Posts Tagged 'School Reform'

Inspirations from Iceland: Reflections on the USA

Imagine a land where pre-school education is guaranteed. Think of music teachers in most elementary schools and choirs in most secondary schools. Imagine a noticeable cleanliness of the hallways and classrooms. In many schools shoes aren’t worn inside because the staff doesn’t want the raw winter weather ruining the floors and making everything filthy. Imagine Iceland.

This Scandinavian country’s educators are thinking constructively about student engagement—through the arts and vocational education. Iceland, like the rest of Scandinavia, is not obsessed with standardized testing.

Rhythm warm up at the beginning of the forum

Rhythm warm up at the beginning of the forum

The Icelandic Teachers Union hosted me last month.  A special forum focused on the role of arts and arts education to strengthen teaching and learning in the 21st Century. Teachers and principals participated, along with officials from the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Education. They kicked off the forum with interactive activities involving musicians and drama teachers. The group of 200 split in half to get to know one another through theatre games and some rhythm activities. A fantastic way to start the day!

Music begins the day in preschool

Music begins the day in preschool

As the forum keynote speaker I emphasized the value of arts at the center of a school curriculum. I shared how the arts can change an entire school culture and encourage young people to achieve at high levels—artistically and academically.  As both a teacher and school leader, I demonstrated how the power of arts helps children and adults walk in the other’s shoes and begin to learn skills of persistence, collaboration and risk taking – skills in short supply in most of the world.

Elementary school block area

Woodworking

Math activity

Math activity

During this trip I visited four different schools: pre-school, elementary (k-8), secondary and a tertiary institute for visual arts.  The pre-school children, ages 2-5, engaged in various activities ranging from woodworking, block building, clay sculptures, reading, measuring, Lego play and singing. A sense of creative play emanated throughout the bright and airy spaces. At the elementary school, students worked on math assignments in the hallway, which had become a makeshift classroom. They were hard at work jumping back and forth on a number line to experiment with positive and negative numbers. All students also take cooking, sewing and knitting, music, and shop as part of the required curriculum.

Knitting class

Knitting class

A secondary school highlight was the vocational pathways for metal work and automotive. The studios and shops rivaled that of the best-equipped factory imaginable. These young people were aware of the high quality education that they were receiving and its value in their careers as farmers, automotive techs or machinists. One spoke about how now he could fix the machinery on his family’s small farm. In the digital media lab, a young man talked about how he originally thought he wanted to be an actor, but realized he may have more aptitude for film making or television. He gestured to the end of his classroom, which was a professional looking TV studio. “I’m getting a lot of practice here at school for what I want to do in my career,” he acknowledged.

The visual arts institute was non-credit bearing. Students prepared to present their art and design portfolios to some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in Europe as well as to compete for jobs in design firms.

Visual arts school

Visual arts school

Icelandic teachers and administrators do have serious concerns, however. In our discussions, they worried about the level of engagement of their students and their commitment to creativity and risk taking. They didn’t want me to be blinded by the lovely facilities (I was) or lulled into thinking all was well since music teachers are ubiquitous (I was). My job was to push everyone to think more about the role of performing arts (dance and theatre are not well integrated into the curriculum) and to encourage more experimentation. They also wanted me to challenge the notion that vocational education is second-class or second-rate. Not all children have to go to universities if the vocational training is truly high quality.
Back in the U.S.A. and reflections on Finland

On my return the United States, the topics of school autonomy and flexibility awaited. I am leading a study about how Boston Public Schools and other school districts understand and/or embrace those issues as part of school practices. A small group of schools came onto the educational landscape 18 years ago in the aftermath of charter legislation. These schools, which began in Boston, were called Pilot Schools. I often say I was the first in Massachusetts to hold a charter and the first to return it in favor of pilot status. This gave us the same flexibilities and autonomies that charters would enjoy. These areas include: hiring/staffing, budget, curriculum and assessment, schedule and calendar and professional development.

In a recent meeting where our study team shared some of our emerging research, my colleague Pasi Sahlberg from Finland, admonished us in the US for being obsessed with accountability and test scores. “In Finland we talk about children’s well-being. That is what we count first.” My experience in Finland backs up this notion as well as the deep autonomy that teachers have to design and execute their own curriculum and assessments.

