Archive for the 'Arts Education' Category

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.

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 Conservatory Lab Charter School (CLCS) and its Center for Artistry and Scholarship in Education (CASE) as Executive Director.   CLCS serves over 400 pre-K -8 students on campuses in Brighton and Dorchester. Its mission states: “As a laboratory school, we develop and disseminate innovative educational approaches that will positively impact children in other schools and programs.” Its current chief executive and Head of School, Diana Lam, will be retiring after eight years of pioneering leadership.  Diana’s vision and perseverance have created the school we have today, and she will be engaged on projects in the future so that we can continue to benefit from her enormous contributions.

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!

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.

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?


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

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

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

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

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

Notes from Artist Proof Studio

“Yes! That’s what I say!”

“Yes! That’s what I believe!”

“Yes, we have that exact problem!”

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

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

APS banner

[Photo credit Monika Aldarondo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visioning exercise

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

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

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

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

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

Gallery walk

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

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

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

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

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

Group photo

The amazing APS faculty and staff!


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

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