“Our teachers are like colleagues; they don’t look down on us or put us in a box.”
-Dominique Wilson, student ambassador
There were so many remarkable moments from this trip that it’s hard to give just the highlights. Best part: The kids! Katie, Charles Michael, Dominique, and Yoselin were an amazing foursome. (Ms. Hairston and Mr. Lee were great, too). They never complained, they were always “game” for a new adventure, and they were always happy to present about their school—sometimes even three times a day!
The kids are truly what make this book tour special. Sure, I could go off by myself and talk about BAA and its successes and challenges, but it is an honor to hear the work reflected in the words and actions of our students. They don’t whitewash our work or their experiences. They say what is hard and what works. They are articulate about what they’d like to see change. They do all this with a polish and presence that I don’t think is common in young people. This was the first interdisciplinary group that traveled with me and they were asked to speak about RICO—our habits of the graduate—refine, connect, invent and own. With the help of the theatre department, they created a performance piece to show how these habits play a role in student learning as well as teaching.
On Monday, January 18th I met the kids with College and Career Counselor Cynthia Hairston at the SFO airport and we drove to the hotel at Fisherman’s wharf where Principal Intern Mr. Michael Lee was waiting for us. We were limited by the monsoon-like rains, but managed to visit the famous crooked Lombard Street and get some photos.
We then drove to Chinatown and walked around shops there before heading to a “real” Chinese restaurant chosen by Mr. Lee. The kids wanted their usual, pork fried rice and orange chicken, but the waiter looked at us aghast. So Mr. Lee ordered: a fish soup, a tofu dish, an eggplant dish, a whole fish, and yes, noodles and chicken. Ms. Hairston told the kids that they had to at least try a little bit of everything. The soup was hard for some; the tofu for others. I know when they got back in the car, there was some commiseration texting going on with students who’d been on previous trips with me, but I promise, they didn’t go hungry!
On Tuesday morning, we ventured to Mills College in Oakland for our first presentation. Mr. Lee had attended their teacher preparation program and Mills was excited to have us there. We were the opening act for their Teacher Education Program retreat and the audience consisted of 60 student teachers. Mills College is a gorgeous campus, and an all women’s college that is LOOKING for students from Massachusetts. We need to get some of our young BAA women interested. They have money for scholarships!
From Mills, we zoomed up to UC Berkeley (my alma mater), north campus. We presented to an undergraduate class taught by our host, Dale Allender. When we arrived, there were only ten students, then a few more drifted in, and by the time we started there were 60 students and they had to get chairs from the hallway. Dale is an inspiring teacher, which explains his crowded classroom, and it was affirming to see so many students interested in pursuing teaching as a career. It was also a great experience for our students to see a college class firsthand. “Do the students always come so late to class?” I was asked as students trailed in 25 minutes late.
From UCB we drove up to George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch (about 45 minutes away in the Marin hills), which is just gorgeous. Lucas has a winery, farm, ranch, lake, gym and daycare, etc… up there. We went to Big Rock where Edutopia (the foundation) is located. Our school has been profiled by Edutopia magazine and I’ve also written for them. The buildings are Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired and a sense of peace and tranquility permeates everywhere. Dominique was given the opportunity to apply for an internship with Edutopia, which was really cool.
From Skywalker Ranch we went to have dinner with Nancy Livingston and Fred Levin—the amazing folks who made our introduction to playwright José Rivera, BAA’s 2010 Apollo Award Honoree. Perhaps the most important part of the visit with Nancy and Fred was the opportunity for the students to ask how they “do the things they do.” Nancy spoke with honesty about being on the boards of cultural and arts organizations and getting to know terrific artists and how she loves seeing their work mature and grow.
