Archive for the 'Professional Development' Category

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



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!

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!

The Art of Leadership

I wrote The Art of Leadership for the American School Board Journal in June 2011… it’s also posted on the Publications tab of my blog. Comments are welcome!

News from the Coalition of Essential Schools

Two exciting pieces of news from the Coalition of Essential Schools…

The first is that registration is now open for Fall Forum 2011! I cannot emphasize enough what an amazing professional development opportunity this is. A Boston Arts Academy team attends each each year and I highly encourage you to look into coming as well!

November 10-12
Providence, RI 
  • pre-conference sessions
  • Essential school visits
  • featured sessions and speakers including Deborah Meier, The Gamm Theater’s Tony Estrella, Gary Stager, What Kids Can Do’s Kathleen Cushman and Barbara Cervone, The Forum For Education and Democracy’s Sizer Fellows, Ron Wolk, Dennis Littky, and more.
  • an “UnConference” afternoon
  • youth-focused strand of sessions and learning opportunities
  • and, of course, the educator- and student-led workshops that are the heart and soul of Fall Forum (full workshop details will be posted on 9/22)
Visit the main Fall Forum page at for more information.

Supporting great teachers

Each year as we begin a new school year we return to these essential questions: What makes great teachers possible and how can school leaders support good teachers?

Most teachers begin their careers in the classroom, with the door shut, and develop their skills alone.  The structure of most schools does not encourage or expect teachers to open their doors for support.  I was trained to think about teaching as a singular pursuit, devoid of collaboration. I was also trained to think about teaching as a kind of missionary work: to be a good teacher meant to be a hero. And there were no teams of heroes.

I’ve seen many images of teachers as heroes in American movies- from “Dangerous Minds” to “Dead Poets Society,”  “Stand and Deliver” to “Freedom Writers” to “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” American teachers appear as voices crying in the wilderness, working against the odds, and dedicating themselves heart, soul, mind, and body to inspiring their students.  Ask a class of aspiring teachers what kind of teachers they want to be, and inevitably, they will describe the roles created by Michelle Pfeiffer, Robin Williams, Richard Dreyfuss and other actors.   Ask a group of veteran teachers about these images and they will look at you disdainfully, convinced that you, a school leader, have lost your memory of the rigors or trials and tribulations of a teacher’s daily life.

Almost without exception movie principals are hidebound, shortsighted, and bullying people who oppose the heroic teachers and creativity. The teacher vs. administrator paradigm sets up great teachers as mavericks, working alone in their classrooms, creating a sort of separate world for their lucky students.  The heroic teacher and her separate world shine even more brightly when placed against a background of mediocrity and small thinking in the larger school.   That’s an awfully seductive image, and many teachers try hard to create these separate worlds.   In the movies, heroic teachers devote themselves to their jobs so completely that they sacrifice their own wider lives in the process, and come to see themselves as personally responsible for saving their students.  This model of teaching, I think, is terribly flawed and quite dangerous.  The message to principals like me, who see themselves as promoting and nurturing great teachers, is that getting out of the way is the best we can hope to do.


At Boston Arts Academy we work differently. At BAA, faculty and administrators engage together in discussions about what allows them to be great.  I think this allowing is the real job of the principal, and it is far more complicated and difficult than getting out of the way.

Much has been written about how to support novice teachers, but the question of how to help an already good teacher become great is more complex.  What kind of support does a good teacher really need from me in order to stay in the profession, grow better and stronger, and also to feel energized and valued?

At BAA we work to provide multiple opportunities for faculty to deepen their content knowledge, to expand their repertoire of teaching techniques, and to develop their skills as advisors to a small group of students. We do this by building a culture of cooperation among teachers where high quality in-school professional development is offered– a paradigm in direct opposition to the separate world idea. As a school leader, I also ask how much I can reasonably ask great teachers to do.


Recently I observed a veteran music teacher, Ms. McCarney, in her 9th grade literacy block. (All students at BAA take a grade-level writing and reading class. All teachers, no matter their discipline area, teach this class, usually as a team.) She was team teaching with a math teacher and his student teacher. This was a lot of adults in the very small room with 27 rambunctious 9th graders.  The students were using Elie Weisel’s Night as part of a unit on writing memoirs. Here is what I wrote to her after watching part of the class:

“Students seem to know what is about to happen. So when you say “Ready to split?” they are up on their feet and moving into three reading groups. In your group, of about eight, you distribute a small piece of paper with three words on it: indifference, distinguish, apathy. You lead the discussion as students go over definitions. [I want to know why these words and not others? What is your rationale?]

