Archive for the 'Family/School Involvement' Category

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.

Visits to Chicago Public Schools

Last week I had the opportunity to visit four schools while I was in Chicago for the Arts Schools Network conference.

Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts)

ChiArts, Chicago’s first public school for the visual and performing arts, is only four years old and I had heard that it’s very similar in mission and vision to Boston Arts Academy. During my tour with Principal Terri Mislap, I saw ChiArts’ core values posted around the hallways: Humility, Balance, Perseverance, Community, and Iintegrity. There are also conduct standards on the walls around the school: Places, Harmony, Collage, Direction, and Arrangement.

ChiArts conduct standards

Students take their academic classes from 8am until noon and then there is a nearly two hour lunch/study hall/advisory block when students can get some air outside in the courtyard, eat, and get homework done. Even though this block could seem unstructured to some, I got the sense that it worked well for students (and faculty.) At 2pm the conservatory part of the day begins. Students take arts classes in one of four majors (vocal and instrumental music, visual arts, dance, or theatre) until 5pm each day.

ChiArts students taking their break in the courtyard

I had the chance to meet with the arts department heads and we discussed some of their worries about their emerging school: how to ensure a positive school culture; how to support the adjunct faculty’s professional development (all the arts teachers except the department heads are part-time); and how to deal with the pressure to produce conservatory-ready graduates when, as the music teacher lamented, “We don’t necessarily have access to students at a younger age and they come in without much background in music!” Similarly, the dance teacher said his department struggled with the definition of success. He felt success needed to be measured by the number of students accepted into conservatories, yet he recognized not all of his young students would actually go on to a career in dance. Sound familiar?

ChiArts musicians

I also met with Jose Ochoa, the school’s Executive Director. His responsibilities span from setting the scope and sequence for the artistic vision of the school to fundraising and finance (the school raises $2.5million a year from its Board and galas and, like at BAA, the privately raised money is crucial to run the school, as their per pupil district allocation is not enough to support an arts and academic curriculum.) There are 600 students at ChiArts and 55% are eligible for free lunch.

ChiArts Principal Terri Mislap and faculty

ChiArts faculty and staff

Calmeca Fine Arts and Dual Language Academy

Walking into Calmeca Academy in the Brighton Park neighborhood of Chicago was a bit like walking back in time for me (I began as a bilingual teacher in the late ’70s when being bilingual and bicultural was celebrated!) I was so happy to see that Calmeca had found a way to fight the backlash against bilingual education to become a dual language school. The vision of Calmeca Academy is “to empower all students to become competent and literate adults who are life-long learners, critical thinkers and achievers who maintain high expectations in the areas of academic and global diversity.”

Our day began with a presentation of dances from students in 4th-8th grade. We watched two dances from VeracruzEl Zapateado Jarocho and La Bruja – where the dancers balanced a candle on their heads as they moved, and a third that was a danzon with Afro-Cuban influence.

Veracruz dance

The costumes were exquisite and the students’ confidence and commitment to the intricate steps even more impressive. Next came a Project Runway show of clothing made from recycled materials and inspired by both indigenous Mexican culture and countries in Africa. The first contestant was the principal, Frances Garcia, dressed in a vibrant blue dress that seemed to symbolize both the importance of music and the arts as well as the culture of Mexico. Subsequent contestants also displayed the dresses they had made. As Principal Garcia said, “Arts help show how smart we are whether we speak English or not.”

Project Runway contestants

Principal Frances Garcia performs in Project Runway

We went on a whirlwind tour of the classrooms. The school is brand new and breathtakingly beautiful. Many of the nooks and crannies of the corridors were bursting with student work and exhibitions. The library rivaled anything I’d ever seen, with lots of reading corners and comfortable chairs. In every classroom, students were hard at work.  Creativity and focused energy abounded. The school uses discretionary funding to ensure that there is a full time visual arts teacher and full time music teacher on staff. They also partner with Columbia College and the National Museum of Mexican Art. During the tour, we also had our pictures taken by two 4th grade photographers on the Yearbook staff.

Yearbook photographers on duty

There are 837 students enrolled at Calmeca. 93.3% are low income students, 10.2% are Special Education and 52.8% are English Language Learners. The largest demographic at Calmeca is Hispanic, 95.2%, mostly of Mexican descent. It seemed that the majority of teachers were of Mexican descent as well. Everyone exuded pride in their building, their curriculum and their school. I left feeling proud too!

Telpochcalli Elementary School

The mission of Telpochcalli Elementary School is to integrate arts and Mexican culture into an innovative academic and social experience. In addition, the school intends to develop fully bilingual/biliterate students in English and Spanish. The school embraces its small size (280 students in grades k-8) as part of its mission and proudly serves the predominantly Mexican and Mexican-American community of Little Village on Chicago’s southwest side.