Our journey with education reform in the U.S. leaves only a distant memory of school and learning that is not synonymous with testing. But the Finns have adopted a different philosophy. Standardized tests are not introduced until secondary school and teachers are given wide flexibility and autonomy with curriculum and assessment. When they do test in secondary school, it happens once. A clear set of standards are skill-based with a great deal of trust for teachers. Teachers have the autonomy to assess how their students meet those standards. Collaborative work among teachers and with principals is highly valued as are skills of curriculum development. In Iceland there are standardized tests twice in elementary schools: at the age of 9 and 15. There are no standardized tests in secondary schools. Little talk exists around standardized high stakes testing and a lot of talk exists about art and music. On top of that, the Icelandic educators worry that students may be slipping with standards because the approaches are not creative enough. More art and music may be necessary. If students do not reach standards, the antidote is more teaching, not more testing.

Once again, I feel a collision course building in this country. As we adopt common core, which in some ways is our attempt to imitate Finland, we have not thought deeply about assuring that all of our young people have access to high quality arts education in all disciplines. This means visual, musical, dance, theatre, creative writing, etc., during all years. We have not thought deeply about the meaning of shop courses for students (something we taught routinely in the last century) and cooking and other vocational classes. We tossed those classes out in the ‘80s and substituted what? Test prep?

I certainly believe in the importance of high levels of literacy for all students. I fear that we have so constrained our curriculum to right brain foci that the very areas of exploration that could lead us to “wide awakeness,” as Maxine Greene posits, have been diminished to side conversations and sighs of “remember when…?”

I refuse to have well-being, creativity, and physical education relegated to the backrooms of our schools or to after school.

Instead of rolling out common core just in academic subjects, consider what Iceland and Finland have already done—make arts matter. They matter for well-being, for student engagement, for giving students an opportunity to walk in another’s shoes. They matter for understanding perspective, history, language, and collaboration. Arts matter in the development of abstract thinking and in helping students discern questions about judgment and perception. Arts give students strong communication skills.

Those 21st Century skills we so want to imbue in our student are readily accessible through a rigorous arts curriculum. The arts teach us perseverance and how to work in an ensemble. They arts teach us to continually refine and to work at a task for a long period of time. The arts teach us that our passions and interests in the world and in culture do matter. They teach us the value of hard work and lots of practice. There are no “quick fixes” in becoming a good musician.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Belen Pereyra  and Vernard J. Gilmore in Alvin Ailey’s Hidden Rites.  Photo by Paul Kolnik

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Belen Pereyra
and Vernard J. Gilmore in Alvin Ailey’s Hidden Rites.
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Belen Pereyra was recently profiled in the New Yorker by Joan Acocella (January 6, 2014) who wrote, “I could not believe Pereyra’s speed, her spontaneity, her astonishing, open-legged jumps. It was like watching a baby or an animal – movement that is completely natural, but which, in and adult, is the product only of art and long training.”

I couldn’t have been more proud. Belen was my student. Of course, one could argue that Belen was exceptional. She was and is. But the skills she learned – of perseverance, of listening, of learning from others, research, ensemble – are skills that all of our students learn. All students of a curriculum steeped in the arts learn these skills.

The same can be true of vocational schools. One may not see the ability to “engage an audience” in class of metal workers, but when I spoke to those young people in Iceland, I know they were proud of their skills. I want that to be true of all schools—vocational, academic, artistic. Kids should own their explorations and feel pride in their emerging skills. We need to broaden our curriculum, broaden our sense of schools and ensure that our young people are well. I am ready for the Finnish lessons to be applied in the US, and the Icelandic ones, too!

My book, “The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban School” in Icelandic.

My book, “The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban School” in Icelandic.

Reflections and Looking Ahead

My first year leading BAA’s Center for Arts in Education sent me to schools and teachers across the country and around the world.   These visits repeatedly reminded me of Parker Palmer’s words: “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” From Denver to New Bedford and Hawaii to India I witnessed good teaching, as Palmer describes, that comes at the “dangerous intersection of personal and public life.”