Next you direct the group to read the remainder of a chapter; you suggest different students to read. You start with John who stumbles over words that shouldn’t be difficult, but then I wonder how long he has been speaking English. No one seems startled when you ask John to re-read a word.  This seems to be expected; no one interrupts and reads for him. Other students want to read, including Kelvin, who is not embarrassed by his mistakes

[I think about how far we have come with students who once refused to read for fear of shame and who would just skip words rather than stumble. I want to mark this moment. Students are actually sounding out words. How wonderful! I want to know what the rules of the game are here. Are you the only one who can correct? I note that you do each time. Simply. Firmly. Do students have to repeat the word]?

You push up Latisha who has her head and body on the table. You ask her to read next. She proceeds with little expression.  John starts to illustrate as others are reading. A handout is in front of students but it seems only John is filling it in. [What is the protocol here? There is text master, illustrator, connector, questioner. When have you gone over these terms? I know these terms that we use for literature groups are being taught at all grade levels, but do you have specific ways of teaching this at 9th grade level? Do visual arts students, like John, always want to be the illustrator and is text master the hardest?  Do students have to rotate which term they pick? Must you experience all? I haven’t yet heard students in 9th grade use ‘connector’ much but I did watch an 11th grade literacy class in which students were very fluent with all four terms.]

When another student reads, and then stumbles, John begins to fill in for him. You remind him not to do that. “John, remember, everyone needs time to sound out words.”

You will see some of my questions/comments woven into these notes, already in brackets. I know I raise some “big” questions about our literacy instruction and the use of literature group vocabulary, but I know you’ve been doing this a long time so you’ll be able to fill me in. I so enjoyed this class. How well the three of you work together fairly seamlessly. How did you get to this point? I know that you and Mr. Sercome [the other teacher] asked to work together because you felt your styles complemented one another.  How does Tessa [the student teacher] feel about her role and competence? Also, students seem so on point. Just watching them move into different rooms was impressive. I also appreciated how you brought Latisha back. What is her trauma?  I know you had asked me to pay special attention to her.  Night is a hard book to read for all sorts of reasons.  I love the language—the sparseness but also the curtness of it. “Dregs of dawn” – what a phrase.  I look forward to debriefing with you. Let’s also talk about how the practices you employ in the literacy block transfer to your music classes.

Before an observation, I ask the teacher where she wants my attention. In what area does she most want feedback? Ms. McCarney asked me to observe the entire group and especially Latisha, as well as her interactions with the other two teachers.  After the observation, I begin a debrief by asking the teacher to tell me what went well and what was challenging. I sometimes like to use the debrief as a way for the teacher to talk to me in broad terms about the entire course. This is a way for me to learn, too.  Ms. McCarney begins immediately by talking about Latisha. She speaks almost without taking a breath, her words staccato in their speed. “She is suffering from horrible abuse in her family—her stepfather actually—and SST (Student Support Team) knows all about it. She’s both furious at me for letting them know, but also somewhere inside she’s also grateful. Her way of coping with reading Night is to detach herself completely from the meaning. She told me a week ago that she couldn’t bear to read the book.  Sometimes she gives me the cold shoulder in music class too, especially when we are analyzing text. We are working on a Porgy and Bess song that is also sad and she wants to shut down there, too. “

Ms. McCarney looks up at me. Where will I take the conversation next? Will I tell her she needs to get some distance and that she is too involved with Latisha?  Or will I hold some of Ms. McCarney’s pain and still get her to reflect on her practice?  On my good days, I hope that I can absorb the anguish that Ms. McCarney experiences. I hope that by allowing her to share the details of her work with this one student who means so much to her that I can help her regain some balance. I also hope that our discussion will give this excellent teacher a chance to see both what she does so well, and to think about questions she might not have considered earlier. My brief visit needs to give her added value, to help her see new directions for her teaching, and to keep her energized.


