Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

A school with promise

Something seems amiss in all of the teacher and union bashing in the news these days. That talk about earning too much money, bloated benefits, not working hard enough, not caring about the kids. And then how the union protects us, especially the really bad ones. I was pleased to read Nicholas Kristof’s piece in a recent New York TimesPay Teachers More” (March 13, 2011). At least someone gets it!

In my early years in the public school system I was a union rep who watched a gay colleague be nearly rooted out of the school. This very successful teacher worked with some of the most difficult-to-reach students, but his sexual orientation made some administrators queasy.  Thank goodness a union existed to protect him.

On the non-union front, I am dismayed about low salaries or benefits of some colleagues in charter schools.  They lament not having the money that “Boston Public” has, which offers teachers a decent wage with decent benefits. I worry about systems with no unions. Even though I do agree with those that say that the unions must be more open to change.

Amid all of this I recently experienced a bright reality: A school in Worcester that is NOT a charter school, nor even a pilot school, and IS part of the teacher’s union.

The University Park Campus School (UPCS) tagline is “The school with Promise.” It certainly is!  A small neighborhood school of grades 7-12 with 17 full-time faculty and about 230 students from a high-poverty neighborhood. Here are a few more stats:

  • 74% receive free or reduced lunch;
  • 64% speak English as a second language;
  • 65% are students of color;
  • 95% go on to college;
  • Nearly all are first generation college attendees.

The school was founded in 1997 with 35 7th graders and graduated its first class in 2003. The retention in college (or college persistence) is 88%. This is incredibly impressive.

When I walked in the building along with other principal colleagues several weeks ago, my mind drifted back to the nursery rhyme, “The Old Woman in the Shoe.” The building is tiny. Open space is almost non-existent. Classrooms are squished on top of one another with small lobby areas on each floor. Yet, even with the lack of space, particularly in the tiny cafeteria, I also felt the sense of community and excitement about being a student, or a teacher, at

University Park. I never saw any negative behavior in the hallways or classrooms. Students and teachers were deeply invested in learning.

A UPCS Classroom
This may emanate from the shared understanding about the overarching framework and beliefs of the schools:
1. An untracked academic program prepares every student for college work
2. A school culture that won’t allow any student to fail
3. Organizational practices that support the academic program and school culture
So how did these play out during our visit?
Teachers do not own their rooms. They do their work in the back of someone else’s room. There is no teachers’ lounge or separate lunch room.  Teachers eat lunch with students. Veterans and beginning teachers learn together physically almost by osmosis. A clear open door policy exists to come in and out of classrooms.
Visuals all over the school show the importance of going to college. A senior checklist with each student’s name delineates college readiness steps. For example: Have you submitted your common app? Other non-common apps? Have you submitted your recs to your teachers? Have you done your FAFSA? Have you written your college essay? Supplementary essays? Guidance counselor report? SATs?  Senior class names line a grid with stars next to the places where students have completed a step – a great visual aid for both the guidance counselor and the students.

Students in upper grades all take courses at Clark University (a founding partner) as well as at other community colleges. All students take at least one college course before graduation.  Graduate students from Clark teach electives at the school and all students go back and forth to the Clark Campus for special events and even gym. The entire college process is demystified and going to college is an expectation.

Consider these classroom snapshots of our day and the messages we received:

A poetry slam featuring local Worcester poets as well as other artists from around the country. With virtually no arts at UCPS, this was a very special occasion. Students clearly enjoyed this exciting event. In an 11th grade physics class, all students focused on the tasks and the experiments. They worked well with one another and were very engaged in the projects.

In a senior sociology class, almost every student detailed the homework assignment –  describe their bedroom. Few talked about sharing a room with siblings. Many students talked openly about their emotional feelings towards their bedroom. I felt included in quite personal conversations where students had clearly established a deep trust in one another and their teacher. One student said, “My room is an introduction to me.” and then went on to describe why. His peers nodded sagely and supportively as he described the colors and the spatial arrangement of his furniture. Julie talked about how her room was the living room since there wasn’t a private place for her, and others listened quietly.

