Design Comes Alive

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

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

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

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

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

Students learn about total internal reflection while building water fountains

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

Designing an electronic musical instrument

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

LightMotion movement performance

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

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

Collaborative design process comes to life!

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Celebration of Fernadina Chan

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

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

– – –

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

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

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

Fern on stage with alumni dancers performing her pieces

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fern on stage being honored by her dancers

 

Intervention into Personalization

One of the ten common principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools is personalization. This is explained as: “Teaching and learning should be personalized to the maximum feasible extent… the goal is that no teacher has direct responsibility for more than 80 students in the high school and middle school and no more than 20 in the elementary school. To capitalize on this personalization, decisions about the details of the course of study, the use of students’ and teachers’ time and the choice of teaching materials and specific pedagogies must be unreservedly placed in the hands of the principal and staff.”

Who could disagree with this? In fact, with budget cuts so rampant, getting the numbers down in any school so that teachers can see fewer students and focus on them well requires creative scheduling, and maximum flexibility in all aspects of school. Further, given our current steady diet of “teacher-proof” curriculum that aligns with tests, fewer and fewer teachers make decisions about what and how they will teach. Given this gloom and doom picture, I still insist that personalization is something all schools must work to achieve.

Last week, I witnessed personalization at its best.

At BAA, although students audition in the arts and profess to have that passion, we choose to know nothing about their prior academic skills or their behavior issues. When school opens in September, our 125 new freshmen jockey for attention. That one student who was a uniquely great dancer in her middle school class is now in a class with 24 other students. In addition to dancing for 2.5 hours a day, students take a full load of academic classes.

For a student like Aidelys, that is not easy. She came from a large middle school where she distinguished herself on stage but not in the hallways or academic classes. At BAA she has a hard time learning to control her impulses. She reacts to a look or a perceived insult as “disrespect.” She has two channels: angry and angrier. She cannot seem to find the dial to turn the knob to anything else.  She is frustrated by her own emerging skills; she wants to know what words mean but experiences too many she doesn’t understand. Studying at home is hard. She hasn’t learned that to be successful one must be willing to make mistakes and to refine again and again one’s work.  In middle school, she just got by. In fact, in order to actually get her diploma she was sent to an alternative placement.

Not only is she behind academically, she struggles behaviorally. Carmen Torres (co-headmaster at BAA) has suspended her too many times—for violent outbursts, threatening teachers or students, or disrupting classes. Each time Aidelys gets a little bit more discouraged. Yet we can see that behind that tough exterior is this amazing dancer who wants to be successful. When she first came to BAA, her dance teacher, Sheryl, saw that natural ability.

In perhaps a fit of madness, I asked Carmen if she would bring Aidelys to my Harvard Graduate School of Education class final exhibitions. My grad students have worked all semester on writing their visions for a democratic school. Last week they had the chance to visually display their ideas. I wanted students to be there to critique. I knew that Aidelys, with her frustrations about school, would have something to say. I didn’t know how profound her comments would be. Carmen sighed when I asked her. “I just suspended her last week, Linda,” she told me patiently. “I’m not sure what message it would send if I brought her.” But as soon as Carmen had spoken we both knew that she would come with Aidelys. For an afternoon, and evening, Carmen would demonstrate what Carmen does best: look at each young person with new eyes every day. Let yesterday’s transgressions be yesterday’s and today be a chance to start anew.

Aidelys arrived with Carmen bright eyed and eager to begin. She had dressed appropriately and even put a cute cloth flower in her hair to show that she understood this was a special occasion. I explained that I wanted her to listen to my students describe their schools and then each one would ask for feedback. “What’s that mean?” she asked me quizzically. I explained that my students needed to know what she thought about their ideas and that was called feedback.

“I’m ready!” she announced and off she went to learn about a bilingual elementary school in Denver. When I next noticed Aidelys, she was intently bent over the rubric giving written feedback to my grad student. She waved me over. “I need some help. I really liked her school but I don’t know what this means,” she pointed at the word feasible. I explained and Aidelys kept writing. Another wave. “And this?” She asked about the words holistic and inclusive. After my explanation she kept writing without pause until she was ready to listen to the next presentation.

Aidelys giving feedback on a student’s presentation

In my debrief with my grad students, I asked about audience feedback since over 50 people visited the presentations. All of my students who had Aidelys said without a moment’s hesitation that they most appreciated her insights. “She had the most useful feedback for me, and listened so well and was so interested in what I was talking about.”