Teaching at BAA is decidedly not a solitary activity.  I may have very little influence on what goes on moment-to-moment in Ms. McCarney’s classrooms; however, our philosophy of collaboration is why we all teach a reading and writing literacy class, no matter if we are math, music, science or humanities teachers. Ms. McCarney meets regularly with her team to discuss students, to evaluate their work, and to develop curriculum. At the end of the year, she will spend two days with her colleagues reviewing and critiquing each other’s units and lessons, and creating notebooks on the year’s courses as they continue to build a collective archive of work.

Ms. McCarney and her colleagues are good teachers. As a principal I know how lucky I am to work with them.  Yet more important than their individual gifts is their ability to function as a collaborative team—the music team or 9th grade literacy team in this case.  These teachers have debated, compromised, selected, rejected, retooled, rethought, researched and reflected again in order to write the best possible 9th grade curriculum. They have brought in teachers from other disciplines, particularly arts teachers, to complement or assess their curriculum designs. They have learned to accept criticism; to be willing to admit to needing help, and to work in partnership. They have invited literacy experts from outside of the school to broaden their content knowledge. Arts teachers go through similar processes in their disciplines by inviting outsiders in for critiques and to sit in on team meetings.

Ms. McCarney is not the exception at BAA. As a leader, my job is to build a school in which all teachers work in teams, and have the time built into their schedules to talk, to visit each other’s classrooms, and to create curricula as carefully and self-critically as artists create their pieces.  If I do my job well, teachers will develop relationships with each other and with their students that are strong enough to withstand the enormous, sometimes crushing, pressures that the world puts on all of us.

At BAA, teachers work purposefully together. Learning to be vulnerable with one another is as important for teachers as for students. For example, in humanities classes, students spend one term with one teacher and another term with a different teacher. They synthesize their knowledge from both sections at the end of the semester. The student’s grade will be a combination of both terms, as well as of two teachers’ feedback. This complex system requires teachers to agree on content and assessment tools, and to communicate clearly about student progress. Teacher-to-teacher accountability is required and practiced. The same occurs in arts departments, where the entire team will judge a senior’s exit requirement.  Accountability also occurs in grade level literacy classes, like Ms. McCarney’s, where often the entire team (sometimes up to ten teachers) will need to agree on the scoring of an assignment. Deciding together what merits a 2 or a 3 (on a four point scaled rubric) for a project or assignment requires everyone to share their individual standards and, more importantly, develop normed standards.

To do this work well, a teacher needs to develop flexibility and strength. As a principal, it is my job to figure out how to support teachers to embrace and develop these qualities.

I describe flexibility as the ability to use different techniques for different kinds of learners. For example, flexibility is the skill of recognizing that each student is different and comes with a different set of individualized instructions for the teacher.  Flexibility is the sensitivity to know that the solution to a student who doesn’t understand you is more than talking louder and slower.  Flexibility is having many arrows in your quiver.

Strength is related to flexibility. It is the ability to withstand the onslaught of 26 different opinions in one class period , while recognizing that each student needs to understand the lesson—and often in her own way. The ability to maintain high standards while challenging everyone.  The ability to breathe calmly and maintain outward stability while inside you feel like you want to scream or cry. Lastly, strength is the willingness not to get into a power play with a student to show that you are strong.

Our teachers help each other maintain flexibility by stretching each other, challenging each other to look at a student or a task in a different way.  Teachers also help each other set boundaries and develop strength.  When Ms. McCarney worries out loud about Latisha, another teacher is likely to tell her gently, “We’re all working to help her.  And ultimately, we must accept that there are limits to what we can do.”  I like hearing one teacher tell another, “Time to go home now.”

Even as districts and states feed schools a more and more poisonous and limited diet of teacher-proof curricula, our faculty works intensely in collaborative teams to figure out the best ways to reach our students and bring them to high levels of achievement. The teachers I work with at BAA, like Ms. McCarney, don’t use their students’ disparate skill levels or too much violence or poverty in their neighborhoods to justify failure.  This isn’t because they are saints, although I frequently find them to be incredibly admirable. This is because this kind of blaming takes time away from the good part of their job, which is tackling challenges together.  The expectation of my teachers is that we all struggle continually to master our part of the work, hard as it is, so that our students can take their places on the world stage.

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