Archive for the 'Teaching and Learning' Category

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!

Reflections from San Diego and Los Angeles

In mid-December, I spent some time in San Diego and LA, visiting schools and speaking with educators. One of the most gratifying parts of this trip was reconnecting with a former graduate student of mine from the first year I ever taught my class, “Building A Democratic School” at Harvard. Agustin Vecino now works for the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE) in Los Angeles as a coach for the pilot schools. He and Rachel Bonkovsky (a former Boston principal), along with George Simpson and Assistant Principal Cara Livermore (formerly of BAA and now of the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA)) arranged all of my stops on the trip.

San Diego School for Creative and Performing Arts (SDSCPA)

Principal Mitzi Lizarraga showed me around her school ( of 1400 students in grades 6-12. Entrance to the middle school is lottery based, and high school admission is through audition. The motto of the school is, “Where arts and academics share center stage.” Mitzi shared that her charge is to intensify the arts experiences and exposure of her students; she also must raise funds for much needed arts residencies and adjunct teachers. [Note: SDSCPA vocal arts major Victoria Matthews recently received a 2012 YoungArts Merit Award in Voice- congratulations to Victoria and to SDSCPA!]

Like many schools in San Diego, the campus seemed quite sprawling to my urban Northeastern eyes!

On this lucky day for me, choreographer and dance professor Donald McKayle was in residence to audition students for his piece “House of Tears,” based on the “desaparecidos” from Argentina. The high school dancers crowded onto the dance studio floor and listened with rapt attention to McKayle. He spoke about his experiences in Buenos Aires watching the “madres de los desaparecidos” march around the Plaza Mayor with photographs of their disappeared children, who had been murdered or stolen by the junta.

SDSCPA dancers

Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA)

From San Diego, I headed for Los Angeles and LACHSA, where George Simpson is principal. (George was formerly the director of music at BAA!)  The same excitement I felt at San Diego’s school was evident here. Students were hanging a juried show about Arts and Engagement in the visual arts wing. Music students had just finished their jazz series. Theatre students had just done “Preview Night,” which is like our informal showing at BAA. Dancers were gearing up for their winter performances. Exhaustion and elation were on everyone’s faces. “Passion with balance” seemed in short supply.

LACHSA is located on the CalState LA campus. Also on the campus are the LA Principal Residency Network and the LA Urban Teacher Residency program. (These are both programs of the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE), an organization that I co-founded with Larry Myatt in Boston over fifteen years ago.) George had organized an event for me at CalState called “Transformative Leadership,” where I talked with members of both networks as well as other educators from surrounding schools and not-for-profits. We shared ideas about our perspective realities and reacquainted ourselves with the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) 10 common principles, considering where we did/didn’t see these principles in our work.

George Simpson, Agustin Vecino, Carolyn McNight, Debbie Thompson

East Los Angeles Performing Arts Academy

The next day, I visited the East LA Performing Acts Academy, headed by Principal Carolyn McKnight. The faculty of this pilot school was joined by the Humanitas Academy of Arts and Technology faculty and principal Debbie Thompson, as well as district folks and a superintendent. Both of these schools have converted to pilot status in the past two years. Later I met with the faculty and principal Rosie Martinez from the Academic Leadership Community (ALC), another pilot school in the throes of trying to attain the autonomies that are promised to Pilot Schools (much like those of charter schools), which include: budget, governance, curriculum and assessment, hiring and scheduling, and calendar.

The theme for all three pilot schools was the autonomies and how to ensure they were being met. These are familiar themes for us in Boston. While districts, especially urban districts, are often initially open to pilot schools, the intricacies of actually devolving power and control away from central office and central mandates and into the hands of principals and teachers is always more challenging. If LA and Boston could do more collaborative work, we might strengthen all of our schools and create a system of trust around pilot schools.


From ALC I traveled to UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies to give a talk to their Teacher Education Program and Principal Leadership Institute. A lively group of about 30 of us talked about what makes good schools, how the CES principles can help guide schools, and the struggles of each of us in sustaining good schools.

In this whirlwind tour of schools, talks, and intense conversations with committed educators, I came away grateful for the opportunity to learn from educators on the other side of the country. I reconnected with friends and re-charged myself to return to the work we are doing in Boston and beyond.

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

Celebrating Vito

On Saturday, December 3, we gathered in the assembly hall of Boston Arts Academy/Fenway High School to celebrate Vito Perrone, who passed away in August. It was fitting that we gathered in this space, since Vito cared passionately about schools.

I was so pleased that some of my students could be there for the occasion. They served as ambassadors, hanging coats and giving tours of BAA, but I believe that they also learned something about this great man and his staunch belief that schools could and would be better, and that students deserved to be actively engaged in all classrooms and with all teachers.