All the materials we were given were written in both Spanish and English. The school’s PR brochure names six advantages of being bilingual:

  • more creativity
  • more mental flexibility (better understanding of concepts)
  • well-developed problem solving skills
  • more ease in learning yet another language
  • self-confidence and pride in the culture
  • there are many jobs that require bilingual employees—so more job opportunities.

We were met by principal Tamara Witzl, who was one of the founding faculty in 1993. The school developed from the Small Schools Workshop of the University of Illinois, developed by Michael Klonsky and Bill Ayers. Tamara proudly discussed the extensive artist-in-residence program supported by Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education, CAPE (a local community arts organization) that brings in musicians, visual artists and performing artists to work with teachers in arts-integrated projects wherever possible. Given the longevity of this collaboration as well as the stability of the teaching staff, teachers (and artists) are adept at developing projects that both meet academic curricular needs and develop artistic skills.

Example of a mural in the school created by artists in residence and students

Telpochcalli Community Education Project (TCEP) is another community-based organization that has grown from the school. TCEP grew from the needs of the larger school community (parents and neighborhood residents) to have classes for them such as ESL, sewing, aerobics, leadership development, and training in non-violent interventions. Parents wanted more involvement in the school, but Tamara had no vehicle to raise funds to support that involvement. The social and economic needs of parents were overwhelming and the school faculty and administration knew that for students to be successful, parents couldn’t be in continual crisis. TCEP fills that void, and also receives grants to support after school programming for the students. Given the severe budget cuts in the Chicago Public Schools, Tamara hopes that the TCEP might also raise funds to help with the continued professional development of her faculty and the resident artists. Tamara is sanguine about the need for more funding in order to sustain the excellent work of her school and the not-for-profit TCEP. “Without funding, we cannot meet the needs of our students and their families.”

We also had the opportunity to catch the tail end of an artist-in-residence working with students. The students were working on print-making for a unit that would culminate with Day of the Dead artwork. The young artists were excited to explain to us about their work and the meaning of Day of the Dead.

Artist-in-residence and student both explain their process

Lindblom Math and Science Academy High School.

From Telpochcalli I went to visit Lindblom Math and Science Academy in West Englewood, on what seemed like the “other side” of Chicago. Given that this school is part of the consortium of schools involved in Qatar Foundation International’s (QFI) network of schools teaching Arabic, I was eager to see the school in action. Unfortunately, the day was ending as I arrived and the yellow school buses already lining up. Only 11% of the students are from the neighborhood in which the school is located; Lindblom is one of Chicago’s nine exam schools.

Principal Alan Mather graciously took me around the school so I could feel the energy of the students. And, I did. Many students stay late in the afternoon for extra help, clubs, sports, arts activities.

Students working on their math homework

Students working on their college applications in the college and career center

I was impressed with how spotless the school was and also the relaxed atmosphere in the hallways.

Students socializing after school

Alan says that the school decided not to ban hats or hoodies in favor of working on other issues of school culture that seemed more substantive. I was struck by this since my experience at BAA has convinced me of the importance of helping students become more aware of professional dress (i.e. no hats and doo rags). Our argument has always been that students need to know how to present themselves professionally, especially because there are such prevalent stereotypes about artists not being professional. On the other hand, we do spend a great deal of energy on the no hats policy—albeit with just a few students. I wonder what would happen if we went the “Lindblom way” and stopped focusing on hats and gum and if, as Alan said, it would help us focus on the larger culture and climate issues. I’m not sure.

Alan also discussed his desire to keep growing a better school without the constant focus on test scores. “We talk about data differently here,” he told me, and shared the essentials that he felt were at the center of school improvement: college persistence, involved families, a supportive environment for all learners, collaboration among teachers, effective leadership and ambitious instruction. One of the focus areas for the faculty is to provide instruction in a way that students feel challenged and supported. Even though students test into the school, there is still a wide range of learners. This is a familiar theme to me. At BAA, STEAM teachers are also looking at how to support and stretch their students.

Another of Alan’s challenges is to help move Lindblom so it’s not seen as a island in the community. Lindblom has a rich history; it was built as a vocational school in the 1920s and then became an exam school for the African American middle class in the 60s and 70s, but the neighborhood demographics have changed over the last decades. Alan sadly remarked that his students now have to be escorted by security personnel to the public bus stop if they aren’t taking the school bus home.  I was fascinated by this dilemma since Lindblom clearly has a history of community connections.

How can schools serve as a resource to their community while also serving the needs of their current students? Schools may be one of the most effective ways to revitalize neighborhoods, but what are the most effective ways to develop these collaborations? I would love to know how others have thought about this question.

Instructional Rounds

Last Thursday we hosted Instructional Rounds (IR) at BAA. Instructional rounds are the new buzzword in education, largely defined by Lee Teitel and Richard Elmore at Harvard. The purpose of the rounds is to analyze and improve teaching and learning practices at the classroom level. Although I’m not completely convinced yet how helpful the results of the observations are, what IS powerful is getting teachers, students, parents, and administrators out of their routines and looking deeply at the practices of teaching and learning in a different context and through a different lens than they experience during the day-to-day.

