Brought Together Through Music and Lang Lang

Lang Lang walked into the room, dressed in a snappy red t-shirt with a black front pocket and black border trim, and a black jacket, high fiving (photo here) the wide-eyed students who had been waiting for him. His entrance was rock star-like—not the way I think of a classical pianist.  “Who wants to play?” he asked the assembled group, all of whom were sitting at pianos that had been purchased through a generous donation from the Lang Lang Foundation. Just moments before, all of the students from Boston Arts Academy and the Orchard Gardens Pilot School had been practicing scales and songs. Now they froze. Was it really possible that Lang Lang was asking them to come up and play? But, one by one, they did.  Lang Lang was an exceptionally gracious audience member and cheerleader. He had encouraging words for every student and added flourishes to their pieces.

dsc_0169When Nicole, from Boston Arts Academy, sat at the piano she seemed completely immobilized. No amount of coaching from her teacher, Ms. Seungok Lee from BAA, could loosen her fingers. She just sat there in the presence of greatness and couldn’t play. She stared straight ahead, her back stiff and her hands frozen. Her eyes darted to her teacher. Ms. Lee’s eyes and head nodded and urged her to play, but Nicole couldn’t. “You can play,” Lang said gently. “We know you can.” Somehow his gentle words and the rapt attention of all the young Orchard Gardens musicians loosened her fear, and suddenly her fingers were tearing up the keyboard. She played Fritz Kreisler’s “Liebesleid (Love’s Sorrow)”,  transcribed for piano by Sergei Rachmaninoff.  Everyone cheered. Nicole has only played for two years but her mastery of this piece was stunning. Lang Lang urged her to keep playing. “You have great talent. Don’t stop now!” dsc_0181Nicole went back to her seat and sat a little taller and prouder. Ms. Lee did, too.

Her BAA classmate, Emily, was urged forward and explained that she composes music and sings. She played a melodic tune and hummed along, and, as she returned to her seat, Lang began to play the exact tune. There was quite for a moment. “How did he do that?” all the young students asked one another.  Emily grinned broadly. “He just played my song perfectly!” Suddenly, everyone wanted to play for him and sing.  Shanti, a 7th grader from Orchard Gardens,  started to play a piece, and one of the smallest students in the room, a little girl dressed in yellow with pigtails, pitched forward so far on her piano bench that I thought she’d fall off. Lang Lang’s eye caught hers and he seemed to know she wanted to join Shanti at the piano. “Come on,” he urged. As Lang Lang pulled her forward, he learned that that it was her brother playing. She stood next to the piano and then begin to sing along while her brother played. I looked at Megan, the Orchard Gardens principal, and she was glowing. How often does a principal feel this kind of pride for her students? img_3080A principal’s day is filled with tough and often painful decisions.  Days are filled with conflict and little time for reflection. But at 5:30pm on a Friday evening, Megan’s day was filled with pure joy. I felt fortunate to be there to witness this special moment.

I am proud of the seminal role that BAA played to bring Lang Lang to Orchard Gardens. Lang Lang’s Keys of Inspiration Foundation gave BAA an initial grant in 2013 , and the high school quickly shared those resources with OGPS. Now, OGPS has its own piano lab and music teacher. I look forward to many more opportunities to see these students take center stage as they become more mature musicians!

The Center for Artistry and Scholarship helps promote these moments. Our work involves helping educators think differently about schools and schooling through the arts. What does it mean to have young people gather across grade levels and schools to play music together?  How often do young people, particularly those growing up in neighborhoods marred by violence and poverty, experience the joy and beauty of classical music training? Many parents were gathered in the room, also glowing with pride as their youngsters played for Lang Lang. img_3076OGPS, like so many urban schools, attracts students who may be recent immigrants to the U.S., but at today’s event, language and racial differences were blurred, and music was the common thread that held everyone. That is what the arts can do: bring everyone together for a common purpose. And today that purpose was to make beautiful music. The arts continue to show us ways to become our best selves.

Back At School Again

After two years in full-time academia, I am back in a school. It feels right. Labor Day and the ritual of children returning to school are, once again, part of my daily world. I am the newly appointed Executive Director of the Center for Artistry and Scholarship (The Center). This nonprofit was originally developed by Diana Lam, retired Executive Director of Conservatory Lab Charter School (CLCS), and the school’s board of trustees.  CLCS serves over 400 students from pre-K to 8th grade on two campuses in Dorchester, MA. The Center, while affiliated with CLCS, has its own independent board and a mission that is still evolving:  

The Center for Artistry and Scholarship (CAS) is a nonprofit organization that fosters and mobilizes creative, arts-immersed schools where students are making and doing, teachers are asking how and why, and schools are engaged in their community.