Math class students had just finished watching the movie “Pay it Forward,” as part of their unit on exponential functions. Even though this was a 9th grade class, students were deeply engaged at their tables working in pairs or trios. As the class ended the teacher reminded the students to communicate with one another on homework since the assignment was a group project. “They will call each other?” I asked. “They have to. It’s part of the assignment.” The teacher answered. “They all do their homework, almost 100% of the time. If they don’t we have an after school program to help them catch up.”

UPCS students were so eager to learn and contribute!

Later we met with a group of about ten 9th graders and asked what they liked about the school. To a person, each liked the high expectations. “Some people might say that this is the smart school, that we are brainiacs.” Dajon grinned at us and went on, “I don’t know about that. I do know that we all want to go to college and we want to do well.” Brittany explained that the school was like a family. Lily said she appreciated that the teachers were always there for her. Kalil agreed. “Teachers are so involved with kids here.” And Eljay echoed, “We are really comfortable with one another and everyone cares.” Jucinda explained that in her old school she never talked, “but here no one is afraid of being teased or anything like that.”  Caleb liked still seeing his middle school teachers. “Our teachers have lunch with us. We know our teachers’ expectations and how to do their work since we had some of them in middle school.”

I wondered if there were any things that the students didn’t like or would change.  The students readily acknowledged that it’s a small school. Kalil said that he’d like it to be a little bigger so that he could experience more of what larger high schools might offer. Many students wanted a bigger building or a gym, or more after school clubs.

Teachers explained later that the loss of their extended day funding eliminated many afterschool activities as well as their very successful parent university. With so many students being first-generation college attendees UCPC once did much more with family education. Now they are limited to an ice cream social at the beginning of the year and the more traditional parent council. Still, when we asked about family engagement, all students said that their parents were very involved in 7th and 8th grade and came to family conferences. Even now as older students, parents still know all their teachers. “We only have a few teachers here so our parents know them well from the beginning.”

As I drove back to Boston, I thought about the ingredients that make UPCS so successful:

1)      A clear mission and vision. This seems to travel from the principal down to the teachers radiating to the students and parents.  That vision includes an expectation that graduates will go on to college, and they will be supported in their efforts to get there. I didn’t feel any of the no excuses kind of talk that seems to permeate much of the charter school terrain. Rather than failure is not an option, the UPCS message is success is an option here through supporting one another.

2)      Strong professional learning community among teachers. Teachers share a common instructional framework that includes a commitment to collaborative group work, questioning, scaffolding of prior knowledge and classroom talk. Teachers talked about how their professional development focuses on their instructional framework. They also talked about the importance of living inside one another’s classrooms instead of a faculty lounge or office area.

3)       Small size enables safety and connection. Students and teachers know one another well (since 7th grade). Caring for one another is an important tenet of the school. That students make their teachers proud is of importance to everyone.

4)      Clear expectations about success and a positive school climate. Students begin in an August Summer Academy. Here they actually take their first academic courses where they learn the expectations of the school and their teachers. This investment seems to pay off in terms of behavior and focus through the rest of the year.

5)      The power of partnerships. UCPS has strong and long-standing partnerships with Clark University and Jobs for the Future (JFF). Each organization either provides support in terms of human resources, facilities or funding. Both Clark and JFF proudly acclaim the success of the partnership. UCPS has not tried to develop multiple partnerships. They have gone deep with a few.

I reflected on how articulate those 9th graders were, and I don’t think they were hand-picked to be shown off to us. I realized how important those first two years of inculcation into school life and school behavior are. At our school we notice the difference once students are 11th graders. We say, “they finally get BAA.” That is why we believe it’s so important to start in middle school. Waiting until the 9th grade creates too much of a game of catch up.

Most impressive, perhaps, were the questions from students as we were ready to leave:

What motivated you to go into education? What do you like about your schools? What would you change?” Each of us answered in our own way, but the common response to what motivated us to go into education was, “Students like you!”

Thank you UPCS students and staff for reminding us once again how unionized district public schools can function at such a high level. The film crew of Waiting for Superman missed a great opportunity at your school.


Reflections from Science Leadership Academy, Philadelphia

I recently traveled to Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in Philadelphia for the EduCon 2.3 conference with Monika Aldarondo, BAA Senior Project Coordinator and Visual Arts Teacher, and two seniors, Duke and Xavier. Both students have been funded for their senior projects and were selected to speak at this conference about the senior project experience.