Good teachers make themselves vulnerable to students—to their judgment, to their excitement, and even to their indifference. We see this in arts classrooms when we ask our students to create and invent work and make connections with ideas and concepts we have taught and studied.

A teacher choreographing with his students is on a deeply personal journey of the expert beginning to shape the novices. The teacher/choreographer has a concept and a “story” (quotes intentional) to express. Yet the student dancers give form, energy and substance to the piece that ultimately creates the aesthetic experience for an audience. The interplay between choreographer and student/dancers must be based on trust and a belief that the dancers will “get it right.” Choreography is a mere abstract idea until it is performed. When given shape, movement and sound it can be transcendent.  Experiencing transcendence from her/his students is breathtaking for a teacher. I have seen this same energy in academic classrooms, too, when a teacher enters a “zone” describing a chemical property, an engineering principle, the meaning of a legend, or a time in history. Students are captivated by a journey of discovery.

Students sense this integrity from their teachers and they largely respect it. They feel how their own teachers embody RICO at BAA, or Refine, Invent, Connect and Own.  They see how their teachers express RICO and find themselves swept up in the lesson or the project. They are willing to take risks, expand their imaginations, and work harder than they thought possible. I hearken back to Palmer and his imagery of “teachers with a heart.” So many of us became teachers because of reasons of the heart, and our passion for helping young people learn.

Nevertheless, my sense is that our policy makers have ignored Palmer. They seem to operate under the misguided belief that testing will cure what ails our schools. Allow me to share a recent scene in a “turnaround” school. This new nomenclature promises miracles—usually premised on firing all of the teachers, bringing in a new administration, and focusing relentlessly on test scores. Some schools in this “turnaround” model have raised test scores.  With double periods of math and English students clearly will test better on those subjects. No research shows that these test scores are sustained over time, however, or that deeper understanding or an excitement about learning more has taken place.

This turnaround school was using the arts as a way to engage students. When I visited the school, I was so pleased to see mural paper covering all of the walls of the classrooms—and even the offices. I was thrilled to see the school engaging in an all-school mural activity. I couldn’t wait to get a paintbrush or marker and begin drawing. However, my enthusiasm was misplaced. The walls were covered because it was high-stakes testing season and the rules during testing require that all print material be hidden. I was appalled. Of course I can understand covering print material that would compromise  test results, but posters and teachers’ diplomas?

Consider the very skills that arts teach: persistence, collaboration, judgment, practice, refining, conscientiousness, critique, determination and, most important of all, an appreciation for developing one’s own sense of beauty or aesthetics. These will never develop if we don’t embrace teaching the arts for their own value and not for improving test scores. Yes,  the skill of persistence can be modeled by learning how to sit and take a difficult test, but that is not why we teach the arts.  While employers cry for students to graduate with 21st Century skills of communication, collaboration, and facility with technology, self-styled education reformers are pressuring our schools to grossly narrow the curriculum to satisfy scores on bubble sheets. And those are almost always tests of memory and recall.

Good teaching is not the same as good test coaching. I am proud to work for a school that allows teachers to be vulnerable, to lead with their hearts and their passions, and that puts testing in perspective where it belongs.

BAA supports teachers as they innovate and imagine and engage with their students. This June 26-28 we will celebrate at our 9th Annual Summer Institute professional development where educators from around the world will join us and do the same thing. (Click here to register!)

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.

Notes from India- February 2013

Delhi filled my life earlier this year with unforgettable experiences and reflection. The scenario began with an invitation to visit, learn and work with Heritage School, which is similar to Expeditionary Learning (EL) schools.  My history with EL is long and deep, since I was a collaborating writer for the first school here in the Boston area in the early 1990s. A former graduate student from HGSE, Vishnu Karthik, asked me to visit Heritage with two main goals:  To explore both the meaning of a democratic school and the Habits of the Graduate. My former student hopes to build an arts high school as part of a school consortium that includes Heritage. I can’t wait to help with that venture.