So what will I do?

One of my first assignments is to share and promote two exciting rich academic models being used by Conservatory Lab Charter School, while continually improving the education provided to the school’s 450 students. I am back where it matters: at the intersection of arts and academics, where I can see every day how when a young person tries to do something really difficult—like learning to play the violin—their worldview and their sense of self truly changes. Words like “growth mindset,” “grit,” and “perseverance” are being used so frequently that they have almost lost their meaning, but in this setting I truly see each day how working in an ensemble to learn challenging music can transfer to feeling successful about oneself. “El Sistema-inspired” is the way CLCS describes its music program.

Conservatory Lab Charter School’s orchestra program is inspired by El Sistema, an international music program. El Sistema’s philosophy is based on the idea of music as the vehicle for social change: that the pursuit of musical excellence teaches students to strive for quality in all areas of their lives.  While many El Sistema programs are after school, Conservatory Lab Charter School infuses El Sistema into the school day.  I look forward to telling you more about the program and how this program could be used in other schools.   

El Sistema was founded in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abreu in Venezuela to affect social change through intensive, ensemble-based music education. Through a system of “nucleos” in poor and underserved neighborhoods, over 400,000 young people are involved in orchestral and choral music programs. While I was at Boston Arts Academy, I had the opportunity to visit El Sistema in Venezuela and witness first-hand the remarkable way it uses the teaching of musical excellence to help young people strive for excellence in other parts of their lives. As Abreu says, “the orchestra is the only community that comes together for the sole purpose of agreeing with itself.” The idea of the orchestra as a democratic institution is indeed unique in the classical music world, and I look forward to helping define and codify, along with various independent research teams, how El Sistema works in daily practice in the United States. I would love to see many more schools adopt this orientation towards learning music.

I get to witness on a daily basis how a school pours itself into project-based learning by using the EL (formerly Expeditionary Learning) curriculum and processes. I was involved in the early years of EL’s development, so it’s wonderful to see that it has survived and thrived through the past decades of high-stakes testing! There is nothing easy about project-based teaching and learning. It requires a great deal of skill and training on the part of the faculty, but Conservatory Lab is determined to be a place where risk-taking, experimentation and deep learning (to use the new term du jour) are valued as much as high scores on tests. Some of Conservatory Lab’s most famous expeditions can be found here

The school’s principal is Nicole Mack, one of the most clear-headed and talented individuals I have had the honor of working with.

dsc_7900 She and her team have already led some great professional development sessions to help teachers become immersed in whole brain teaching and learning and that all academic teachers understand what it’s like to learn to play an instrument.  What a great place to teach!  Watch a video of the teacher orchestra here!

Another area of focus for the Center (and for me) is the Perrone Sizer Institute for Creative Leadership. I am thrilled that the first cohort of the Perrone Sizer Institute for Creative Leadership began in August and represents emerging leaders from Citizens Schools, Hudson High School, Cambridge Public Schools, Conservatory Lab Charter School, and the following Boston Public Schools: Boston Arts Academy, Boston Latin School, Charlestown High School, Edwards Middle School, Lila Frederick Pilot Middle School and the Mary Lyons Pilot High School.

Carmen Torres co-directs PSI with me, and in her “spare time” she also is the head of Student and Family Support at Conservatory Lab. One of our earliest activities with our students was to immerse them in artistic thinking. We wrote and performed a blues anthem that reflected our emerging leadership journeys.

It has been a dream of mine to honor two of my most important mentors,
Vito Perrone and Ted Sizer, by developing a program that reflects their lifetime of work. Here are the leadership competencies we hope to develop in our students. psi-leadership-competencies

Both Vito and Ted were passionate about the ways in which schools and communities were connected and, while neither were known as arts advocates, both acknowledged in their writing the importance of creativity in student learning. PSI prepares emerging leaders from both education and not for profit worlds to integrate three distinct lenses. We describe the lenses this way:

  1. The Artist: utilizing creativity, design, risk taking and experimentation to solve problems. Through the arts, one persists, refines, and considers many different approaches.
  2. The Educator: informed and driven by experience in and research on powerful, engaging, and sustained learning; drawing upon a deep knowledge of child and adolescent development; and applying a profound understanding of the learning process to prepare students for academic and personal success.
  3. The Community-Based Organization Leader: employing a culturally competent understanding of the needs of youth and families in a given community to engage effectively in a dynamic collaborative process of community growth and development. What is (or is not) happening at home can have a profound effect on a student’s health and learning.

