Posts Tagged 'Coalition of Essential Schools'

What’s Been Lost in the Bubbles: Comments from Occupy DOE, April 5, 2013

These are my comments from Occupy DOE in Washington, D.C. last week. You can also see video of my talk here! I’d love to hear other people’s experiences with testing in their classrooms and schools.

I’m not against testing. I am against high stakes testing in which, as a result of a single (or often now a series) of short answer bubble tests, decisions are made about a student’s future. Decisions that, at least in Massachusetts, are tied to money for attending state colleges.   

I am here today to remind us to be wary of quick fixes—promises that a new regimen of tests will cure all or that by embracing common core curriculum we will have equity and excellence in schools. Equity comes from equal opportunities for all students, and from equal funding that truly levels the disparate playing fields between schools. I believe true equity also comes from trusting and empowering teachers to do their best work with the young people in front of them.

I want to paint two pictures for you. Recently I visited a turnaround middle school in Colorado. (Even that terminology gives me pause.) All the walls in the hallways and offices and classrooms were covered with brown paper– the kind you see in art classrooms for making large mural like painting.  I was so excited. I knew the school was arts focused and I eagerly asked about the mural projects! Of course I couldn’t have been more wrong about purpose. Everything was covered so that during testing there would be NO print materials visible for students to ostensibly use to cheat– no posters, no teachers’ diplomas, no word walls, no formulas, nothing. I was aghast and so disappointed. Don’t you want to know more about the tests we are giving our students if a teacher’s college diploma could lead to cheating? I was even more dismayed by the deadened eyes I saw on these middle schoolers who had just finished 9 sessions of testing. The next day was their big arts show but the testing regime had cut into a large chunk of rehearsal time. The tensions and tempers now flared. The students in this school are all poor and primarily immigrant and ELL students. They come to school hoping for increased opportunities and to experience worlds that because of race and class have been denied them. How do these weeks of testing (and all the weeks and months of test prep) provide an avenue for advancement for them? I met with their art teachers all of whom bemoaned the days of missed classes because of testing—they had counted—46 days of testing or test prep. That is not uncommon anymore. And as we know most school years are only 180 days.

Speaking at Occupy DOE

Now let me describe what is going on at BAA. According to the state department of education in Massachusetts, we are now a level 3 school (on a five point scale). Level 3 is almost a failing school. One more point lower—i.e. level 4 and we might be eligible for state take over. That is not a good thing.  BAA sends 93% of our graduates to college or conservatories. Our graduates include two members of Alvin Ailey Dance Company and countless other alums who have taken their place in the world of art, education, culture and service. In a recent study 63% of our grads had either finished or were still in college. There are 100s of students on the waiting list. These are good statistics. How are we almost failing?

We are a level 3 school because the department of education ONLY uses the data from MCAS (which is Massachusetts’ much praised high stakes bubble test. MCAS  stands for Mass. Comprehensive Assessment System—I have argued for years that MCAS is not a comprehensive assessment system at all but scores on a series of high stakes tests).

The State requires schools to set targets for scores on the test. Last year, we exceeded all our targets, including targets for high needs students. In fact, we have been praised for our results with our highest need students particularly, our special needs students. In addition, we have had graduation rates in the mid-80th percentile. But, our school’s cumulative “PPI” or Progress and Performance Index places us in the lowest 20% relative to other schools at the same grade level. In our district there are five schools that are level 1 schools. Three of these five are exam schools. Two of them take students through an interview process. While BAA is an audition only school we do not look at academic record or previous grades at all in our admissions decisions. When our headmaster appealed to the State about this new categorization she was told that we were on the higher end of the lowest 20% (“almost not in the lowest 20%” they said). She was also told that was our cumulative PPI NOT in the lowest 20% we would be a level 1 school because, as I said a moment ago, we met or exceeded all of our targets last year.