I am proud that BAA was the first Boston Public School to have students and parents participate in the rounds. They were absolutely phenomenal. The parents were honored to be a part of the process and found it extremely helpful to think about the school as a whole rather than just the needs of their own student.  The 5 students who participated spoke eloquently and passionately about the positive aspects of BAA, as well as pointed out the real challenges for including all learners.

One of my favorite comments came from a BAA music student who pointed out the differences between the theatre student warm-ups she observed and the music vocal warm-ups she experiences in her own classes. She enjoyed how theatre students both warmed up their bodies and built community at the same time, and she was excited to bring that practice back to her music classes. I loved watching this mini “teaching moment” happening for a student!

Later that evening at my HGSE (Harvard Graduate School of Education) class, three seniors from a new turnaround high school came and spoke. They were all transferred to this new school after their high schools were closed for underperformance. Despite the fact that they had experienced their previous schools firsthand and hold a wealth of information about what worked and didn’t work for them, they told my class that they had no input on structures or practices at their new school. Their disempowerment and lack of engagement in the process of constructing their own educations was jarring, especially after watching parents and students blossom during the IR at BAA earlier that morning.

The takeaway from last Thursday for me was this: when we’re thinking about school reform, I am reminded again that we need to put the voices of students and parents at the forefront of the discussion. How do we incorporate these voices so that they are not an afterthought, but a forethought? After all, who is school reform really for?

Occupy the Department of Education!

I had to blog about Confessions of a ‘Bad’ Teacher from this past Sunday’s New York Times… everyone needs to read this article so we can stop and think about how our federal and state policies are affecting teachers and kids in our classrooms.
I will be joining BAA teachers and many others in Washington, DC at Occupy the DOE (Department of Education) at the end of March for a teach-in to underscore how limiting and short-sighted so many of our current policies are. They are based on an “I gotcha” mentality- on how we can “improve” education by punishing teachers and kids.
I know it’s complicated to create a system of accountability that actually trusts teachers, but we must try. As Johnson points out in this NYT article, the messages we are sending teachers are confusing and contradictory, and the ways we are assessing kids and teachers are ludicrous.
We cannot hope to have engaged students and young people who want to participate in our fragile democracy with such backwards policies. We must be the change we want to see. Let’s organize and go to DC!

Celebrando a Margarita Muñiz

In November 2009, I had the privilege of attending the Thanksgiving play at the Rafael Hernandez School, a bilingual elementary school in Roxbury where Margarita Muñiz was the principal. This annual musical is a long standing tradition, and in 2009, the play was about Margarita’s life, travels and journeys as an educator in the Boston Public Schools.

The play chronicled her departure from Cuba as a young girl as part of the Pedro Pan (Peter Pan) children, her landing in an orphanage in Louisiana, her eventual reunion with her parents, her graduation from college, the beginning of her career as a teacher in the Boston Public Schools, and finally her directorship of the Hernandez school. It also included wildly funny times with all of us in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

It was magnificent to watch the total enjoyment on the faces of the students, from kindergarteners to eighth graders, as they played different aspects of the life of their world-traveled principal. Whether it was struggling to learn English in the orphanage, learning how to order food in Japan, or running from elephants in Zimbabwe, the children danced and sang their way through the script, both poking fun at Margarita’s demands during her travels and demonstrating compassion and understanding for the many cultures and countries she visited.

Besides the outstanding performances of the students who played Margarita, two things stood out for me: 1. the incredible love and devotion that Margarita’s students and staff had towards her, and 2. how the play demonstrated Margarita’s deeply rooted beliefs in education: that all children can reach high levels of literacy, that the arts are essential for a good education, and that family involvement is key for a positive school climate.

When I think about her beliefs (and mine) about what makes a good school, I will think of the Hernandez. This play was a wonderful tribute to Margarita, but more importantly, it was a tribute to the hard work of fantastic teachers, families, and students. I was proud to be involved in some small way.

Margarita Muñiz died on Friday, November 18, 2011. Just that Tuesday, Boston Public Schools announced the September 2012 opening of the first dual language high school- Margarita Muñiz Academy (MMA). It will be led by Dania Vazquez, who coached principals and school change teams for many years at the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE).

Margarita was one of the most compassionate, dedicated and insightful educators whom I have ever known, and I am grateful for her friendship and guidance. We realized somewhere in Zimbabwe on our Barr Fellows trip that we both shared a love for the same 19th century Spanish poet, Antonio Machado. This verse – one of our favorites – sums up much of who Margarita was:


No hay camino

Se hace el camino al andar

My clunky translation:


There is no path

We make the path by walking.

Margarita made new paths each and every day and I hope to honor her memory by doing the same. Margarita, te quiero mucho.  by Yvonne Abraham  by Meg Campbell

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