an inspiring educator and extremely knowledgeable about federal issues of education. It was not all gloom and doom, but their message was clear—everyone needs to sign up to be a member of the Forum and CES. We must have a voice in Washington, so that it’s not just the Gates Foundations and other big corporations directing policy.

Our students closed the conference on Sunday with their theatre piece “The Waiting Room.” Here is what Christina Brown, from the Center for Collaborative Education, wrote me about the kids and their performance:

Just wanted to say that I was on the plane with your amazing students.  I told them they were rock stars. Their performance was amazing, and their presence and eloquence in discussing educational issues was even more amazing. Their words truly were as powerful as their acting skills. [They] channeled their inner Ted Sizer or inner Linda Nathan, since you are both famous authors now. They said BAA was about RICO and described it and said students can’t learn unless you engage them first. What a perfect closing.”

Milwaukee musings

What a whirlwind two-day trip to Milwaukee! I hadn’t been there since 1977, when I studied at UW Madison and forgot how friendly people are in the Midwest.

I visited Milwaukee at the invitation of Christina Ratatori, who is a dance teacher in the public schools and founder of a.r.t. (Artists Rallying Together), a new group comprised of both artists and arts teachers who want to ensure that young people are exposed to a rich arts curriculum in schools. They propose to do this by using both certified teachers and also visiting artists, who would participate in residencies, do special projects, and work with afterschool programs. Christina founded the organization for two reasons: one, because her artist friends could never figure out how to gain entrance to schools as arts instructors, and another because of her awareness of how few certified arts teachers were currently in schools. So instead of passively bemoaning budget cuts, she created a.r.t. to try to solve the problem!

Boswell Books

With Christina at Boswell Books

Book Talk
Boswell Books is an independent bookstore on the East Side of Milwaukee and co-sponsored my talk (along with a.r.t.). An engaging cross-section of participants showed up, including a couple who had worked at Cambridge Rindge and Latin and Madison Park High Schools in the “old days.” It was great fun catching up with them. A member of the Milwaukee Symphony came, as well as arts teachers and folks interested in education, including a former school board member. We had a lively discussion about our own educational dilemmas as well as the present situation in the Milwaukee Public Schools.

Boswell Books friends

With old friends from Boston Public Schools

While I cannot come close to even pretending to be an expert on Milwaukee schools, I found the situation in Milwaukee almost a wake-up call for what I believe is bound to happen in other cities if we don’t get it together. Milwaukee has a public school system, a charter school system, and a choice system. The choice system is essentially vouchers, and choice schools are for the most part private and parochial schools. Depending on your perspective you’d either say the choice system has drained the public school system of valuable resources or you’d say it has given parents genuine new opportunities to choose schools. The charters come in two flavors: ones run by the district, which operate much like Boston’s pilot schools (unionized) and others which are run by non-profits, universities, and the like (non-unionized). The city is an example for many of what a good market system can bring; for others it is an example of business principles gone awry.

In addition to the book talk at Boswell Books, I also visited two exceptional schools: Milwaukee High School for the Arts and La Escuela Fratney/The Fratney School, a bilingual pre-k-5th grade.

The Fratney School/La Escuela Fratney
I had been introduced to Fratney’s Principal Rita Tenorio and 5th grade teacher Bob Peterson through Vito Perrone almost 20 years ago. (Bob is also one of the founders of Rethinking Schools, my favorite education journal). I was so pleased to finally get to visit the school “in the flesh.”

The lobby at La Escuela Fratney

From the moment I walked into the main lobby and engulfed by hundreds of butterflies balancing gracefully in a net, I knew this school stood for more than just making AYP. Creativity, self-expression, and the importance of being bilingual are the foundations of Fratney. In every room I visited, students focused on projects and group activities. Rooms are labled “Zona Español” or “Zona Inglés” and students, as in many bilingual schools, shift from weeks of instruction in English to instruction in Spanish.  I was sad to learn that because of budget cuts there is only one arts teacher in the school. They also no longer have a physical education teacher, just an itinerant who is there for only six weeks. The school worked hard to keep their librarian, and the library is absolutely the center and heart of the school.

Fratney School’s lovely library

Unlike the anti-union messages in Waiting for Superman, this is a school that is strongly unionized, collaborative, hard-working, and dedicated to kids and families. I left feeling so happy for the 400 families that get to experience La Escuela Fratney. I also loved that on Fridays all faculty wear Fratney t-shirts of different vintages, and I especially loved meeting the FEMALE head custodian, Joan, who does a fabulous job keeping the school pristine.