Before I share the details of the school experience, allow me to set the scene of Delhi:

I cannot make any claims that I understand India. Reading Katherine Boo’s recent behind the beautiful forevers: life, death and hope in a Mumbai Undercity was a helpful introduction to one sector of India.  Sarah MacDonald’s Holy Cow was a different kind of introduction. And the novels of Roy, Desai, Adiga, Mistry and Lahiri provided other perspectives.  Still, I have barely scratched the surface.  That said, several modern-day phenomena were repeatedly clear:

People drive as if they are in an ongoing game of bumper cars.  I’m not sure which vehicle, if any, rules the road—truck, bus, car, rickshaw, bike, motorcycle. They all weave in and out, coming very close and then darting around one another. Lanes seem non-existent.  This mayhem actually never felt frightening. No one goes particularly fast.  On the backs of trucks and busses “honk please” signs appear in huge letters.  And everyone obliges.  People and donkeys and cows also populate this mass transit system. When a taxi driver seemed to take an alternate route so as not to inconvenience a cow, I was glad I had read Holy Cow. Cows, after all, are holy.

Cows Street

Head bobbling is real.  I learned this unmistakably when I tried to get help with an outlet in my hotel room.  “Is it working?” I asked. The obliging service man kept bobbling his head side to side in a motion that to my Western eyes looked like no. So I repeated my question a bit differently, “Can you make it work?” Again, he would bobble. We went back and forth a few times until, at last, I realized he was telling me that it WAS working. His side to side bobble was really a yes.  Finally, I grinned. He grinned. And the outlet worked.

History is everywhere. In almost every corner of Delhi I walked on and through history – from the Red Fort to the Palace to the hundreds of mosques and temples. Some ruler or mogul or Raj or imperialist lived in each. The Taj Mahal (3 hours outside of Delhi if you drive on a private highway) is breathtaking and the most incredible expression of love I’ve ever seen.  Yet I scratched only the surface since I needed days to delve into the fascinating history. Delhi is a wonderful, exciting, pulsating city filled with extreme contrasts and conflicts.

Linda Taj Mahal

A bit of educational context

Among the Indian student population, about 25% of rural children and 50% of urban children go to private schools. Not all are expensive schools. Some cost as little as 100 rupees (about $2) a month. Government public schools are available to all. Usually the infrastructure is decent, but class sizes are large—sometimes 40-50 kids in a class. Since teachers often don’t live in the villages or locations of the school, absenteeism among the faculty can be very high. Small schools in India are almost non-existent. The norm is student bodies of 2,000-3,000.  Heritage is a private school with 2300 and growing.  While it serves a primarily upper-income population, a new law in India requires that 25% of seats be reserved for the economically vulnerable (an Indian term), so income diversity is coming to the school. Two other schools in the network are about the same size. Indian schooling, whether private or public, is all about the score on that one test in grade 12. That test determines your future. Of course the 10th grade test determines whether you will even sit for that 12th grade test. Your score delineates whether you will go on to a career in science, commerce or (lowest on pecking order)—arts and humanities. Taken directly from the British system, the 10th grade test is the sorting mechanism, more or less, for what your job prospects, and certain your tertiary education options will be.

Delhi University, the largest and best in the country, is considered the Harvard of India. The university is also free so the competition to score high is fierce. Only students who score in the top 3% will get into the top tracks in science and commerce. In other words if you score lower than 97% you believe you don’t have a chance at success in life, or so students told me.

The 12th grade is all about the “grind” for those tests. Parents demand that teachers “grind” the students (this is actually the verb that is used) and students can study for up to 12-15 hours a day to get good scores.   Within this educational context the Heritage School was founded..

The Heritage vision

Heritage School is located in Gurgaon one of the new cities near Delhi. Heritage is a special place, founded by a very special man, Manit Jain. His aspirations are all-encompassing and even revolutionary: to create a large network of progressive schools in Delhi that educate Indian children toward more-than-superior scores on a high-stakes test. I was asked to visit Heritage, one of Manit’s three schools, by Vishnu Karthik, the former HGSE student. Manit and Vishnu had two goals to explore with my visit:  the meaning of a democratic school and the Habits of the Graduate.

My job, over the course of four days, was to listen, learn, meet with students, teachers, administrators and to visit classes. This was in preparation for two workshops I would give. One, for the core leadership team on democratic schools; the other for the entire senior program faculty on building Habits of the Graduate for the senior program and hopefully the entire school.