We flew down Friday morning after a big Thursday snow storm (which is becoming redundant to say!). Our first stop was Temple University, where we met Matt Clauhs, former BAA music teacher, and Kelechi Ajunwa, former BAA intern.

Former BAA Faculty Matt Clauhs and music student Xavier

We presented in three different Urban Education classes; I gave a brief overview of the school, the students talked about their experiences, and Monika talked about senior project. When we finished our presentations, we had a great tour of the new Tyler School of Art at Temple—amazing! Duke, whose senior project involves 3-D modeling and printing, was thrilled to go into the 3-D printing room and actually show me the results of this technology… I can see why he’s so captivated by it all!

Duke, Xavier, Matt Clauhs, and former BAA intern Kelechi Ajunwa

The next day the students presented a superb workshop on senior projects at the EduCon conference. Duke’s project involves teaching 3-D modeling and printing to a group of ten year olds; he feels strongly that most elementary art programs are lacking in exposure to new technologies. Xavier’s project is a one day benefit concert to raise awareness about youth violence and to give teens a positive way to express themselves. Xavier lost his brother to street violence, so this topic is very close to him.

The students had developed four questions: 1) How is Senior Project innovative? 2) What skills does the senior project process teach that help students after high school? 3) How do you think technology can be used in a meaningful way? 4) Who are the best people to judge this project?

Amazing Xavier presenting

There were about 40 people (all adults) in the room and what I loved more than anything was how Duke and Xavier handled their questions. For the first question, the students asked the participants to form groups and talk together. Like trained facilitators, they moved about the room listening to various groups. Then, they asked for folks to share out. I was the note-taker. Here are some of the answers from the teachers to “How is Senior Project innovative?”:

  • “This project really matters because it’s real world.”
  • “No one will ever take this experience from you.”
  • “You have empowered me, as a teacher, to think about how I can do this differently with my students.”
  • “By doing this, you empower others in your community to think differently.”
  • “The project requires entrepreneurship which is barely taught in schools with all the testing today.”

For the second question, “What skills does the senior project process teach that help students after high school?” participants said:

  • “You are learning the important skill of working hard for something you believe in, and what it feels like to really slog through something. That is so important since so much of school is about quick answers.”
  • “You are changing communities and changing yourselves!”
  • “You are learning the skill of networking—such a lesson for young person to know.”
  • “This is all about writing and communication skills.”

    Duke having a teaching moment

Others suggested that the ability to take a project from idea stage to final production is something most adults never do. A teacher asked Xavier how he was managing the entire concert. Would he be delegating responsibilities to others? Xavier smiled and nodded gravely. “I am not really diva, but I have to be responsible for everything, so, yes, I will be delegating a lot. I need to have my hands and mind free to run the concert. Time management will be critical for me!”

“Well, that is another important skill—time management!” a participant said.  “I wish all my students could learn that skill.”

There were a number of suggestions about the third question, “How do you think technology can be used in a meaningful way?”, including blogging throughout the process. Some suggested that the final projects needed to be available online to inspire others. Others shared ideas of different web-based programs for sharing the work. One idea that resonated for all of us was to have students do a 30 second promotional video about their project. This would help students articulate the main themes and also advertise their work.

The final question, “Who are the best people to judge this project?”, elicited all sorts of responses, from getting the corporate leaders of Boston into the school to including the entrepreneurs at MIT. Duke and Xavier listened to the suggestions attentively and made sure I was writing down these ideas. Clearly, they had already started to network!

We all went to a couple of different workshops during the course of the conference, and I found the entire weekend very stimulating. Although EduCon is billed as “not a technology conference,” as a digital non-native, I would have to disagree! I was initially very put off by walking into a workshop with everyone’s laptops open and no one looking at the presenters, but then I realized that there were participants who were not physically present but participating digitally. Fascinating!

Surprisingly, we even found time to visit the Liberty Bell!

I also loved the fact that the conference was in a school. SLA is in its fifth year and it’s one of the few Philadelphia schools mixed by neighborhood and socio-economics. The head of the school, Chris Lehmann, is a young, dedicated, bright and inspirational leader. He used to teach at The Beacon High School in NYC, but wanted to return to his hometown to start a school. It would be fun to think about exchanges with SLA… Much of the energy feels similar to BAA and to High Tech High. Students were very serious about their roles in running the conference (coat checking, technology assistance, directing lost folks, giving workshops, etc…).