Fratney's amazing Head Custodian, Joan

Milwaukee High School for the Arts
At our sister art school, MHSA, Principal Barry Applewhite was very gracious with his time and we “floated” (his description)  in and out of classrooms for about two hours. While I didn’t have an opportunity to see academic classrooms, I was smitten quite ill with “edifice envy.” MHSA is situated in a large former vocational school building. Every room has big windows and is BIG! There is space to move! Even with a student body of 900 students, it never felt crowded. There are three lunch periods, and the cafeteria was very calm.  Students have 30 minutes for lunch and at the 15 min bell they can go outside to the small yard and parking lot to just breathe fresh air, play games or chat.

A MHSA student “chilling” outside during lunch period

Throughout my visit I was struck by the ease and order of the place. Students know where they belong; safety personnel (three uniformed safety people as well as someone sitting in the front just signing people in) know all the kids and really help the administration keep things moving. Teachers are in the hallways and in the cafeteria as well, helping to keep everyone on track. I saw no hall wanderers. The day is scheduled into 10 periods with each class 52 minutes long. Students have two periods of art a day (not necessarily back-to-back) and some seniors have more arts when they have finished academics requirements.

Principal Barry Applewhite with Assistant Principal Tonya Adair

Students audition in eighth grade. There are approximately 325 musicians (vocal and instrumental), approximately 125 in theatre and the rest in dance, creative writing and visual arts. There are also about 80-100 students (out of that 900) who are “COs” or central office transfers. Many of these students are special needs and according to Principal Applewhite, although they many not have a major, fit right into the arts classes. It is the school’s intent to get them into a major. Some don’t get to take the advanced arts classes but they have the opportunity to do so if they excel. (I witnessed students just fitting in a number of classes).

I had the chance to visit the head of music—choral teacher Raymond Roberts, who has been there for a long time (since the beginning?). He is a product of Dallas’ Booker T. Washington arts high school and is determined even with many constraints, to build a program based on what he learned there. Students take one year of theory, one year of piano, and their third and fourth years are in two ensembles (as opposed to just one for the first two years). I watched his women’s beginning choir class working on Rollo Dilworth’s Jordan’s Angels. I also got to hear his upper-house jazz ensemble perform Horace Silva’s Song for My Father. I loved their ability to improvise! I loved the energy of this group, their skills, humility, and pride all mixed together. I also enjoyed watching the way Raymond remained calm as he worked with his beginning students. I promised Barry I wouldn’t steal Raymond, but I’d sure like to do an exchange with our students and his (Barry tells me he sends their students to England each year, but Boston is a lot closer)!

Upper House Jazz Ensemble

We also visited a theatre class taught by Gus Rich. There are two and a half faculty in the theatre department (the half is also a physics teacher), and they teach everything. Gus is the technical director for the school and teaches acting, costume, lighting, stage craft, and theory. It seemed like every arts teacher there taught a LOT of classes and wore many hats (similar to BAA). Gus also produces two dozen shows for the school each year. The class of sophomores was working on Comedy of Errors and appeared to be doing well independently. I was then invited to watch a five minute scene from the play. While the class meets in the theatre (which is a large “old school” auditorium better suited for dance and music), most theatre performances are held in the 110-seat black box. (“Better suited for young voices,” Gus told me). Twice a year, there are portfolio presentations, which count for 1/5 of the semester grade. In these presentations, students must show through acting and researched writing, how they have grown as an artist.

Theatre students rehearsing

Both Barry and Gus were surprised at my question about kids that don’t make the grade. What happens to them? Through informal mentoring with older students, or mentoring from teachers, students do meet their benchmarks. There is a safety exam at the end of sophomore year that students take until they get the necessary grade. “It’s as much for them as for me,” Gus said. “I have to know they can use the equipment.”

And what about attrition? Very few kids are counseled out. “Once we accept them, our job is to keep them,” Principal Applewhite said.

Barry Applewhite used to hold two jobs—Head of Music for the district, as well as principal of MHSA. I loved watching him go into a room where a small jazz ensemble was playing. “You aren’t playing that right,” Barry said to the drummer. “That’s not a Latin beat. I played that when I was in college!” The musicians and all students, obviously respect, admire, and love Barry. He’s an artist like them, and knows what it is to play well. The orchestra has 60 string players, because Milwaukee supports an elementary and two middle schools for the arts.

Barry also took me “floating”—his word—as in “let’s float” through visual arts classes, where beginning students were working on portraits and other non-VA students were working on a variety of projects and drawings.

A Visual Arts classroom

I also met their Parent Coordinator who runs the Parent Center, located off the cafeteria. It was filled with spirit wear, a much-used microwave, newsletters, and sign-up sheets for various clubs, field trips and other activities. There is even a sports program that MHSA students can participate in. The Parent Coordinator is also a member of the school’s foundation called Catch a Rising Star.

