Posts Tagged 'Standardized testing'

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

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 DOE

I have just returned from Washington, DC, and the Occupy the DOE rally.  Cassie Wallace, our second-year math teacher, was my impetus to go. She posted on our Teaching/Learning email conference back in February:

In case anyone is interested in protesting in DC with me at the end of March… Occupy the DOE in protest of high-stakes testing! Love, Cassie

Tess Mandell (also in her second year of teaching math) joined Cassie for the eight-hour drive from Boston to DC. How could I not join these young teachers, who were taking it upon themselves to make such an extraordinary effort to go? (Particularly given their workload and the stress of the first few years of teaching.) So, I signed up and found myself as part of the teach-in. I was happy to make some remarks (included in this post, below.)

This rally was different than anti-war rallies from the ’60s and ’70s – even though the Socialist Worker’s Party was still in attendance. This Occupy rally was as much for social media as it was for the people who attended. Everyone spoke to the camera! (Click here for live streaming of Occupy!) We were about 50 people strong and from all parts of the country: parents, grandparents, teachers, principals, health professionals, concerned citizens- all protesting the suffocating and all-consuming role that high stakes testing is playing in our culture.

End High Stakes Testing

As various participants did “mic check”, which is the Occupy way of allowing anyone to speak, I noticed one woman with very curious hair and clothing. I was impressed with how articulately she spoke about the damaging effects of high-stakes testing in her classroom and I approached her. I asked where she was from and she said she couldn’t tell me for fear of losing her job. “That’s why I’m in a wig and a costume so no one can recognize me.” Have we truly come to this?

Bubble test

Student wrapped in bubble wrap, protesting the bubble tests!

Another woman from Miami spoke about the role that parents in that district are taking to opt out of testing that they deem harmful to their children. The speaker referenced this recent article in the Miami Herald.

RIP Education

Speaker after speaker shared how parents and students were organizing to protest the negative effects of high-stakes testing. While I know the numbers were small in DC this weekend, I do believe these voices will gain power and force throughout the country.

Math teachers

Tess, Cassie, and Sharon Hessney (another extraordinary math teacher!)

So many of us feel disempowered to change the status quo. We watch numbly as education reform becomes synonymous with huge corporations like Pierson making more and more money from test prep materials and tests. However, I feel more empowered by this weekend of Occupy the DOE, and mostly because of young teachers like Tess and Cassie. They are asking the right questions about how the union can become more involved and active in these discussions, and how we can figure out better ways to work together towards solutions.

Also check out previous for the documentary: “Teach: Teachers Are Talking. Is the Nation Listening?”

MY REMARKS FROM THE TEACH-IN:

My opposition to high stakes testing goes back a long time – to 1998 when MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) was first  introduced. Don’t misunderstand me: I am not opposed to tests. And of course, I’m an advocate of high standards. What educator isn’t? We don’t go into teaching to ensure students reach low standards. That’s absurd! So I object to how discussions of high-stakes tests get juxtaposed to opposition of high standards. I am FOR high standards and I’m AGAINST high stakes tests. And that makes good sense to me.

 I’m against high stakes testing as a sole determinant for graduation. My solution is quite simple: Have the tests be part of the picture for graduation along with portfolios and exhibitions of mastery, research papers, and other performances. Remember what the “S” in MCAS stands for—we were told by the state that we would get a SYSTEM for assessments, not just tests!

MCAS currently is not the most pernicious test in the country, but what schools have become as a result of MCAS is very troubling. Our engineering curriculum must align completely with the test. There is no longer room for deep exploration of projects or for allowing student interest to help determine the length of time spent on projects. We now teach a semester-long course (we are semesterized) that ONLY includes that which is tested. There isn’t time for more. Too many schools now offer double English/double math and little social studies, art or other subjects NOT tested. Teachers push their students through curriculum that they know will be on the test. All of the research on student motivation and engagement is ignored. If students are not included as co-constructors of knowledge why should they feel as though school has real intrinsic value to them?  Curriculum has become synonymous with passing tests. This is a very limited view of what school can and should be. The social costs are high: higher drop-out rates, more violence in our communities, fewer students prepared for life after high school, whether college or career.