The front lobby has a large sign reading, “Education is that which Liberates.” The central question upon which the school is founded is: Is education a means to an end in itself?

Liberation

Consider this quote from the Heritage School website: “If education is the journey and the destination, then what needs to be the nature of schools and what kind of children would be nurtured in such schools? At Heritage, it is our constant endeavor to seek response to these persistent questions. These are the questions and answers which affect all stakeholders—children, parent community, school and society at large- at the most fundamental level.

For us, such questions and responses form the basic edifice upon which we have built our dharma (belief and value system) and karma (doing and praxis). It is our firm conviction to continue asking such and other questions to arrive at the true meaning of education and learning. Our vision is: A learning community where each is free to be and grow towards the realization of his/her highest human potential through a harmonious integration of spirit, heart, mind and body. “

If that isn’t revolutionary stuff in today’s world, I don’t know what is. I have heard it said that once you are touched by India you are forever changed. That may be true. I hope this was just the beginning.

To read more about my time at Heritage School, please click: Four Days of Heritage

To read more about the rest of my trip in India, please click: Elsewhere in India

Notes from Artist Proof Studio

“Yes! That’s what I say!”

“Yes! That’s what I believe!”

“Yes, we have that exact problem!”

What gives these refrains such a sense of energy and relief between kindred spirits or kindred organizations?  Is it the recognition of one’s own dilemmas elsewhere, even in a different context and country? Perhaps a sense that human beings share essential experiences of passion, of struggle, of success and recognition? When you happen upon a kindred spirit or place the recognition is so instantaneous that one’s reaction can be joyous: “Ah, you understand me,” one sighs with relief at finally not having to explain everything.

I have just returned from an intense week in Johannesburg (Jo’burg), South Africa at Artist Proof Studio (APS), a community organization that trains and educates young people from ages 19-23 in print making. Printmaking in many ways both documented and instigated change during the years of Apartheid. Kim Berman, with her arts degree from Tufts University/The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, was determined to answer Mandela’s call for each citizen to contribute to the building of the new democracy. She returned to Jo’burg in 1991 and co-founded Artist Proof Studio.

APS banner

[Photo credit Monika Aldarondo]

The belief that arts could play an important role in social change fueled a commitment to the necessary and painful processes of mutual interchange to overcome the distrust and alienation of the apartheid years. Some 21 years later APS continues to help artists discover their own capacities as creative voices for social change. APS leads by example in many of its programmatic initiatives. They use a visual medium to teach about HIV, AIDS and other health issues. They staff a professional printmaking shop that employs young up-and-coming printmakers. They offer printmaking classes to approximately 40 or 50 students a year. The life and work of Artist Proof Studio parallels the development of democracy in South Africa.

BAA STEAM teacher Ramiro Gonzalez looking at printmaking equipment with APS Executive Director Kim Berman

BAA STEAM teacher Ramiro Gonzalez looking at equipment with APS Executive Director Kim Berman [Photo credit Monika Aldarondo]

Five years ago, when I first visited APS, I felt an intensity of focus on the work; evidence of caring teachers,  and a clear commitment to quality as demonstrated by the critique I observed. APS felt oddly like Boston Arts Academy (BAA) with its energy and buzz.  Kim then sent us two young teachers to work with students. Next came an exhibition and symposium in 2009 that showcased the work of Kim and her students.

Molefe and Motsamai, who came to BAA from APS in 2007

Molefe and Motsamai, who came from APS to work with BAA students in 2007

The interchange was an unparalleled success. Our BAA students and community were drawn to the social issues portrayed in the work—issues of xenophobia, of racism, of shame to discuss HIV and AIDs. And work that demonstrated deep sensitivity to issues of family, children, and alienation from one’s self and/or community, and the importance of the importance of play, beauty. Young people from two very continents seemed compelled to express themselves about social issues and also called upon to create new work.

APS, just like BAA, has a strong practice of critique. What makes work strong? How does one communicate one’s ideas with the audience? What does it mean to be an artist and an activist? And how does the organization continue to grow and improve?  This last question brought BAA back to work with their entire staff to analyze these questions and more.