Mr. Applewhite with MHSA's Parent Coordinator

All of the teachers (academic and arts) work within the framework of Understanding By Design, and submit unit guides to meet the criteria of that approach. Barry has high hopes that this overarching framework will give the faculty more common ground to discuss lessons, assessment, and issues of teaching and learning. Currently there are 82 sophomore students who have not made AYP in Math, so they have recently started an afterschool math program to address this.

Besides the general feeling of calm and focus mixed with wonderful energy, I was taken with the way the “COs” were integrated into the school. I wondered whether the faculty and staff were pleased with the artistic quality of the students (I had the sense that they were, but didn’t really probe and ask). I couldn’t quite figure out the schedule (even though I took a picture of it!), but it seems to operate as a 10-period day, where students have the flexibility to choose from a multitude of classes. When I asked Barry about challenges, he quickly repeated the familiar refrain: money and the necessity of more support from the district. I also heard this from others outside of the school, who have great respect for the school’s accomplishments but worry about its sustainability without clear district support. An arts school simply costs more. We all know that!

On the Radio
My radio interview with Bonnie North on NPR radio affiliate, 89.7 WUWM went really well. I will post a link to the sound file very soon!

With radio host Maggie North

Milwaukee Art Museum
In addition to my school visits, I also had the opportunity to visit the new Milwaukee Art Museum designed by architects Eero Saarinen, David Kahler, and Santiago Calatrava (and yes, at noon the wings actually do move!).

The incredible Milwaukee Art Museum

Ethan Lesser, Chipstone Foundation curator, was giving a class on American Decorative Arts to about 40 University of Wisconsin students, and I was able to tag along for a bit. It was fun to hear him and the students speak about the difference between studying fine art objects and three-dimensional objects like a teapot or a chair. There was also a 20th century European Design exhibition and I saw that wild new vacuum cleaner designed by James Dyson of England. I had just read about it in The New Yorker and it sure is cool!

So, I really packed lots into just two days. Overall, I must say I enjoyed being in the Midwest with people who are genuinely nice. It is certainly a very different vibe than Boston!

Making my way to Milwaukee

This afternoon I am off to visit Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Sung-Joon Pai (founding BAA faculty member, friend, and school leader) recently introduced me to a lovely person named Christina Ratatori. Christina leads an organization called Artists Rallying Together (a.r.t.)  and teaches in the Milwaukee Public Schools. She is a great supporter and set up my book talk on Saturday 10/23 at Boswell Books. The talk will be held from 4-6 p.m. and is co-sponsored by a.r.t.

My Milwaukee agenda is varied and exciting and includes a visit with Principal Barry Applewhite at Milwaukee High School of the Arts and a visit with Bob Peterson at La Escuela Fratney. Bob is a teacher there and a founding editor of the publication Rethinking Schools. I will also do a radio interview with Bonnie North on NPR radio affiliate, 89.7 WUWM on Saturday 10/23 at 3:00 p.m.  I am also VERY excited about a personal tour of the Milwaukee Art Museum with Ethan Lasser, an Art History adjunct professor from the University of Wisconsin. I will fill you in on the details next week!

 

Beautiful Brandeis

Last week I did a book talk at Brandeis University’s beautiful Rose Art Museum. The faculty from the education department invited me to speak with both their graduate (MAT) students and education undergraduates. Brandeis included the book talk on their list of activities for Parent Weekend, which was so cool! I was also honored to have a colleague from Boston Public Schools in the audience, principal Mary Driscoll of the Edison K-8. Mary’s son is a freshman at Brandeis.

Showing our BAA Video

Showing off our new BAA Recruitment Video

Having just read Larry Myatt‘s beautiful piece about Ted Sizer in the Forum for Democracy, I was thinking a lot about the contributions Ted Sizer made to public education. Horace’s Compromise was first published in 1984 and is still relevant today. I feel privileged to have had Ted for a mentor, and always try and bring him into the room, if you will, when I speak about my work in education and about why I write. There aren’t enough of us out there telling the stories of struggle and success in our schools, while there seem to be many loud voices outside of our school communities telling us about the many ways we are failing young people.

I’m always encouraged when I speak to college-age (and graduate school) students about their desire to go into public education. I’m often inspired by their vision and persistence. I was asked for a few words of advice at the end of the talk last week and here is what I said: “Teaching requires flexibility and strength. Flexibility to continuously adapt your repertoire and to keep learning alongside your students. And strength to be grounded even when the onslaught of needs from a class of 26 or 30 young people seems impossible to manage, and also strength to avoid getting into power struggles-you can’t win kids over that way. I also told them that (and I’m not sure how well this was received) in my mind, it takes at least 5 years to learn to be a good teacher-not an excellent one-but a good one.