I’ve made tons of new friends on Twitter and learned even more about the importance of blogging, so I felt that I made a small step forward in my own digital journey. But by far the best part of the trip was being with the kids and Monika!

Duke, Xavier, and Ms. Aldarondo

A Visit to Ms. Brown and Ms. Sullivan’s Publishing Party for The Reading Zone

Who cares about a blizzard?  It certainly didn’t stop Ms. Brown and Ms. Sullivan’s 20 students and their culminating publishing party. They were ready!

Imagine students seated around tables pushed together in a large rectangle. Above the white board is a large word cloud emblazoned, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Another banner says, “Who has power in the U.S. and why?” A painted kimono hangs from the ceiling not far from student made t-shirts from a unit on Darfur, Sudan. The room is chock full of posters, student work, displays, teacher desks and a small electric keyboard. (The classroom is also used for a music theory class.)

Since time is so pressured by another impeding blizzard, Ms. Brown explains that everyone should share part of their written review… either the intro, the summary, or their evaluation of the book. Some students sigh despondently that they can’t share their entire report. Emphasis on literacy initiatives and reading programs is strong at BAA. Our measurement data shows that, on average, one-third of every freshman class entering BAA reads at least one grade level below the norm. Ms. Brown’s class is just one example of that emphasis.

The amazing Ms. Brown teaching ninth-grade Seminar students

Today’s activity is the culmination of a unit in which students have the opportunity to select their own book to read and then uninterrupted class time to read it. The curriculum is taken from the work of educator and author, Nancie Atwell, whose area of expertise is reading and writing. Ms. Brown, a skilled Humanities teacher, has been researching whether students’ academic skills would increase by being given lots of choice in what they read. She transitions to the activity of the day.

“We are practicing gratitude today for one another,” Ms. Brown begins in earnest.  “Ms. Sullivan [co-teacher for seminar] will pass out cups with two sugar cubes and then pour water for your tea. You don’t need to make any comments. Remember we are focusing on the publishing part of today, not the party part.”

Ms. Sullivan moves gracefully and quietly around the room as Ms. Brown speaks. Students are immediately engaged by the rattling sound of the two sugar cubes. Gabe begins turning the cup upside down. Natalie quietly uses the cubes as dice. Mark grins at his cubes and blurts out happily, “I’ve never had sugar cubes before.”  Again Ms. Brown reminds the class that the focus is their work and not the cubes or the hot water being poured for tea.

Ms. Brown and Ms. Sullivan’s Seminar students work on a writing assignment

“Some names are on the board of who is going first,” Ms. Brown continues as she holds up an envelope. “After those students share then other names will be picked from this envelope until everyone has shared. We have lost a lot of time to snow storms so we are trying to get through everyone.” Students shift in their seats with excitement. Mr. Sullivan moves around with a large woven straw basket filled with different teas. Students select their flavor and the tea-seeping begins.  While students dab their tea-bags up and down watching the water change color, Ms. Brown asks, “Why are some people very nervous about sharing and have a hard time volunteering?”

“I sometimes stammer,” Angie says, holding on to her Styrofoam cup of tea, “and that makes me very nervous.” She takes a gulp. Ms. Brown nods. “Yes, that would make someone nervous. I understand. What can the rest of you do to help students who are nervous?” Kitty looks up from her tea. “You can pay attention.” Jaevon adds on quickly, “And you can focus on the positive and not give a negative critique.”  “That’s right,” says Ms. Brown just as Niela frowns at the piece of pie that Ms. Sullivan has just placed in front of her.

Devin, on the other side of the table, practically leaps of his chair to receive his pie. “I love this kind. It’s pumpkin, right?” Ms. Brown smiles at Devin and speaks to the whole class. “I’m reminding you again that we are focusing on the publishing part of the party, not the tea-drinking or pie-eating part.  I’m glad so many of you like the sweet potato pie I made, but if you don’t like the pie, don’t worry, just don’t say anything. Leave it on the side.  No forks today; just use your napkins.” Ms. Sullivan keeps passing out the pie. Molly and others can barely contain their joy at the sight of fresh-baked sweet potato pie. Others, like Niela and Venessa, look like they will throw up, but Ms. Brown catches Vanessa’s eyes. “I brought you cookies, don’t worry,” she says. Vanessa’s face relaxes.