Our goal during our week at Artist Proof was to provide the studio with a more coherent approach to curriculum and assessment, as well as to help the various parts of the organization gain clarity about mission and vision. The words of an APS report of our exchange demonstrate what BAA means to them: An innovative  pedagogical approach that integrates the arts throughout the academic curriculum based on best practices. BAA has created a successful model through its “inventive approach to leadership, professional development, community building, incubating new curriculum designs, arts integration and student support” (http://bostonartsacademy.org).

Visioning exercise

Working with APS faculty and staff [Photo credit Monika Aldarondo]

After a great deal of work we came up with four terms. We wanted everyone to be able to innovate, to be self-aware, to engage and to excel. The acronym was ISEE which was particularly apt given that the organization is dedicated to visual arts. The next steps involve APS staff returning to their curriculum to specifically describe how students will demonstrate these habits in classes, projects and every day interactions. We hope that APS will develop a clear assessment process over time so all students and teachers can attest to the attainment of ISEE.

Working on mission, vision, and framework to ultimately create "ISEE"

Thinking about mission, vision, and framework to ultimately create “ISEE” [Photo credit Monika Aldarondo]

Our work with APS was an opportunity for all of us to be learners, teachers and observers of one another. The power of interchange offered exciting prospect for collaboration across many spectra and organizations in general, not just the artistic world.

Gallery walk

Gallery walk of the work created by APS faculty and staff during a strategic planning/visioning exercise [Photo credit Monika Aldarondo]

Jo’burg is a study in contrasts. Enormous wealth is evident in the manicured suburbs with houses hidden behind high walls and shopping centers more opulent than any I have seen in the US. On the other hand, residents in neighborhoods of Jo’burg and townships like Soweto or Alexandria live in crowded conditions, with no running water or other amenities, and sky-rocketing unemployment. They also rank near the top of the  entire continent with the incidence of HIV and AIDs. While the 1994 Constitution speaks eloquently of human rights in all forms, the reality of life for the majority is quite different. In a country where music, dance and art are foundational parts of human life and expression, in Soweto, of the 350 schools, only two offer any kind of art experiences. It is a miracle that each day students leave Soweto for Artist Proof, often traveling over an hour each way, committed to becoming skilled printmakers.

APS stands as shining example of what can happen when political, human and artistic forces combine for the advancement of young people.

Ramiro Gonzalez (BAA), Kim Berman (APS), myself, and Monika Aldarondo (BAA)

Ramiro Gonzalez (BAA), Kim Berman (APS), myself, and Monika Aldarondo (BAA)

Group photo

The amazing APS faculty and staff!

Elephant

We did have time for some fun at Kruger National Park! [Photo credit Monika Aldarondo]

Visits to Chicago Public Schools

Last week I had the opportunity to visit four schools while I was in Chicago for the Arts Schools Network conference.

Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts)

ChiArts, Chicago’s first public school for the visual and performing arts, is only four years old and I had heard that it’s very similar in mission and vision to Boston Arts Academy. During my tour with Principal Terri Mislap, I saw ChiArts’ core values posted around the hallways: Humility, Balance, Perseverance, Community, and Iintegrity. There are also conduct standards on the walls around the school: Places, Harmony, Collage, Direction, and Arrangement.

ChiArts conduct standards

Students take their academic classes from 8am until noon and then there is a nearly two hour lunch/study hall/advisory block when students can get some air outside in the courtyard, eat, and get homework done. Even though this block could seem unstructured to some, I got the sense that it worked well for students (and faculty.) At 2pm the conservatory part of the day begins. Students take arts classes in one of four majors (vocal and instrumental music, visual arts, dance, or theatre) until 5pm each day.

ChiArts students taking their break in the courtyard

I had the chance to meet with the arts department heads and we discussed some of their worries about their emerging school: how to ensure a positive school culture; how to support the adjunct faculty’s professional development (all the arts teachers except the department heads are part-time); and how to deal with the pressure to produce conservatory-ready graduates when, as the music teacher lamented, “We don’t necessarily have access to students at a younger age and they come in without much background in music!” Similarly, the dance teacher said his department struggled with the definition of success. He felt success needed to be measured by the number of students accepted into conservatories, yet he recognized not all of his young students would actually go on to a career in dance. Sound familiar?