But how can I encourage my students to opt out when a high score of 4 (on a 1-4 rubric) is tied to free tuition at our state colleges and university (John and Abigail Adams Scholarship)? In my darkest moments I say, if we just eliminated the arts all of our students could score a 4 on these tests. But then we’d have no students at Julliard or Purchase or CalArts and no students dancing with Alvin Ailey (we have three) or acting in local theatres or playing in ensembles or orchestras or designing shoes or working in galleries. But this has been the solution for many low income schools: Eliminate arts.

Our solution has been to focus less on getting everyone to 4 and to just get our students to pass. With the new methods for calculating school success with student growth percentiles, we will soon be deemed a failing school because our students’ scores don’t increase enough. We have created a system where success is determined by only one score card and by passing through the smallest eye of the needle. Divergent thinking, multiple ways of determining and measuring success are slowly being obliterated. This is a world that scares me.

I don’t want students or teachers or parents to confuse tests with success. And I don’t want us to settle for schools devoid of music, art, dance/movement and theatre. Good schools have well-stocked libraries and trained librarians where regular discussions about books and literature (not excerpts) occur on a regular basis. Good schools are messy places where students are deeply engaged in topics of interest to them and where they demonstrate mastery in different ways. I just watched my students create movies of polynomial functions found in nature.

I understand the need for measurement and comparison, for knowing whether students in Mississippi and Massachusetts are learning as much as students in Montana or Maine. But must the only point of comparison be a test score?

We have now built up a multi-billion-dollar testing industry complete with its own set of police. When stakes are so high, cheating becomes rampant and thus the security forces are discharged to be sure that no teacher (now renamed “proctors”) read the test directions with inflections different from one another. The testing police now enter the school (renamed the testing site) to check that backpacks are correctly placed on the floor in front of the room. Any deviance could be a sign of testing mismanagement or cheating. In addition, the testing police check to see that no non-certified personnel walk into testing rooms, and that no teacher looks at the exams before the appointed time (or looks at the exams after the test). This of course means that the teacher is never able to work with the student she taught who took the test and may have misunderstood a problem. There is no value added from this type of testing situation to improve teaching or learning.

My MCAS police this year was an attractive woman from my district office, but I had misunderstood the directive. I had thought she was there to help me calm down my jittery students, to escort students to the bathroom, or even to distribute pencils. But, no, she was there for none of these helpful purposes. She had been given a long checklist for which she had to ensure compliance. The checklist items ranged from reviewing the proctor schedule (something I could have emailed the district office ahead of time) to ensuring that there were appropriate signs saying “Do not disturb: testing area” in the appropriate locations. Her mandate was a “gotcha” directive, not one to be helpful. When I protested to my district officials, I was sent a long directive from the state about the need for ensuring testing compliance and quality. Evidently  too many tests were invalidated the year before because of lack of compliance. How could I possibly want to endanger my students’ results? So, you see how it all gets turned around? You are bad or anti-student if you protest. High stakes tests become the norm and we all will rally around this way of educating our students.

I, for one, protest and I am grateful for all of you at Occupy the DOE who do the same.

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!

Celebrating Vito

On Saturday, December 3, we gathered in the assembly hall of Boston Arts Academy/Fenway High School to celebrate Vito Perrone, who passed away in August. It was fitting that we gathered in this space, since Vito cared passionately about schools.

I was so pleased that some of my students could be there for the occasion. They served as ambassadors, hanging coats and giving tours of BAA, but I believe that they also learned something about this great man and his staunch belief that schools could and would be better, and that students deserved to be actively engaged in all classrooms and with all teachers.

Sunny Pai, a founding BAA faculty member and Fenway student teacher and now a Program Director at an alternative program at Charlestown High School in Boston, read from a 1998 letter that Vito had written to his students in Harvard’s teacher education program as they were ending their student teaching. Vito wrote, “…I hope you were able to understand that… adolescents and young adults… can be powerful learners. They can be responsible. They can be active participants in their communities. They can be serious about their physical well being, friends to those younger and older, humane and committed in their relationships. They can be serious readers and writers, and thinkers, persons capable of changing the world. We can’t ever afford to see them as less, even as they often try to convince us that the less is all there is, even as they sometimes content they don’t care about anything that connects with our interests as teachers. Our ongoing task is to see and work from whatever strengths they bring forward, even if that strength is mostly resistance.” I watched my students nod their heads in agreement to these words.