Students keep drinking their tea and some have started on their pie. Again, Niela looks like she will disrupt the entire class. “I don’t have a fork,” she says curtly. Without changing her tone or becoming agitated, Ms. Brown repeats, “No forks, Niela. Use your napkin or leave it on the side. We are here for the joy of the publishing and the party part is an extra. Remember that.”

With that final comment on refreshments, Ms. Brown looks away from Niela, sits down slowly and straightens her back, growing in stature.  She begins to speak more quietly and very clearly. “Now we are going to start sharing our reviews.” Her voice becomes almost hushed. Students lean forward.  “Remember to give positive critiques and to raise your hands and the reader will call on you. Who is first?”

Ms. Sullivan (second from right) with some members of “The Reading Zone”

Jaevon jumps up and introduces himself. “I’m Jaevon and I read Th1rteen R3asons Why.”  In a resonant and confident voice he reads his introduction. When he finishes students break into applause. Ms. Brown reminds them to clap quietly by waving their hands, which is our form of BAA applause.  Deaf students appreciate seeing the applause.

Devin is next. He bounces off his seat and begins to read his paper on Down These Mean Streets.  Quickly and clearly he gets through the introduction, summary and evaluation. “I really liked this book and think everyone should read it. It is an amazing book.” The majority of his classmates have listened in rapt attention, but some girls have been suppressing giggles. I have the sense that they are uncomfortable with the intensity of feeling that Devin communicates about his book.  “Nice work, Devin,” Ms. Brown congratulates him. “Do you want to call on anyone to ask you a question?”

Of course, I cannot control myself. I raise my hand. Devin is nice enough to call on me. I share how much I, too, enjoyed this book. I suggest that he would also like Malcolm X.

Michelle reads next about her book, My Sister’s Keeper. Some discussion involves the movie, and Michelle insists that the book is better because the movie “Hollywood-ized” the ending. “You have to read the book.” Ms. Brown cuts the discussion short. “I’m so happy that everyone wants to participate, but we have such limited time. You are all doing a great job. Michael is next.”
He begins to read his report and a student calls out. “Wait, you are telling the ending.” Ms. Brown stops him and asks him to re-read his report without giving away the revealing parts. Molly reads about Lovely Bones, and then it’s time to pull names from the envelope. RJ’s name goes up on the board. He looks uncomfortable, but with an encouraging look from Ms. Brown, he begins to read his book about Marvin Gaye.

Alina reads her paper about A Child Called It, and everyone focuses on her comments. This has obviously been a favorite book. Another student reads about Coraline. Ayla reads about The Hunger Games, and Mark can’t control his enthusiasm. “She is so smart. I just love her and what she says.”

A student writes about her book choice from the Reading Zone

I feel more sadness than the students when this wonderful publishing party ends. I’ve loved every minute, including the tea and pie. To see 20 students so completely engaged in their books, and in the sharing, is just a treat. The name of this unit is “The Reading Zone,” and it has clearly taken hold here.

Linda Nathan
February 2011

What teachers really need

A few weeks ago, The Boston Foundation (TBF) released a report entitled, The Real Cost of the Contract.”  The report gained a lot of press; the Boston Globe published a front-page article highlighting the report’s findings, and Richard Stutman, the BTU President, wrote a response in the Boston Teacher’s Union Bulletin.

I do not blame any group for writing about their findings and conclusions.  However, I am afraid that what reports and responses like these tend to do is obscure the real issues.  Instead of raising higher-level questions, they create a polarizing dynamic that forces us to “choose sides.”  Do teachers make too much money, or don’t they?  Should teachers be paid based on their students’ test-score performances, or shouldn’t they?  Questions like these put us into opposing camps.

We need to have a different conversation – a conversation about what it means to professionalize teaching.  Teachers need sacrosanct “adult time” (as I argue in my response to The Globe’s article, posted below).  Currently, most teachers don’t have this time, don’t get paid for it, and don’t have control of it.  “Adult time” is simply not part of the way most of us think about teaching and schools.  This, I believe, is worthy of our debate.

My response to Boston Globe article:

THE MOST important issue in teacher negotiations is teacher professional time — what is called adult time (“Teacher salary system decried,’’ Page A1, Jan. 18).