The next day we went to Lick Wilmerding High School (who also sponsored our trip) and we were immediately whisked into an all-school assembly with a special performance by a bluegrass band (from BOSTON no less), The Bee Eaters. We were impressed! The Lick kids (all 400 of them) were a fabulous audience and we were enthralled by the music, too. We spoke to the band members afterward about the possibility of bringing the group to BAA. We found that we have a Berklee connection. WOW! We had a wonderful lunch (organic) and took tons of pictures of Lick’s cafeteria and beautiful classrooms.
That night we presented to the Lick Wilmerding community and it was another great opportunity for the kids to meet people that have access to many worlds. Our presentation was in the Lick’s new library which is a gorgeous space with huge windows, lots of light, and high ceilings. When we walked in, we all had the same reaction: I would read and study a LOT if I had access to a room like this!
On our last day we visited Mr. Lee’s school: East Oakland School for the Arts. I was excited to see Michael’s school and I think he was excited, and even a bit nervous, to show it to us. “The kids won’t be as artistically polished as BAA kids,” he reminded us.
We arrived in the pouring rain (of course), and we drove to the Castlemont High School campus, Mr. Lee explained that we were navigating through a neighborhood called “the killer zone” where shootings happen all too frequently. We toured the music wing (keyboard room, recording studio, and choral room), the enormous art studio and the dance studio, and then presented in a history class. This school is not audition-based and the students do not major in an art. I also learned from Michael and the assistant principal that they have a 50% turn over of faculty each year, which is their biggest problem. We discussed some ways of building collaborations (using our Tufts intern program as an example), but it is an uphill battle in Oakland because the school district pays much less than the surrounding areas. Also, the charter movement has taken off hugely in Oakland, and many teachers wind up going that route. I felt as though I was seeing what Boston might look like in a few years—with the union holding on to a smaller and smaller percentage of the teachers, and BPS holding a smaller percentage of the schools.
We then drove to Google and we arrived in time to eat burritos in one of the MANY eateries on campus. We saw the volley ball court and the abundant snack bars with free everything—latte, juice, Honest Tea, ice cream, fruit, cookies. We visited the laundry room, the gym and fitness area, the new Google Earth booth (in which we actually found our school in 3-D), the doctor’s office, the swimming pool (wave pool actually), and the many pool and ping-pong tables and open living room-like areas. Office spaces are mostly open rooms. My friend, Hy Murveit, was our guide and he introduced us to a wonderful young man in HR (called People Operations) named Ed Bailey who talked to us about internships at Google.
It was soon time for our talk/presentation, which was filmed for YouTube, which can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/user/googletechtalks#p/u/0/UfG1RMuUE44. We had an audience of about 30 people all who seemed under the age of 40. I write in my book about the importance of schools standing for something and visitors to BAA often comment on the energy in the hallways and classrooms. The notion of standing for something permeates Google. It is a company that stands for innovation, creativity, freedom, and responsibility. You can feel it the moment you walk on to the campus.
Author talks are a familiar occurrence there, and my friend had done a wonderful job advertising our visit. I was very touched. One of the most interesting questions after the presentation was whether I think computer programming and arts have similarities in terms of creativity. Another question asked how to make education in Taiwan less rigid. This young man (from Taiwan) worries that young people aren’t finishing college because the teaching is so uninspired and un-engaging. He also worries about the lack of creativity in the K-12 schools there. Interestingly, some audience members are home-schooling their kids because they feel the local school systems (which are quite affluent) ignore creativity.
That evening we attended a private book party at another friend’s house in the neighborhood. The audience was mixed, with folks who serve on the local school board, or who are teachers (or retired teachers). I talked briefly and then the students did their presentation on RICO and we answered questions. Here’s a comment from one participant:
“I loved the chance to hear from the students and from you about the BAA experience. Your book has so much to say to those of us who work in the field of education, no matter the type of school it is. Your discussion of what makes a good teacher and of the relationship between teachers and administrators was inspiring on so many levels. I love your democratic vision of what a professional learning community can be to all of its varied constituents.”
This was a wonderful trip because of the kind and generous people who opened doors to so many opportunities for our students. I am thankful for this gift of travel with our students.