Another evolving program of the Center is the Creative Schools Project. Here is where we hope to share “best practices” of various schools that put arts in the center of teaching and learning. Since Conservatory Lab is our “lab” school we will start there, and share stories of successes and challenges from the classrooms. Stay tuned! Hopefully many of those posts will come from former students and colleagues of mine—both from Boston Arts Academy and other places.

I want to encourage you to help us think through what CAS can become. Seth Racine has joined me to help give shape to the Center. We both feel that this new organization can play an important role in the national and international debates about what matters in education today.  Write us, come visit and challenge us!

Below, check out some photos from when the mayor came to visit Conservatory Lab! You can see more and learn about his visit here.dsc_8047dsc_8010dsc_7931

Thanksgiving Rituals

Always at this time of year, I think about the many thoughtful ways teachers and students in schools honor Thanksgiving, or “Dia de la Accion” in Spanish. (I like the Spanish term: Day of Action since it reflects much of the way I think about this holiday).

For many years when I was co-director of Fenway High School, after having a Thanksgiving breakfast with students, faculty would gather with Vito Perrone who was a Lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education. We would have a “Thanksgiving retreat” with Vito in which we would discuss some of our most intractable problems. We had made it to Thanksgiving. Something about getting to Thanksgiving without losing hope seemed more powerful than the phrase we often heard, “crawling towards Christmas.” Vito always helped us see that even as we felt our problems were unsolvable, our questions were getting better. He would remind us that we were thinking better and more creatively together, and that we would continue to make a difference in the lives of young people. We would leave those annual gatherings feeling stronger about facing our classrooms after the short break, and more re-assured that we could use one another to grapple with the complex array of student issues we faced everyday.

When I founded BAA, we began a new tradition that also revolved around a Thanksgiving breakfast with students, and then transitioned to a Thanksgiving play that the faculty would perform for the students. It was often a silly rendition of a fairy tale but stylized to match the times. In later years, various teachers would write an original play. The point was to amuse our students before sending them off on a holiday break which for many signified tension, trauma and sadness. In addition, it was a chance for the entire faculty to collaborate together on crazy and fun project while displaying an array of artistic talents. After the play, and the hugs and goodbyes for students, the faculty gathered in a large circle and individually gave thanks. Although we sometimes had to remind individuals not to speak in paragraphs, the chance to share a “thanksgiving” thought with colleagues was a powerful way to mark the end of the term. Faculty often thanked colleagues for a specific action; sometimes teachers gave thanks to their own “home” family or thanks for their health. The specific thanksgiving mattered less than the fact that we gathered annually in this way.

My thanksgiving message is to all teachers and leaders who work diligently every day with students in school and classrooms. Your job is incredibly difficult. It cannot be measured by test scores. You do not get told thank you nearly enough. Thank you for all you do for young people and their families. As Vito would say, “I know your questions are getting better.”

Exciting Next Steps

For over 30 years I dedicated my life’s work to Boston Public Schools (BPS) as a bilingual teacher, co-head of school, school founder, center director, and special advisor to the Superintendent.   I was then, as I am to this day, a fierce advocate for district public education, for arts in education, and for providing access to under-served students throughout the city.

When it came time for me to leave BPS and pursue new opportunities in my role as Director of the Institute for Creative Educational Leadership at Boston University (BU), I felt as though I was leaving the home in which I grew up.  I wasn’t going far, but that thought did little to mitigate the disquiet I felt in leaving the urban public school classroom for the halls of higher education.

Thanks to the inspiring leadership of Hardin Coleman, Dean of the School of Education, I have spent a fruitful two years at BU, a time in which many educational and community leaders have benefited from the Institute and the talent of my colleagues Carmen Torres and Robert Weintraub.

Nevertheless, the tug of the public school classroom has remained strong, especially in combination with a long-held dream to lead an arts-based elementary school.  Recent developments have given me the opportunity to rekindle direct involvement in both areas.