Teachers cannot improve the quality of education if they don’t have sacrosanct time to talk about instruction, assessment, and their students.

Look at any successful school and then count the number of hours per week that teachers meet together.  See whether they have a clear purpose to raise student achievement, hold one another accountable, and nurture a continual feedback loop.

Schools will not improve if we continue to view teaching as an isolated task where one teacher alone could possibly be responsible for student achievement.

Linda Nathan
Boston Arts Academy

2011 ASCD Conference: Bold Actions for Complex Challenges

At the end of March, I will travel to San Francisco California to participate in the annual conference of ASCD, an educational leadership organization. This year’s theme is Bold Actions for Complex Challenges. While there I will join two other principals, Baruti Kafele (from Newark Tech in New Jersey), and Tim King (from Urban Prep Academies), on a panel discussing urban education.

I have posted a promotional video (below) made by the ASCD to publicize the event. The interviewer asked me to describe a time when I felt I had failed a student. I have to admit that I was caught a little off-guard by the question, and in the video, emotionally recall the difficult story of Shanita (from chapter six of The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test).

What School Can Be

An important milestone in the life of a Boston Arts Academy dancer unfolded last week as 17 seniors presented their 2011 Senior Dance Concert (SDC). How significantly this embodies RICO, our habits of the graduate. Students work for months on invention and revision.  Dancers from professional and pre-professional worlds provide a rigorous process of critique, including one of our own alumni! Seniors cast their pieces, work with lighting and costume designers and write a thoughtful description of their piece. Their writing briefly explains the process and the connections they have made to other dancers and choreographers. Most important, each senior must own the entire process throughout an often tumultuous rehearsal period until the opening night. These are skills that most adults never get to develop.

One of my students used his piece to explore the feelings of not having a father present as he grew up. He wrote in his program notes, “Entering a world where the term “Dad” or “Father” slowly drifted from my vocabulary… I go through life with just the satisfaction of my mother’s presence.” The piece was poignant, passionate and reflective and left me wondering how this young choreographer was only a senior in high school. Other students investigated themes of loss of loved ones, or the power of falling in love.  Some played with abstract ideas about shape and movement. Each piece was technically beautiful and allowed me, as an audience member, to enter into the worlds of my students and learn more about what makes them tick. What a gift.

Besides the obvious enjoyment of sitting in the audience, I loved listening and surreptitiously watching the reactions of other audience members. The 9th grade dance majors must write about each piece as part of their homework assignments in dance. They sat rapt and whispered to one another in between pieces about what they liked or didn’t understand. They know that, all too soon, they will be choreographing and casting, but for now they enjoy these moments of awe and even adoration as they watch their older peers perform. The sound effects of the young children of my faculty gave me such pleasure. Somehow two-year-olds manage to sigh or ooh and ahh in the loudest and most appropriate punctuations. I loved seeing aunts, uncles, cousins, former teachers from middle schools all clapping loudly as these young people performed. The dance teachers were all dressed up, too. Gone was the frustration and even anger at students who were late with their music or who missed rehearsals. All could be forgotten, at least for the performance. Later, they would talk again about deadlines and responsibility. Today we all celebrate.

This concert came at the end of a week filled with Math exhibitions, Sophomore music recitals, 11th grade Visual Arts exhibition, Spanish, Arabic and American Sign Language final exams, preparation for science fair and final due dates for Humanities 3 papers. Every student at BAA had major projects due—snow storms and cancelled school days or not. The overarching message from everywhere was: school matters, your work matters, what you are showing, writing, singing, presenting, computing, explaining is important to this entire community. That is what school should be.

-Linda Nathan
January 2011

BAA and the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Some of you may know that the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Education Resource Center (BSOERC) is housed in the BAA/Fenway High School Library. The BAA/Fenway Library and BSOERC won the 2004 American Association of School Librarians National School Library Media Program of the Year and is an incredible resource for so many teachers, musicians, and students.