ChiArts musicians

I also met with Jose Ochoa, the school’s Executive Director. His responsibilities span from setting the scope and sequence for the artistic vision of the school to fundraising and finance (the school raises $2.5million a year from its Board and galas and, like at BAA, the privately raised money is crucial to run the school, as their per pupil district allocation is not enough to support an arts and academic curriculum.) There are 600 students at ChiArts and 55% are eligible for free lunch.

ChiArts Principal Terri Mislap and faculty

ChiArts faculty and staff

Calmeca Fine Arts and Dual Language Academy

Walking into Calmeca Academy in the Brighton Park neighborhood of Chicago was a bit like walking back in time for me (I began as a bilingual teacher in the late ’70s when being bilingual and bicultural was celebrated!) I was so happy to see that Calmeca had found a way to fight the backlash against bilingual education to become a dual language school. The vision of Calmeca Academy is “to empower all students to become competent and literate adults who are life-long learners, critical thinkers and achievers who maintain high expectations in the areas of academic and global diversity.”

Our day began with a presentation of dances from students in 4th-8th grade. We watched two dances from VeracruzEl Zapateado Jarocho and La Bruja – where the dancers balanced a candle on their heads as they moved, and a third that was a danzon with Afro-Cuban influence.

Veracruz dance

The costumes were exquisite and the students’ confidence and commitment to the intricate steps even more impressive. Next came a Project Runway show of clothing made from recycled materials and inspired by both indigenous Mexican culture and countries in Africa. The first contestant was the principal, Frances Garcia, dressed in a vibrant blue dress that seemed to symbolize both the importance of music and the arts as well as the culture of Mexico. Subsequent contestants also displayed the dresses they had made. As Principal Garcia said, “Arts help show how smart we are whether we speak English or not.”

Project Runway contestants

Principal Frances Garcia performs in Project Runway

We went on a whirlwind tour of the classrooms. The school is brand new and breathtakingly beautiful. Many of the nooks and crannies of the corridors were bursting with student work and exhibitions. The library rivaled anything I’d ever seen, with lots of reading corners and comfortable chairs. In every classroom, students were hard at work.  Creativity and focused energy abounded. The school uses discretionary funding to ensure that there is a full time visual arts teacher and full time music teacher on staff. They also partner with Columbia College and the National Museum of Mexican Art. During the tour, we also had our pictures taken by two 4th grade photographers on the Yearbook staff.

Yearbook photographers on duty

There are 837 students enrolled at Calmeca. 93.3% are low income students, 10.2% are Special Education and 52.8% are English Language Learners. The largest demographic at Calmeca is Hispanic, 95.2%, mostly of Mexican descent. It seemed that the majority of teachers were of Mexican descent as well. Everyone exuded pride in their building, their curriculum and their school. I left feeling proud too!

Telpochcalli Elementary School

The mission of Telpochcalli Elementary School is to integrate arts and Mexican culture into an innovative academic and social experience. In addition, the school intends to develop fully bilingual/biliterate students in English and Spanish. The school embraces its small size (280 students in grades k-8) as part of its mission and proudly serves the predominantly Mexican and Mexican-American community of Little Village on Chicago’s southwest side.

All the materials we were given were written in both Spanish and English. The school’s PR brochure names six advantages of being bilingual:

  • more creativity
  • more mental flexibility (better understanding of concepts)
  • well-developed problem solving skills
  • more ease in learning yet another language
  • self-confidence and pride in the culture
  • there are many jobs that require bilingual employees—so more job opportunities.

We were met by principal Tamara Witzl, who was one of the founding faculty in 1993. The school developed from the Small Schools Workshop of the University of Illinois, developed by Michael Klonsky and Bill Ayers. Tamara proudly discussed the extensive artist-in-residence program supported by Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education, CAPE (a local community arts organization) that brings in musicians, visual artists and performing artists to work with teachers in arts-integrated projects wherever possible. Given the longevity of this collaboration as well as the stability of the teaching staff, teachers (and artists) are adept at developing projects that both meet academic curricular needs and develop artistic skills.