Even though we have made progress and met all our benchmarks on all our goals with all our sub-groups (another term I find despicable which means ‘high need’ students) we are still in the bottom 20% of cumulative PPI. MCAS is NOT supposed to be a normed test. Even though we are well above statewide averages on the test with regards to the percentage of students scoring at proficient or advanced in both ELA and math, someone has to be near the bottom. And because this new way of calculating levels is normed, someone will always be at the bottom.

If your head hurts trying to understand all this, join the club. I’ve tried to show you visuals so you can perhaps see how this all works.

But really: How is the average parent supposed to understand all this?

The major takeaway is this:

How can a school such as BAA that invests deeply in its students meeting artistic and academic benchmarks, scaffolding student learning and engagement to meet the demands of college research, reading and writing, be considered an almost failing school? If BAA is so categorized, what about the hundreds of other schools caught in a failing system of labeling, comparison, and judgment of school and student success through one narrow measure—a  bubble test. And how can we change this?

Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union, speaking at Occupy DOE

I recently visited Urban Academy—a 28 year old school in NYC that serves “second chance” students—i.e. students whom have been unsuccessful in another school. School founder, Ann Cook, reminded me that preparing kids to do well on a high stakes tests (like the Regents or MCAS or any other of the myriad tests floating around these United States) is QUITE different than teaching kids an inquiry process of reading. Let me explain. Our goal as educators is to help our students achieve ever more complicated and complex levels of understanding of text. This is a good and important goal. The current popular argument goes something like this, “If kids are doing well on your type of curriculum- Urban Academy- than they’ll do fine on our tests.” However, Ann and many other seasoned educators like her patently disagree. As Ann explains, “This may be true for kids who come into schools with an already strong foundation in reading, but if you really want kids to do well on a certain test, you have to teach to it. Trinity, which is a private exclusive school in the Upper West Side found that its 8th graders did NOT do well on the Regents tests because it wasn’t part of their curriculum.”  Ann pushes further and argues that if you want kids to be truly proficient readers and writers by the time they graduate high school then you have to focus on that—every day and over time. Ann argues that when schools chip away at a rich curriculum of reading and writing and substitute it with test prep materials you get a little of nothing. I sat in on a class of Urban students who had just read Call it Sleep by Henry Roth. They were discussing how the author used dialect to explore questions of social class and characters. I wanted to participate in their debates and I was overjoyed to hear young people discussing a book so foreign and faraway from their time and place; yet, they were making such authentic connections. Again those on the testing frenzy side would say that this is proof that these young people will do well on high stakes tests, but in fact, they do not. And yet they read, write and discuss literature in ways that I wish all young people could and would. If anything these kids are the kids with the sharpened critical and analytical skills.

When Ann interviews graduates about what they appreciate about their education at Urban she hears the following, 1) I appreciate that we have a choice in the kind of courses we take and even in the kind of literature we chose to study. 2) I appreciate that we get to develop our own ideas about texts and history and even math and that our voices and opinions matter. I know I can lead a good discussion and participate in one too. 3) I know what I’m interested and why. 4) I appreciate that I can change my mind. And finally, 5) I like doing things that are hard for me especially when I got a lot of support.

As I continue to fight against high stakes testing being the way we measure progress for schools and students, I want to remember the words of these Urban graduates. I am hopeful that they will lead the way for a new understanding of what matters in public education.

I am also mindful of what Ted Sizer, founder of Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) taught us in the 80s—that what really matters is deeply engaged teachers who have the time to focus on their students’ needs and building last relationships that will help our young people enter an increasingly more complicated world.

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!

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!

Occupy the Department of Education!