On July 1, 2016, I will be joining the Center for Artistry and Scholarship (CAS) as Executive Director. The Center’s mission states: The Center for Artistry and Scholarship (CAS) is a nonprofit that fosters and mobilizes creative, arts-immersed schools, where students are making and doing, teachers are asking how and why, and schools are engaged in their community.

The Center is currently partnered with Conservatory Lab Charter School in Dorchester, MA. Unlike Boston Arts Academy (BAA), which has five arts disciplines, the singular artistic focus at CLCS is music. The school has successfully implemented El Sistema, an international system of orchestral training, as its core approach to music education as well as Expeditionary Learning teaching principles. The school is also lottery based, just like other district schools. Both BAA and CLCS share the fundamental belief that an arts-based education is transformative and gives students skills that will carry them for a lifetime, no matter what careers they pursue.  And now that CLCS serves students through 8th grade, more graduates are attending BAA.

It is important to note that while BAA is a pilot school within the Boston Public Schools district, CLCS is an independent charter school. This may come as a surprise to some, yet I have always maintained that charter and district schools have much to learn from each other and it is my firm intent to serve as a bridge, one that will share the best practices of each.  As a beginning to this conversation, I wanted to share this thoughtful piece by Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers: Charter Schools as Incubators or Charter Schools Inc. (

To facilitate dissemination, I am so pleased to be joining CLCS’s in-house not-for-profit, the Center for Artistry and Scholarship in Education (CASE), to which I will bring much of the leadership work that I began at BU. The Institute’s work will carry on; I am delighted that I will be able to re-name CASE after two of my mentors: Vito Perrone and Ted Sizer. I know that the Perrone-Sizer Institute for Creative Leadership at CASE will collaborate closely with BAA and Mission Hill School among other autonomous and district schools locally, nationally and internationally. We will continue to explore the intersections between arts-based and community-based teaching and learning. I also will remain closely tied to Boston Arts Academy as a trustee, supporter, and advocate.

As always, I will try and document my experiences as I move into this new role, including what I learn and where I see tensions. I hope you will continue to push my thinking as well. I look forward to speaking with many of you in the weeks and months ahead.  Please know how grateful I am for your encouragement, advice, and support as I contemplate my new role and the strides we can take together in nurturing the academic and artistic achievement of Boston’s youth. There is much work to be done!

Love, Loss and Friendship in Havana

How do we really ever understand another person and her struggles? How can we ever walk in another’s shoes? How can we truly tell another’s story without also telling our own?

I went back to Cuba this year because of my friend and colleague Margarita Muñiz. I made a promise not to forget her: To share her story and her legacy; to ensure that future educators knew of her fight for equitable and excellent bilingual education. Margarita’s story would be told through film with two colleagues. Veronica Wells graduated from BAA almost ten years ago and is now an independent film maker and actress. Blanca Bonilla, also an excellent documentary filmmaker, was one of my first theatre students over 35 years ago. She works as BAA’s Director of Admissions. We went to meet Margarita’s Cuban family. We wanted to better understand her upbringing, her sudden departure as a Peter Pan “orphan,” and the reality of Cuba today.

Yet I have returned to Boston feeling that Cuba told me a story about myself. A story of loss and love and friendships that ended too soon. I went to tell Margarita’s story, but Margarita’s story became mine.

Margarita was the principal of the Rafael Hernandez School in Boston for at least three decades. She became a community icon, in part, because of her fight to keep alive bilingual education in the 1970. The Hernandez, which was conceived and founded by a group of Puerto Rican activists, was one of the first bilingual schools in the United States. It quickly became one of the most popular and successful in the Boston Public Schools.

In 2011, just days before Margarita died after a long battle with cancer, the Boston Public Schools voted to found the first bilingual high school in Boston. In honor of Margarita’s many accomplishments, it was named: Margarita Muñiz Academy. Margarita gave herself to her school and her students and, in the best way she knew how, to her family. She was exacting, demanding and critical. She didn’t accept disagreement well from adults, yet she gave her students many opportunities to grow and learn and make mistakes. She could also be enormously kind, accepting and generous. As we learned in our travels, she missed her extended family with an aching poignancy that we hope to capture on the screen. Listening to her cousin read Margarita’s holiday cards made me wish desperately that history had not been so cruel. Margarita was not like some Cubans in the United States who had nothing good to say about the revolution. She rarely engaged in conversations bashing Cuba’s politics. Margarita just missed her family. Terribly.