I finished my talk with a personal request to each and every aspiring teacher: “Please stick with this profession. It is a wonderful one and we need all of you!”

Getting Better

With the wonderful Marya Levenson and Dirck Roosevelt

Many thanks to Dirck Roosevelt, Director of the MAT Program, and to Marya Levenson, Director of the Education Program for inviting me to speak at Brandeis University.

I ♥ Librarians

I recently had the privilege of being a featured author and key note presenter at a conference for the Massachusetts School Librarians Association (MSLA). I happen to admire librarians as much as I admire teachers. We are VERY fortunate at BAA to have a world-class, award-winning library, and attending the conference were current Library Director, Ms. Deborah Froggat, AND founding BAA Library Director and current Executive Director of the MSLA, Ms. Kathy Lowe.

 

Linda and Librarians Extraordinaire

With Deborah Froggatt (L) and Kathy Lowe (R), Librarians Extraordinaire!

 

My talk, “Literacy for Democracy: What are the Hardest Questions that Librarians Might Ask?” posed a series of questions for school librarians. Among some of the questions I asked this amazing group of educators were: “Are you leading the literacy programs in your schools?” and “Are you the vision keeper and communicator for the importance of being a passionate reader?”

I also shared some of the literacy practices developed at BAA over the years (some of which I describe in chapter four of my book), and discussed how so often our librarians have been the ones to articulate probing questions about our literacy programs. At BAA, our librarians’ questions have ranged from “How can we improve our students’ exposure to and excitement with literature?” and “How can our students be more competent users of technology and the web?” to “What do lunch-time Literature Circles look like?” and “How have students come to vie for this time to share spoken word and poetry?”


 

 

Linda Nathan

Always asking the hard questions!

 

At BAA, we feel very  fortunate to have had such extraordinary librarians. But I must say, I  left this conference feeling that the members of this Library Association were an impressive group altogether!

Waiting for Superman?

Last week I had the chance to participate on a panel discussion at the Center for Public Leadership (Harvard Kennedy School) following a screening of the newly-released documentary Waiting for Superman. I was joined on the panel by Jim Berk (CEO of Participant Media, the film’s production company) and Thackston Lundy, a student at Kennedy school and former Director of Operations at one of the schools profiled in the film. David Ager, Director of Undergraduate Studies and Professor of Sociology at Harvard, moderated the discussion.

Panel

Panelists Thackston Lundy, Jim Berk, and myself with Moderator David Ager

You’ve probably heard about this moving but controversial film directed by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth). In Waiting for Superman, Guggenheim documents the aspirations of five families seeking charter school admission as a way out of under-performing district public schools. By focusing primarily on charter schools while omitting well-performing district schools entirely, the film (intentionally or not) promotes charter schools as the logical alternative to public school systems. Although charters have been one source of innovation and best practices, the overall record for these schools has been a mixed bag at best. As a person with first-had knowledge of many high-functioning district public schools, you can be sure that I had a few things to say!

In our discussion Jim Berk stated his hope for a sea change as a result of this film; a vision of people rising up to get involved in their communities to demand better schools and better results for kids. I do hope that this will happen and that the film doesn’t continue to polarize the debate about charter and public schools. 96% of our young people go to public schools in public school systems, so we have to get public education right.

Maybe charters can help show the way to some “best practices.” While the autonomies of charter schools (and of pilot schools–Boston Arts Academy is a pilot school within Boston Public Schools) certainly provide some of the tools necessary for improved schools. These autonomies in and of themselves are not a magic bullet. They are part of the solution. The autonomies in both charters and pilots are:

1.      Autonomy of curriculum and assessment, within the constraints of state tests
2.      Autonomy of schedule and school year calendar
3.      Autonomy of budget
4.      Autonomy of governance
5.      Autonomy of hiring and staffing

A major difference with pilots and charters is that pilots are still within the district and teachers part of the union.

Waiting for Superman truly excoriates the union–in incredibly vicious ways. While there are many areas in which I’d like to see unions become more progressive, I don’t want us to forget that it was the union that brought us pilot schools and it is always the union that fights for better conditions in classrooms (often when districts or even the public is looking the other way). And if the union was so much the problem, why wouldn’t non-unionized states like Texas, South Carolina or Virginia have fabulous schools?

To end on an optimistic note–let’s hope that this film does elevate the dialogue in all communities about how to improve schools and help all of us focus on what’s important in education: students who are truly engaged in learning communities; teachers who are inspired and inspiring, creative and knowledgeable about content area, and dedicated to kids; and clear standards and assessments that allow all students to stretch to high standards of achievement.

We need fewer constraints and less bloated bureaucracy to get there, that is for sure. And the film does point this out. Let’s make sure that everyone feels motivated and welcomed in their local schools and that there are great schools for all kids.


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