It was a virtual brain trust in the room as Jay Featherstone showed a video from the North Dakota Study Group of Vito speaking in 2000. Jay gave historical context to Vito’s words, and Deborah Meier, George Heins, Ann Cook, Eleanor Duckworth, Larry Myatt and many others shared stories, readings and memories. I was happy to hear some of the younger educators in the room asking those in retirement to keep fighting for more equitable schools.

Two of Vito’s grown children and their spouses as well as two grandchildren and Vito’s widow all were able to attend. I believe that they, like all of us, appreciated the opportunity to learn more about this amazing man… this “teacher with a heart,” which is the title of one of his books.

I can still hear Vito’s voice in my head as he talks about schools with larger purposes and generative questions—both Vito terms. I hear him remind me to keep asking those hard questions and to keep studying history so we can make intelligent connections to what has come before us. I appreciate knowing, as he said in the video, that there are more good schools now than in the 1970s. Sometimes when we are in the thick of it, we forget that.

Thank you to all who joined in this celebration of Vito. I know Vito would have enjoyed being with us.

Vito Perrone group image

"Reading Vito" attendees- an amazing group of educators, friends, and family.

What do you get when you cross Algebra and Hula dancing?

(This is not a trick question, but you will have to read below to find the answer!)

One of the founding principles of Boston Arts Academy (BAA) involved interdisciplinary teaching and learning. The paint on the walls was barely dry in 1998 as we tried to discern what it meant to teach “interdisciplinarily.” Was that even a word? What did it look like? Was there a right and a wrong way to do it?

Should we have interdisciplinary courses? Yes, we said – we wouldn’t teach English and History separately, but rather, we would teach Humanities. How would we integrate the arts into our academic courses? And did that make the curriculum interdisciplinary or integrated? Were we encouraging our students to develop interdisciplinary understanding or merely providing them with integrated or infused experiences?

At BAA, we have spent years in professional development discussions and workshops trying to define the terms and the experience so that faculty, students, and parents would know what interdisciplinary understanding (IU) meant. We spent one year pairing up departments so that teachers could develop interdisciplinary units together. For example, world languages paired with theatre, dance with math and so on.  Some interesting projects emerged, but the effort seemed forced. Teachers never had enough time to work together. They didn’t know if efforts would meet any external criteria for what constituted IU. We felt we needed more of an academic framework to support our endeavors.  After over a year of working with Project Zero (PZ), particularly Veronica Boix Mansilla and her colleagues, we adopted their definition for interdisciplinary understanding: The ability to integrate knowledge and modes of thinking from two or more disciplines to generate a new insight.

Further, PZ suggested that “students build and demonstrate interdisciplinary understanding when they can bring together concepts, methods, or languages from two or more disciplines. For example, to explain a phenomenon, solve a problem, create a product, or raise a new question in ways that would have been unlikely through single disciplinary means.”

BAA’s journey, looking for ways to increase interdisciplinary understanding, has been fraught with tensions. We are hypercritical of our forays into this IU world. Is a dance using video cameras increasing students’ knowledge of technology and choreography, or is it just a cool way to explore new ideas?  Does the study of architecture in visual arts class meet the standard for IU? What about a plie done in Spanish class? The answers are both yes and no depending on the viewer, the learner and the purpose of each class or lesson. It is also perplexing to think that we need two teachers from distinct disciplines working together to enable pure interdisciplinary learning.

The other day I walked into a math class, where students learn hula dancing in order to demonstrate their understanding of trigonometric and other mathematical functions. One might say this is “a lot of hogwash”, or that “this is what’s wrong with education today”. But I was blown away by how describing functions kinesthetically could deepen students’ understanding of math as well as their appreciation for an ancient art form.

The classes of both Ms. Wallace and Mr. Lonergan had combined in the assembly hall for “Function Hula” class. As students entered, Mr. Lonergan, dressed in his best Hawaiian shirt, distributed lei to the grinning students. Some kids had dressed specially for the day, as “Function Hula” has become a staple of the curriculum and an event to look forward to. Ms. Wallace stood at the front of the room in a traditional hula skirt adjusting the music. Suddenly, music filled the room. Students took their seats, fiddled with their lei and took out their notebooks.