Margarita’s gift to me was the opportunity to return to Cuba and discover her story in all of her complexities — good and bad. Ours was a journey filled with questions and confusions about what we were observing, listening or learning about.

In learning more about Margarita, Cuba helped me confront my own past and my own losses. I had not expected that. Perhaps that is how Margarita was generous with me. Cuba shone a light on my belief that we are all tied together in this life and in this world. We are here on this earth for such a short time to take care and honor it and learn from others. To act with kindness and generosity at the same time. Not always easy.

Cuba was kind and generous to us. And enormously complex. Margarita gave me the gift of Steve Blossom, friend and co-trustee of her estate. He allowed us to tell Margarita’s story. Veronica and Blanca brought extraordinary sensibilities to the work. The trip would not have been possible without their film-making abilities and depth of compassion and understanding. They helped me understand what makes a story compelling, even when painful. Both of them understood the range of emotions I felt as I met Margarita’s family and interviewed them. Gently and carefully they peeled back the layers of Margarita’s life through their questions and camera shots.

Cuba told me that my story IS the story of the many friends I have loved and lost. Cuba reminded me about the importance of family and the wonderful and loving family that I have. I ached to return home. All three of us did. We compared our own family stories and learned of one another’s passions and idiosyncrasies. We laughed together.

We also learned the beauty of being DISCONNECTED from cellphones and computers since Cuba has little internet and it is costly. We listened and connected to ourselves and others instead. No texts or news to distract us. We knew little of the outside world. Still, the Cuban people passionately desire to be part of the world wide web and to learn and communicate freely.

We made friends. Wonderful friends who were also interested in Margarita’s story, and in us. They processed the many layers with us—explaining why a family would send their daughter to an orphanage in Louisiana thinking they would never see her again. Our Cuban friends helped us understand why Margarita might have presented herself as much more upper class than she actually was. And Margarita’s family helped us understand the many connections between Margarita’s family of birth in Cienfuegos and the Claflins, her “adopted” family in Boston, specifically Belmont. The Claflin family owned the sugar plantation where Margarita’s family worked and where she grew up.

It was the Claflins who eventually helped Margarita’s parents leave Cuba and be re-united with their daughter, Margarita, who had spent about five years in a Catholic orphanage and school in Louisiana. The Peter Pan program, run by the Catholic church and probably the CIA as well, ferreted young children like Margarita out of Cuba and placed them in Catholic orphanages across the United States to “save” them from the “savages” of Communism. Most parents believed that they would never again see their children; hence they called them “Peter Pan orphans.”

We met the historian, Nancy, from the hamlet of Soledad, location of the sugar plantation “big house.” The many connections between Boston and Cienfuegos still support a warm sister-city sense, even though worlds apart and with the passage of almost 70 years. We learned so much from these people: Margarita was given an award at BU as the alumna of the year in 2007. Her mother worked in the registrar’s office at BU, many years after working as the governess for the Claflin children in Cuba.

The music, the dance and other arts are of enormously high quality. We saw a fabulous performance of the National Ballet, yet noted with dismay the very few Afro-Cuban dancers. We met Alicia Alonso, founder of the National Ballet and still the company’s director at 94. She is legally blind. In fact, she danced for many years blind. She comes to work every day and all decisions still go through her.

For eight days we tried to learn the story of a complex and complicated Margarita from an even more complex and complicated nation. We walked through streets of Havana that felt like a movie set from the 1950s. We rode in cars older than I am; we met taxi drivers with doctoral degrees in history and engineering.

We heard about Cuba as an upside down pyramid. Nothing quite makes sense viewed through our American capitalist lens. We listened to musicians made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club CD and movie. We danced to music in alley-ways and clubs. We laughed; we cried; we learned that the best way to know yourself is to learn about others. I returned to my home humbled by the experience of learning about Margarita. I returned buoyed by the possibilities that Cuba is on the brink of positive change. I have returned grateful for new and deepened friendships with Veronica and Blanca, and the chance to reminisce about the many friends that exist only as memories, albeit beautiful ones.

To my travel companions and film makers, Veronica and Blanca, whose energy and humor made this journey to Cuba an unforgettable experience. Gracias a todos. Especialamente a Cuba.