I smiled inside. I didn’t want to give too much away about Aidelys’ struggles. Later when I thanked Carmen for bringing her and shared the feedback, we both grinned together. As veteran educators, it was an important moment for us both. Even in the hectic pace of our days as school leaders, we needed to remember to take time out to pay attention to our students who need it most. We needed to remember that those who act out most profoundly often are doing so because they haven’t learned yet how to be a student. We know that failure begets more failure and success begets more success. When we forget to personalize, or to go the extra mile to pay attention to a student, then often nothing can change.

At BAA we talk about walking down the hall to see a student in her or his arts being successful. They reaffirm our determination to help that same student figure out math. But what about the Aidelyses who after eight months in school have yet to settle down and be successful anywhere? How can we find within ourselves to give them what they need – more attention, not less. More love, not less. They disrupt. They are rude. They annoy their peers and us. Still we must find a way to redirect and to love them. Carmen reminded me of that last week when she thanked me!  She wrote:

“Thank you for inviting us and encouraging me to take Aidelys. Sometimes we have to close our eyes and take the leap with kids.  I feel so fortunate to have shared this experience with Aidelys because we both took a chance and learned from it. It was a really soft landing this time.”

We won’t know for a long time if this intervention into personalization,n as I call it, will have the desired effect. But we know that had Carmen not done this, the opportunity for change would have been lost. We are now emboldened to do more, to keep trying to garner the resources to provide the best Aidelys deserves.

HGSE student Sara Gips, Aidelys, and me

Alvin Ailey

Saturday’s Boston Globe ran an article on the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (they performed at the Citi Wang Theatre Thursday through Sunday last week.) Many may not have known that two Alvin Ailey dancers (Kirven Boyd and Belen Estrada) are graduates of Boston Arts Academy!

Co-headmaster Carmen Torres and I, along with Artistic Dean Fernadina Chan, dance department co-chair Sheryl Pollard-Thomas, and all 40 of our 9th and 10th grade dance majors, were in the audience on Thursday evening to watch Kirven and Belen perform a chillingly beautiful duet to “Wade in the Water.” Imagine the joy of seeing these two take center stage. (A huge thank you to Citi Performing Arts Center for donating more tickets for BAA students and faculty to Sunday’s performance!)

BAA Artistic Dean/dance department co-chair Fernadina Chan with Alvin Ailey dancers/BAA alums Belen Estrada and Kirven Boyd!

We sat in the audience with tears streaming down our faces as we watched our former students captivate hundreds of people. We remember their struggles. We remember their dreams. We remember when so many in Boston questioned the need for a high school for the arts. We continue to fight each day for adequate facilities to educate the next generations of Kirvens and Belens. But on Thursday night and Sunday afternoon we left our fights back at school and rejoiced in the accomplishments of our alumni.

We were so proud to have our young dancers there to know what they, too, can aspire.  Mostly, we celebrated the hard work, tenacity and brilliance of Kirven and Belen’s BAA teachers who pushed and pushed and never gave up on them.  For us, we were home. And home was a beautiful place.

Fernadina Chan, Belen Estrada, Sheryl Pollard-Thomas, Kirven Boyd, myself, and Carmen Torres

Boston Marathon

Boston Arts Academy is now in our second year of a three-year relationship with the Boston Athletic Association as an official charity of the Boston Marathon… We have a dynamic team of 15 running the marathon on Monday, April 16- they have already raised over $70,000 toward their goal of $100,000!

Three of our runners come from the immediate Boston Arts Academy community: Adan Colon-Carmona, father of an 11th grade dancer; Kevin Dua, teacher intern from Boston College; and Rick Tagliaferri, Executive Director of the Boston Arts Academy Foundation (now running his second marathon for the school!) You can click here to see a listing of our marathon runners by name and learn about their reasons for running for Boston Arts Academy.

We recently had a pep rally to support the marathon team, which also featured Boston Arts Academy’s newly formed student running team, the Rockets- part of our Artist Fitness initiative. Thank you to Jossie Mar Diaz (BAA ’06), Duncan Remage-Healey of the Boston Arts Academy foundation, and Student Activities Coordinator Deidre O’Halloran for their work organizing this event!

Check out our corporate sponsor Constellation Energy’s website to see videos of our Pep Rally or click here for pictures of this fun day!

Boston Arts Academy marathoners!

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.

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.


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