Allyssa Jones, Milton Wright and Myran Parker-Brass

BAA’s Allyssa Jones, Milton Wright of the New England Spiritual Ensemble,                        and the BSO’s Myran Parker-Brass (photo by Helene Norton-Russell)

We are lucky to have a fantastic relationship with the BSO and Myran Parker-Brass, their Director of Education and Community Programs. Last week I was invited to give the opening remarks for their professional development workshop, “Teaching African American Spirituals: an Interdisciplinary Approach.” The workshop was hosted by the BSOERC and co-sponsored by BAA’s Center for Arts in Education and the Massachusetts Music Educators Association (MMEA) Eastern District Outreach and Advocacy Committee, which includes one of our own music faculty, Allyssa Jones.

Tyrone Sutton

BAA’s Tyrone Sutton presents with Anthony Trecek-King of the Boston Children’s Chorus (photo by Helene

After an amazing day spent tackling the question, “Why teach African American Spirituals?”, the workshop closed with a performance by the New England Spiritual Ensemble (both Allyssa and Myran are members of this group) and students from the Boston Arts Academy Spiritual Ensemble. I am so proud that BAA was featured in this concert and that the ensemble (directed by BAA music and humanities faculty member, Tyrone Sutton) has been in demand around Boston, performing at the Room to Grow fall gala in November, BAA’s Council of Advocates breakfast in December, and now, at Symphony Hall.

I was impressed with Dr. Anthony Leach (Associate Professor of Music and Music Education at Penn State University) who led the workshop, and was incredibly inspired by the nearly 45 teachers from Boston, Chelmsford, Rhode Island, Newton, and Lexington who attended the workshop, including teachers from the Minuteman Technical School (I have always argued that we need to see the arts also embodied as vocational skills, and Minuteman Tech now has a band, recording studio, and sound engineering!). I was honored to be in the presence of these dedicated teachers, and have posted my introductory remarks below.

Dr. Anthony Leach

Dr. Anthony Leach led the workshop (photo by Helene Norton-Russell)

Introductory remarks- “Teaching African American Spirituals”
BSO, January 10, 2011

We live in an age where educational policy makers believe that only things that can be counted matter. Sadly, education reform has become synonymous with raising test scores. What it means to be a whole child, or a whole human being, who needs a strong intellectual center with many outlets for creative and even spiritual exploration, has been forgotten.  The conversation is completely lopsided. Our obsession with measurement and comparison has led to a curriculum that ignores the aesthetic, the musical or the imaginative. No one would ever argue that reading and math don’t count and shouldn’t be tested, but when a 9 month school year is reduced to a 7 month school year because of the number of days spent on testing and test prep, someone has got to say: Stop! It’s time to change our paradigm.

That is when I look to the arts. The arts teach us that judgment counts—not just finding right answers and filling in bubble test answer sheets. The arts teach about perspective, critique, working together, and learning from our history. The arts allow multiple opportunities to walk in another’s shoes, sing another’s songs and appreciate and empathize with lyrics and melodies that may be foreign to us.

American spirituals are a way into understanding our past, our traditions, our trials and aspirations, our greatest hopes for what can be. I’m not sure there is a test to measure what a good spiritual sounds like – I certainly hope not. The assessment of good (or not good) comes from the audience’s response. Were you moved? Did you come to a different understanding, emotionally and intellectually, than you expected? Were you transported? And what do those explorations mean to you?

I am so proud of the spiritual ensemble at BAA where our students work together to create a sound that helps us ask about our collective humanity and our history. That, to me, is why we are teachers

So, I welcome you to this wonderful day where you will work and learn together and where you will remind one another, and your students, that music – and this music in particular – is the stuff of life. We can never forsake it lest we forsake ourselves. I know we can struggle through these dark days of budget cuts and reforms that are a parody of what is actually needed. Remember the words of our spirituals: “I ain’t got time to die” and “don’t let nobody turn me around.” Stay focused on your good work. You know what is right for kids. Thank you for being here today… enjoy and sing!

Orlando Lightfoot of the New England Spiritual Ensemble sings with BAA student Anthony Lewis (photo by Helene Norton-Russell)

LIKE Linda on Facebook

Follow Linda on Twitter!

  • Perrone Sizer Institute for Creative Leadership! We are so proud of your accomplishments! 2 days ago
  • Perrone Sizer Institute for Creative Leadership cohort 2 August intensive ended today! We were honored to have... 1 month ago


Support Independent Bookstores!

Shop Indie Bookstores

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 102 other followers

Join My Mailing List!

Blog Posts by Category