Connections of love and loss and friendship

Margarita lives in my memory with other cherished friends. Finding out about Margarita’s life caused me to relive parts of my own life. Margarita reminded me of other friendships, of lives cut short too quickly.

Margarita’s commitment to social justice is like that of Abbie Schirmer, my colleague and friend from many years at Fenway and in Boston Teacher Union (BTU) work. I miss Abbie every day. She helped me organize that first solidarity trip to Cuba in 1979 even though she never went with us. She, too, fought daily for students to reach their dreams, often against a backdrop of family and community difficulties. Abbie was a fighter, like Margarita. You wanted her on your team, always!

Margarita’s love of family reminded me of Amy Waldman, my best friend from college who later married Felix Vilaplana. Felix left Cuba in 1980 among what became known as the Marieltos—the Cubans who left by boats from the town of Mariel. Amy, with whom I shared almost everything, died too young and left behind Felix and two beautiful children—Maya and Talia.  I have the privilege of being Maya’s madrina. Amy was a connecter and a fierce advocate for family, and when she was living she traveled to Cuba to meet all of Felix’s family. She especially loved his sister Maria Antonia whom we got to meet. Like me, Maria was a principal and a teacher. Maria told me how it was due to Amy that so many of her family re-connected.

Margarita’s dignity and determination as she confronted her cancer reminded me of Emily, my friend from high school, who so bravely fought leukemia. Emily spoke before medical school classrooms about the stages of denial and then acceptance as her death became imminent. Emily, with her long dark hair and dark eyes, spoke before the publication of the Elizabeth Kübler-Ross book “On Death and Dying.” Emily wanted young people in the medical profession to know the beauty in death. She, too, wanted her story told, her twenty-one years remembered and to leave something to help others. So she gave talks whenever and wherever she could. I was spellbound by this and angry. I wanted my friend alive and not so accepting of her death. It felt unfair.

Margarita was similar to Deidre, a colleague from BAA, whom I had the privilege of knowing for nine years as she worked on issues of access and equity for our students. She was deeply committed to creating the conditions for a strong student government and for student decision making about issues related to language of origin, race and gender. Deidre took students to conferences, to college visits, to work internships. She repeatedly found ways to provide access to unique opportunities for all of her students. She gave herself to their growth and development. Deidre came alive even more after her death as I helped prepare for her final celebration and memorial.

To Abbie, Amy, Emily, Deidre and Margarita, I thank you for the gifts you shared along the way. I am humbled to have shared time with each of you.

What’s Right About Schooling?

What’s right about schooling?

Too much of school these days is relegated to a relentless focus on raising test scores. Too little of school is dedicated to creative and inquisitive pursuits. Too much of “schooling” is about learning what someone else has decided young people must know and be able to do—what factoids must be crammed into their brains. Or worse – schooling and learning have become almost synonymous with high scores on a test.  Creativity, critical thinking and communication skills have taken a backseat to our obsession with testing, compliance and accountability. There is nothing wrong with a data-driven school, but the data cannot just be about what reading and math quartile 3rd graders are in. Learning is more than numbers on a test.

I was fuming about all that is wrong with “education reform” today until I walked into the NuVu Studio on a snow day last month — note that it is not called “school.”

NuVu describes itself this way:

NuVu is an innovation center for middle and high school students whose pedagogy is based on the studio model and geared around multi-disciplinary, collaborative projects. NuVu nurtures creative problem solving, collaboration, and presentation skills, all critical for student success.

It’s tag line is “innovative education for the future.”

NuVu feels like a mini-version of MIT’s Media Lab, but for younger people. As the founder/director, Saeed Arida, explained to me “NuVu is really for young people for whom the traditional school model has failed.” NuVu doesn’t believe in traditional classes and classrooms. Students work in large studio spaces. There is a main office which is divided with glass walls so that students and adults always see one another. 3-D printers line one wall. Mannequins are grouped in the entrance inviting fashion design projects.