Mr. Lonergan

Mr. Lonergan in his best Hawaiian shirt

Mr. Lonergan began class by greeting the students in traditional Hawaiian, “Aloha. Today is Math Hula Function Day and we are your Kuma Hulas, your master teachers.” Some students murmured a muted “aloha” back. Mr. Lonergan continued energetically, “To be successful today, you need to have done your homework.” Students rustled a little more intently in their backpacks looking for their homework papers.  “Remember to incorporate at least one of the challenge problems into your dance. For example: -y= square root of x+ 8-2, and its parent function. Which families will you use? See #1 on the handout—you must use at least five—linear, quadratic, cubic, exponential growth, exponential decay, absolute value, square root, trigonometric, or reciprocal. And, you have to use at least three of the function transformations listed: horizontal, vertical, reflection, or dilation.” There were no cries of “What’s going on?” in the assembled group of students, just nervous excitement and “When will we begin?”

Math student

A student gestures a practice equation

The video screen lowered and Mr. Lonergan said, “We are going to an unusual place—Disney’s Lilo and Stitch—to learn about Hawaiian music and dancing.” “Oooh, I love that movie,” one student said, balancing her saxophone case on her lap. Mr. Lonergan continued, “I know you may have learned in Humanities classes about the racism and classism in Disney movies; but this time Disney was actually trying to be culturally accurate. They filmed live hula dancers and turned those dances into animated sequences. Even Ms. Eriksson [another math teacher who is of Hawaiian descent] has assured me that this clip is completely authentic. We will watch it a couple of times, Ms. Wallace will review the symbols and dance moves, and then you will have a chance to practice before you create your own Hula functions. Got it?” There were nods all around.  Mr. Lonergan grinned. He clearly loves this day!

The film began and someone in the class began to snort with laughter.  I couldn’t tell who was tittering, but Mr. Lonergan immediately stopped the film. “Remember Ms. Wallace and I are your kuma hulas, your master teachers, and that is a serious responsibility for us. We are learning an ancient art form and we will be respectful of it.” I noticed that Amber was shooting a disapproving look at one of her classmates and wondered if he was the joker. Amber was dressed in Hawaiian attire and clearly eager to begin her own choreography. The film began again and this time everyone was quiet.

Beginning moves

The fun begins!

A few students got up from their seats and began moving in sync with the dancers on the screen. Ms. Wallace then brought two students to the stage. “Here are the terms on the white paper,” she indicated to the easel. “We are going to show you each move again and its correlation to the symbol. Just so you get the basic moves.” More students got up to practice with them. Tizi joined Ms. Wallace on stage and moved rhythmically to the music. “I know it’s not bachata or salsa, but the hips are sort of the same,” she said, smiling. “It’s just coordinating the hands with the hips that is hard.”

Working out the moves

Students try out a simple equation

Mr. Lonergan took the stage again. “Here’s an example of how to do a dilation and horizontal translation.” With his arms raised in a V shape he moved them in closer to his head and then sank down, bending his knees in a staccato expression for eight counts. Next he moved six steps to the left. “So what equation do you think I just did?” A number of students guessed correctly. “So that is the challenge for you. How will you demonstrate these functions with movement? You may use music or perform without music. You may also create your own chants. Remember that for extra credit your group can include a storyline/theme that is told through your hula.” Students broke into groups, having been instructed to mix majors (i.e. not all dancers together). Ms. Wallace and Mr. Lonergan joined in.

Students learning math kinesthetically

When I returned an hour later for the final performance, I was enthralled by the creativity, clarity, and precision of each group. Some had grabbed drums from the music room. Others put together costumes. All used individual methods to express complex functions using hula dancing. While the study of hula dancing didn’t occupy as much class time as the study of functions, this one-day foray into an unfamiliar art form truly engaged every single math student. I am convinced that the kids will never forget these mathematical functions. It is easy to memorize and then promptly forget something as abstract as a formula, but when your body owns the movement of the equation, it will stay with you forever.

The PZ definition of interdisciplinary understanding serves a useful purpose in connecting us to a larger academic context and conversation. Ultimately however, teachers must continue to explore various ways to incorporate IU. I am grateful to Mr. Lonergan—the creator of this unit—and his partners on the math team, Ms. Wallace, Ms. Erikkson, Mr. Bobrow and Ms. Mandell, for continuing to push the envelope on our assumptions about what kids can do and the multiple ways they can learn.

April, 2011

BAA and the Boston Symphony Orchestra

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

Allyssa Jones, Milton Wright and Myran Parker-Brass

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Anthony Leach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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