Sunny Pai, a founding BAA faculty member and Fenway student teacher and now a Program Director at an alternative program at Charlestown High School in Boston, read from a 1998 letter that Vito had written to his students in Harvard’s teacher education program as they were ending their student teaching. Vito wrote, “…I hope you were able to understand that… adolescents and young adults… can be powerful learners. They can be responsible. They can be active participants in their communities. They can be serious about their physical well being, friends to those younger and older, humane and committed in their relationships. They can be serious readers and writers, and thinkers, persons capable of changing the world. We can’t ever afford to see them as less, even as they often try to convince us that the less is all there is, even as they sometimes content they don’t care about anything that connects with our interests as teachers. Our ongoing task is to see and work from whatever strengths they bring forward, even if that strength is mostly resistance.” I watched my students nod their heads in agreement to these words.

It was a virtual brain trust in the room as Jay Featherstone showed a video from the North Dakota Study Group of Vito speaking in 2000. Jay gave historical context to Vito’s words, and Deborah Meier, George Heins, Ann Cook, Eleanor Duckworth, Larry Myatt and many others shared stories, readings and memories. I was happy to hear some of the younger educators in the room asking those in retirement to keep fighting for more equitable schools.

Two of Vito’s grown children and their spouses as well as two grandchildren and Vito’s widow all were able to attend. I believe that they, like all of us, appreciated the opportunity to learn more about this amazing man… this “teacher with a heart,” which is the title of one of his books.

I can still hear Vito’s voice in my head as he talks about schools with larger purposes and generative questions—both Vito terms. I hear him remind me to keep asking those hard questions and to keep studying history so we can make intelligent connections to what has come before us. I appreciate knowing, as he said in the video, that there are more good schools now than in the 1970s. Sometimes when we are in the thick of it, we forget that.

Thank you to all who joined in this celebration of Vito. I know Vito would have enjoyed being with us.

Vito Perrone group image

“Reading Vito” attendees- an amazing group of educators, friends, and family.

Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum

Last Saturday, a group of BAA students performed for the closing session of the CES Fall Forum in Providence, RI. These students created a unique performance piece combining music, visual arts, spoken word, theatre and digital media. Participants were Althea Bennett (VA), Ashleigh Brown-Fuller (vocal), Gary Gonzalez (theatre), Justin Hynes-Bruell (instrumental), Janibell Santana (theatre) and Daniel Whitelock (instrumental).

Their original interdisciplinary piece, Listen!, wrestles with the tension between the power of the young artist’s voice and adults’ tendency to put it on “mute” in order to fit a prescribed vision of who and how young people should be.  After the performance, students discussed the piece, their creative process and how it reflects their experience at Boston Arts Academy.

Our librarian, Debbie Froggatt, commented in her reflection on the session, “The power of student voice! Honest, thoughtful and commanding… Their artistic piece moved and provoked us to ponder how we are listening to our students. Are we really in conversation with them? Who are their authentic selves and what are their internal struggles?”

Our work is hard, but I always feel energized and inspired when when I see my students come alive through their art… I feel recommitted to making the world WORK better for these talented and thoughtful young voices!

Congratulations to CES on another powerful Fall Forum!

The CES Board: myself, Debbie Meier, Misha Lesley, Jill Davidson, and George Wood (missing: Nancy Gutierrez) giving Jill a gift for serving CES so well for so long as we hired a new director, Elizabeth Jardine

Literature Circles

Each year as the school year opens, we begin as a community of readers. A few years ago, we borrowed an idea from Beverly High School to implement Literature Circles. Throughout the school year, teachers and students recommend books to our librarian, who then selects a variety of books for summer reading for students and faculty.

In September, we gather for two consecutive days in Literature Circles, grouped not by grade or arts major, but by the books we read. Last year, we piloted Literature Circles co-lead by a teacher and a student, and it was so successful that the number of students who volunteered doubled this year.

All Literature Circles involve talking about books- where we as readers connected to plot, character, events, etc. Each faculty member leads the group a little differently, but it is amazing to walk around the school, look into any room, and see everyone doing the same thing at the same time: discussing, analyzing, and connecting to literature.


Math faculty Tess Mandell – “Keesha’s House”


Math faculty Cassie Wallace- “The Hunger Games”


Music faculty Greg Holt- “American Born Chinese”

Some books are graphic novels; others, non-fiction; others, long poems. The important part is that we are building community and excitement (among students AND among teachers!) as we talk about books, sometimes wearing down the tough shell that some students have about reading. We want all our students and faculty to feel the freedom of reading for pleasure and sharing that joy with others.



Music faculty Allyssa Jones- “The Help”

I am interested to hear how other schools think about literacy and/or building community, perhaps through a different kind of whole-school initiative. What summer reading books have been successful at your school?

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