Saeed Arida with pictures of students

A more traditional wood shop with work benches and various cutting tools has a separate entrance and an actual door, but again the walls are mostly glass. Coaches work with students in small groups and introduce them to a variety of open ended problems. There are no traditional subjects like math or history, science or art.  Students use a method called the “studio model” or “design thinking.” In this model one learns “to navigate the messiness of the creative process, from inception to completion.” Classes are not segmented into hour long blocks; instead, students spend at least two weeks, daily from 9am-3pm, re-imagining solutions to complex questions such as: How to redesign school breakfast or lunch? One student, who has gained some notoriety on NuVu’s web site and vimeos, works diligently to improve access for students who are physically challenged and in wheelchairs.


students in the studio




mannequins welcome students in the morning


Shop Etiquette: these are the only rules I saw at NuVU

How does the studio actually work? Here is NuVu’s own description:

Students are provided with access to outside resources – leading thinkers and experts – to whom they present their framework and receive feedback. Students document their process and progress, continually reviewing it with the Coach. They set parameters, synthesize, and continue refining, refining, refining. NuVu trains students to apply multiple perspectives to challenge and refine ideas over and over again until it becomes a natural learning process. All of this is documented through individual student portfolios. [This is in lieu of traditional grades].

Here is a graphic from NuVu that describes the student’s processes.

studio process

I found it such a relief to return to discussions about real assessment of student work instead of just tests.  NuVu describes its assessment system as follows:

A portfolio serves as a compilation of student work done at NuVu over the course of the term, semester or full year and is meant to show the student’s growth over time and development of key academic and life skills (creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, research, quantitative reasoning and analysis). Each NuVu student is provided with their own online profile on NuVu’s online platform where they document and present their work. At frequent periods during the term, NuVu’s team works with the student to assess how far the student has developed since the beginning of the term. The portfolio-based assessment helps make learning and assessment relevant to students’ lives.

Perhaps all trends in education are cyclical. Portfolio assessment was widely implemented in the late 80s and 90s. In fact, when I was co-directing Fenway High School from 1984-1998, we spent a great deal of our professional time as faculty developing a portfolio assessment system. As state tests (such as MCAS in Massachusetts) began to consume more and more of educators’ attention, it became more difficult to focus on developing the criteria for measuring student mastery as well as the myriad ways of assessing that mastery. We didn’t feel that the ideas that Ted Sizer had developed in his now seminal Horace books (Horace’s Compromise, Horace’s School, Horace’s Hope) were irrelevant, but we found it increasingly difficult to find the time to develop and implement deep and challenging portfolio experiences, especially in the face of high stakes testing.  Many educators began to retreat from developing curriculum and assessments that aligned with students’ own passion as the pressure to produce good student scores on tests increased. We knew that our students were still learning some important basic skills; nevertheless, the trade off between test scores and engaging curriculum has had negative repercussions. Personalized learning and competency-based teaching and learning have almost become “boutique terms” only available to those who can pay for it in private independent schools or for those in highly specialized schools.

At Boston Arts Academy, which I founded in 1998, as state testing was gaining momentum, the school has managed to keep some portfolio assessment at the center of learning for students. This means that test preparation for the MCAS may be sacrificed in favor of more time, for instance, developing senior grant projects which require students to use both their artistic and academic skills to solve a community based problem. Students research a range of issues in which they want to make a difference such as fighting homelessness, aiding children of incarcerated parents, increasing arts programs in schools, confronting body image issues in teens, and providing access to the arts for deaf and hard of hearing students. In their proposals students describe how they will address their chosen issue. Even if a student’s specific project is not chosen by a panel of judges for funding, students report that this year-long, multi-disciplinary experience often carries them into college and career, and they even find themselves returning to the project many years later. This is what it means to educate for and with passion. That is what NuVu is doing, too.

This kind of learning happens only in isolated pockets around the country. NuVu now must charge tuition to be solvent. They have found it difficult to work with public school districts that can’t figure out how to “fit” the studio model into the constraints of credits, grades and state regulations. All sorts of rationales are given: it is too expensive; students won’t learn the basics; students won’t do well on tests; teachers can’t teach this way, and the list goes on and on. Yet, we have exciting examples across the country of schools that do just this. Big Picture Project  and its MET ( schools view students as passionate competent learners who deserve to have some choice in their approach to learning. High Tech High in San Diego  ( shares much of the same philosophy as NuVu about how schools and studio models might overlap.

I want to see more schools inviting students to approach their education passionately and creatively. Risk taking and “mucking about” with ideas in the company of adults who take students seriously might actually give us another window into effective teaching and learning. Studio thinking, design thinking, maker spaces, fab labs – all these catch phrases don’t just belong in higher education institutes like MIT or in Innovation Labs at Harvard. They belong in our public K-12 school with our students who are desperate for engaging and personalized learning.

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


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.

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