I had to blog about Confessions of a ‘Bad’ Teacher from this past Sunday’s New York Times… everyone needs to read this article so we can stop and think about how our federal and state policies are affecting teachers and kids in our classrooms.
I will be joining BAA teachers and many others in Washington, DC at Occupy the DOE (Department of Education) at the end of March for a teach-in to underscore how limiting and short-sighted so many of our current policies are. They are based on an “I gotcha” mentality- on how we can “improve” education by punishing teachers and kids.
I know it’s complicated to create a system of accountability that actually trusts teachers, but we must try. As Johnson points out in this NYT article, the messages we are sending teachers are confusing and contradictory, and the ways we are assessing kids and teachers are ludicrous.
We cannot hope to have engaged students and young people who want to participate in our fragile democracy with such backwards policies. We must be the change we want to see. Let’s organize and go to DC!

Reflections from San Diego and Los Angeles

In mid-December, I spent some time in San Diego and LA, visiting schools and speaking with educators. One of the most gratifying parts of this trip was reconnecting with a former graduate student of mine from the first year I ever taught my class, “Building A Democratic School” at Harvard. Agustin Vecino now works for the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE) in Los Angeles as a coach for the pilot schools. He and Rachel Bonkovsky (a former Boston principal), along with George Simpson and Assistant Principal Cara Livermore (formerly of BAA and now of the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA)) arranged all of my stops on the trip.

San Diego School for Creative and Performing Arts (SDSCPA)

Principal Mitzi Lizarraga showed me around her school (http://www.sandi.net/scpa) of 1400 students in grades 6-12. Entrance to the middle school is lottery based, and high school admission is through audition. The motto of the school is, “Where arts and academics share center stage.” Mitzi shared that her charge is to intensify the arts experiences and exposure of her students; she also must raise funds for much needed arts residencies and adjunct teachers. [Note: SDSCPA vocal arts major Victoria Matthews recently received a 2012 YoungArts Merit Award in Voice- congratulations to Victoria and to SDSCPA!]

Like many schools in San Diego, the campus seemed quite sprawling to my urban Northeastern eyes!

On this lucky day for me, choreographer and dance professor Donald McKayle was in residence to audition students for his piece “House of Tears,” based on the “desaparecidos” from Argentina. The high school dancers crowded onto the dance studio floor and listened with rapt attention to McKayle. He spoke about his experiences in Buenos Aires watching the “madres de los desaparecidos” march around the Plaza Mayor with photographs of their disappeared children, who had been murdered or stolen by the junta.

SDSCPA dancers

Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA)

From San Diego, I headed for Los Angeles and LACHSA, where George Simpson is principal. (George was formerly the director of music at BAA!)  The same excitement I felt at San Diego’s school was evident here. Students were hanging a juried show about Arts and Engagement in the visual arts wing. Music students had just finished their jazz series. Theatre students had just done “Preview Night,” which is like our informal showing at BAA. Dancers were gearing up for their winter performances. Exhaustion and elation were on everyone’s faces. “Passion with balance” seemed in short supply.

LACHSA is located on the CalState LA campus. Also on the campus are the LA Principal Residency Network and the LA Urban Teacher Residency program. (These are both programs of the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE), an organization that I co-founded with Larry Myatt in Boston over fifteen years ago.) George had organized an event for me at CalState called “Transformative Leadership,” where I talked with members of both networks as well as other educators from surrounding schools and not-for-profits. We shared ideas about our perspective realities and reacquainted ourselves with the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) 10 common principles, considering where we did/didn’t see these principles in our work.

George Simpson, Agustin Vecino, Carolyn McNight, Debbie Thompson

East Los Angeles Performing Arts Academy

The next day, I visited the East LA Performing Acts Academy, headed by Principal Carolyn McKnight. The faculty of this pilot school was joined by the Humanitas Academy of Arts and Technology faculty and principal Debbie Thompson, as well as district folks and a superintendent. Both of these schools have converted to pilot status in the past two years. Later I met with the faculty and principal Rosie Martinez from the Academic Leadership Community (ALC), another pilot school in the throes of trying to attain the autonomies that are promised to Pilot Schools (much like those of charter schools), which include: budget, governance, curriculum and assessment, hiring and scheduling, and calendar.