Example of a mural in the school created by artists in residence and students

Telpochcalli Community Education Project (TCEP) is another community-based organization that has grown from the school. TCEP grew from the needs of the larger school community (parents and neighborhood residents) to have classes for them such as ESL, sewing, aerobics, leadership development, and training in non-violent interventions. Parents wanted more involvement in the school, but Tamara had no vehicle to raise funds to support that involvement. The social and economic needs of parents were overwhelming and the school faculty and administration knew that for students to be successful, parents couldn’t be in continual crisis. TCEP fills that void, and also receives grants to support after school programming for the students. Given the severe budget cuts in the Chicago Public Schools, Tamara hopes that the TCEP might also raise funds to help with the continued professional development of her faculty and the resident artists. Tamara is sanguine about the need for more funding in order to sustain the excellent work of her school and the not-for-profit TCEP. “Without funding, we cannot meet the needs of our students and their families.”

We also had the opportunity to catch the tail end of an artist-in-residence working with students. The students were working on print-making for a unit that would culminate with Day of the Dead artwork. The young artists were excited to explain to us about their work and the meaning of Day of the Dead.

Artist-in-residence and student both explain their process

Lindblom Math and Science Academy High School.

From Telpochcalli I went to visit Lindblom Math and Science Academy in West Englewood, on what seemed like the “other side” of Chicago. Given that this school is part of the consortium of schools involved in Qatar Foundation International’s (QFI) network of schools teaching Arabic, I was eager to see the school in action. Unfortunately, the day was ending as I arrived and the yellow school buses already lining up. Only 11% of the students are from the neighborhood in which the school is located; Lindblom is one of Chicago’s nine exam schools.

Principal Alan Mather graciously took me around the school so I could feel the energy of the students. And, I did. Many students stay late in the afternoon for extra help, clubs, sports, arts activities.

Students working on their math homework

Students working on their college applications in the college and career center

I was impressed with how spotless the school was and also the relaxed atmosphere in the hallways.

Students socializing after school

Alan says that the school decided not to ban hats or hoodies in favor of working on other issues of school culture that seemed more substantive. I was struck by this since my experience at BAA has convinced me of the importance of helping students become more aware of professional dress (i.e. no hats and doo rags). Our argument has always been that students need to know how to present themselves professionally, especially because there are such prevalent stereotypes about artists not being professional. On the other hand, we do spend a great deal of energy on the no hats policy—albeit with just a few students. I wonder what would happen if we went the “Lindblom way” and stopped focusing on hats and gum and if, as Alan said, it would help us focus on the larger culture and climate issues. I’m not sure.

Alan also discussed his desire to keep growing a better school without the constant focus on test scores. “We talk about data differently here,” he told me, and shared the essentials that he felt were at the center of school improvement: college persistence, involved families, a supportive environment for all learners, collaboration among teachers, effective leadership and ambitious instruction. One of the focus areas for the faculty is to provide instruction in a way that students feel challenged and supported. Even though students test into the school, there is still a wide range of learners. This is a familiar theme to me. At BAA, STEAM teachers are also looking at how to support and stretch their students.

Another of Alan’s challenges is to help move Lindblom so it’s not seen as a island in the community. Lindblom has a rich history; it was built as a vocational school in the 1920s and then became an exam school for the African American middle class in the 60s and 70s, but the neighborhood demographics have changed over the last decades. Alan sadly remarked that his students now have to be escorted by security personnel to the public bus stop if they aren’t taking the school bus home.  I was fascinated by this dilemma since Lindblom clearly has a history of community connections.

How can schools serve as a resource to their community while also serving the needs of their current students? Schools may be one of the most effective ways to revitalize neighborhoods, but what are the most effective ways to develop these collaborations? I would love to know how others have thought about this question.

First Annual Teaching Artist Conference

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

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

Opening Day 2012

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

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

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

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

Design Comes Alive

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

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

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

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

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

Students learn about total internal reflection while building water fountains

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

Designing an electronic musical instrument

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

LightMotion movement performance

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

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

Collaborative design process comes to life!

Celebration of Fernadina Chan

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

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

- – -

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

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

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

Fern on stage with alumni dancers performing her pieces

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fern on stage being honored by her dancers

 


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