The theme for all three pilot schools was the autonomies and how to ensure they were being met. These are familiar themes for us in Boston. While districts, especially urban districts, are often initially open to pilot schools, the intricacies of actually devolving power and control away from central office and central mandates and into the hands of principals and teachers is always more challenging. If LA and Boston could do more collaborative work, we might strengthen all of our schools and create a system of trust around pilot schools.

UCLA

From ALC I traveled to UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies to give a talk to their Teacher Education Program and Principal Leadership Institute. A lively group of about 30 of us talked about what makes good schools, how the CES principles can help guide schools, and the struggles of each of us in sustaining good schools.

In this whirlwind tour of schools, talks, and intense conversations with committed educators, I came away grateful for the opportunity to learn from educators on the other side of the country. I reconnected with friends and re-charged myself to return to the work we are doing in Boston and beyond.

Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum

Last Saturday, a group of BAA students performed for the closing session of the CES Fall Forum in Providence, RI. These students created a unique performance piece combining music, visual arts, spoken word, theatre and digital media. Participants were Althea Bennett (VA), Ashleigh Brown-Fuller (vocal), Gary Gonzalez (theatre), Justin Hynes-Bruell (instrumental), Janibell Santana (theatre) and Daniel Whitelock (instrumental).

Their original interdisciplinary piece, Listen!, wrestles with the tension between the power of the young artist’s voice and adults’ tendency to put it on “mute” in order to fit a prescribed vision of who and how young people should be.  After the performance, students discussed the piece, their creative process and how it reflects their experience at Boston Arts Academy.

Our librarian, Debbie Froggatt, commented in her reflection on the session, “The power of student voice! Honest, thoughtful and commanding… Their artistic piece moved and provoked us to ponder how we are listening to our students. Are we really in conversation with them? Who are their authentic selves and what are their internal struggles?”

Our work is hard, but I always feel energized and inspired when when I see my students come alive through their art… I feel recommitted to making the world WORK better for these talented and thoughtful young voices!

Congratulations to CES on another powerful Fall Forum!

The CES Board: myself, Debbie Meier, Misha Lesley, Jill Davidson, and George Wood (missing: Nancy Gutierrez) giving Jill a gift for serving CES so well for so long as we hired a new director, Elizabeth Jardine

News from the Coalition of Essential Schools

Two exciting pieces of news from the Coalition of Essential Schools…

The first is that registration is now open for Fall Forum 2011! I cannot emphasize enough what an amazing professional development opportunity this is. A Boston Arts Academy team attends each each year and I highly encourage you to look into coming as well!

November 10-12
Providence, RI 
  • pre-conference sessions
  • Essential school visits
  • featured sessions and speakers including Deborah Meier, The Gamm Theater’s Tony Estrella, Gary Stager, What Kids Can Do’s Kathleen Cushman and Barbara Cervone, The Forum For Education and Democracy’s Sizer Fellows, Ron Wolk, Dennis Littky, and more.
  • an ” UnConference” afternoon
  • youth-focused strand of sessions and learning opportunities
  • and, of course, the educator- and student-led workshops that are the heart and soul of Fall Forum (full workshop details will be posted on 9/22)
Visit the main Fall Forum page at http://www.essentialschools.org/events/8 for more information.
And the second exciting piece of news…
CES is hiring a National Coordinator to manage and develop their network of schools, organizations, and individuals! Visit http://www.essentialschools.org/articles/40 for the full position announcement and information needed to apply.

Summer Reading

Beacon Press (the publisher of my book, The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test) put together a great blog that compiles the summer reading lists of education authors. Click here to see what books I enjoyed this summer (many of which are from Boston Arts Academy’s summer reading list!)

In talking about my summer reading, I also describe my dear friend and mentor, Vito Perrone, who passed away this August. The Coalition of Essential Schools posted this tribute to Vito’s life and legacy. Vito was a true inspiration to me and I will miss him more than words can say. I highly recommend reading his books A Letter to Teachers and Teacher with a Heart to inspire your practice of teaching and learning.

Why I Love Puppets

Many of my teachers will tell you that I have driven them nuts (justifiably) asking, “When are we going to do puppets?” For years, I’ve gone on and on with whomever would listen about why I love puppets. From a Surdna Fellow artist-teacher who gave a puppet and mask-making workshop for our students years ago to (twice) seeing the multiple-Tony-award-winning play War Horse, I have long been mesmerized by puppets!

Often, my ideas stay on the level of, “Isn’t it great how enthusiastic Linda is?” Mr. Edwards and Mr. Thach were an exception to this rule. To my great delight, they ended their 9th grade units with puppets! I’m not talking sock puppets. I’m talking puppets that are truly beings in their own right.

Puppet2

Visual arts teacher Mr. Edwards with his puppet

At their final puppet showcase/exhibition, 25 ninth graders lined up in their classroom ready to enter the open gallery space for puppet speed dating.  Tables with tablecloths held a series of prompts to discuss.  The gallery room had an elegant feel.  Back in the classroom of controlled chaos, students eagerly introduced me to their puppet selves or puppet friends. Some puppets resembled their makers; others bore no similarities. Some talked with squeaky voices; others spoke with low rumbles. Each student delighted in shaking my hand, often via a long puppet hand. They were eager to have their pictures taken with their puppets.

Puppets1

A student proudly displays his creation

These puppets emerged from a term of study about complicated parts of identity. Students struggled to articulate explorations of their identity in words or even drawings. With this chance to create small monster self-portraits, the class took off with a high level of craftsmanship and commitment to the process.  Mr. Thach, the teacher, dished out critical questions for his students to explore: What chip do you have on your shoulder? What aspect of you has caused you pain or made you angry?  Students designed their monsters and then wrote story boards about each monster’s world. “It’s too personal if students don’t monsterify,” Mr. Thach told me. Some students explored their dilemmas of coming out to both friends and family. Others wrote and designed about their appearance. Many shared parts of themselves that would have brought only silence if they were asked to talk or write. Puppets enabled students to create a three-dimensional, non-personal monster and the power to share in a non-threatening way: “This isn’t me talking. This is my puppet!”

In the speed dating activity, students introduced one another to their puppets and answered revealing questions: “What is social acceptance?” “How has social acceptance affected you and your life?” Students’ puppets, often donning very particular accessories or hats, said things like, “People who wear certain clothes ‘cause everyone does it are an example of social acceptance. See me? I’m wearing what I like and I don’t care!” “If people were more open-minded and willing to accept others for who they are, would things be better?” “Is there such a thing as being normal? What does it mean to be normal?” One wonderfully gregarious puppet answered this way: “People often have to put on a mask in certain places, such as school and home. These masks cover who they really are in order to be accepted.”

Puppet3

Puppet speed dating

Another student admitted that her puppet wasn’t as angry as she herself was. “I’m not that angry girl like she is,” the puppet said, pointing at her puppeteer. “She’s had to do a lot of work since middle school to get over her temper. My friend here was always swearing at kids ‘cause she was attacked ‘cause of her looks. Me? I’m just chill.”  Some students spoke about how “We shame or behave differently to ‘different’ people because we don’t understand them.” Another commented, “It’s our nature to fear things we don’t understand. That fear turns to uncomfortableness and can create shame.”

Students took these inquires seriously.  They delved into how gender, race, age and sexuality play a role in social acceptance. As one young woman’s puppet said, “It’s not always me that creates the tension. You should see my parents! And their parents!” That puppet almost grinned. I couldn’t help feeling that the grin represented a big step forward for the puppeteer—a realization that the tension in the family wasn’t all her doing.

Puppet4

I was so impressed with the creativity and level of detail of students' puppets!

In the end, students not only celebrated their artistic craft, they better understood one another and the value of sharing their own personal monsters. The experience was cathartic; it was even joyous. I look forward to future explorations into the world of puppets, identity and craft.


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