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Thanksgiving Rituals

Always at this time of year, I think about the many thoughtful ways teachers and students in schools honor Thanksgiving, or “Dia de la Accion” in Spanish. (I like the Spanish term: Day of Action since it reflects much of the way I think about this holiday).

For many years when I was co-director of Fenway High School, after having a Thanksgiving breakfast with students, faculty would gather with Vito Perrone who was a Lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education. We would have a “Thanksgiving retreat” with Vito in which we would discuss some of our most intractable problems. We had made it to Thanksgiving. Something about getting to Thanksgiving without losing hope seemed more powerful than the phrase we often heard, “crawling towards Christmas.” Vito always helped us see that even as we felt our problems were unsolvable, our questions were getting better. He would remind us that we were thinking better and more creatively together, and that we would continue to make a difference in the lives of young people. We would leave those annual gatherings feeling stronger about facing our classrooms after the short break, and more re-assured that we could use one another to grapple with the complex array of student issues we faced everyday.

When I founded BAA, we began a new tradition that also revolved around a Thanksgiving breakfast with students, and then transitioned to a Thanksgiving play that the faculty would perform for the students. It was often a silly rendition of a fairy tale but stylized to match the times. In later years, various teachers would write an original play. The point was to amuse our students before sending them off on a holiday break which for many signified tension, trauma and sadness. In addition, it was a chance for the entire faculty to collaborate together on crazy and fun project while displaying an array of artistic talents. After the play, and the hugs and goodbyes for students, the faculty gathered in a large circle and individually gave thanks. Although we sometimes had to remind individuals not to speak in paragraphs, the chance to share a “thanksgiving” thought with colleagues was a powerful way to mark the end of the term. Faculty often thanked colleagues for a specific action; sometimes teachers gave thanks to their own “home” family or thanks for their health. The specific thanksgiving mattered less than the fact that we gathered annually in this way.

My thanksgiving message is to all teachers and leaders who work diligently every day with students in school and classrooms. Your job is incredibly difficult. It cannot be measured by test scores. You do not get told thank you nearly enough. Thank you for all you do for young people and their families. As Vito would say, “I know your questions are getting better.”

Exciting Next Steps

For over 30 years I dedicated my life’s work to Boston Public Schools (BPS) as a bilingual teacher, co-head of school, school founder, center director, and special advisor to the Superintendent.   I was then, as I am to this day, a fierce advocate for district public education, for arts in education, and for providing access to under-served students throughout the city.

When it came time for me to leave BPS and pursue new opportunities in my role as Director of the Institute for Creative Educational Leadership at Boston University (BU), I felt as though I was leaving the home in which I grew up.  I wasn’t going far, but that thought did little to mitigate the disquiet I felt in leaving the urban public school classroom for the halls of higher education.

Thanks to the inspiring leadership of Hardin Coleman, Dean of the School of Education, I have spent a fruitful two years at BU, a time in which many educational and community leaders have benefited from the Institute and the talent of my colleagues Carmen Torres and Robert Weintraub.

Nevertheless, the tug of the public school classroom has remained strong, especially in combination with a long-held dream to lead an arts-based elementary school.  Recent developments have given me the opportunity to rekindle direct involvement in both areas.

On July 1, 2016, I will be joining the Conservatory Lab Charter School (CLCS) and its Center for Artistry and Scholarship in Education (CASE) as Executive Director.   CLCS serves over 400 pre-K -8 students on campuses in Brighton and Dorchester. Its mission states: “As a laboratory school, we develop and disseminate innovative educational approaches that will positively impact children in other schools and programs.” Its current chief executive and Head of School, Diana Lam, will be retiring after eight years of pioneering leadership.  Diana’s vision and perseverance have created the school we have today, and she will be engaged on projects in the future so that we can continue to benefit from her enormous contributions.

Unlike Boston Arts Academy (BAA), which has five arts disciplines, the singular artistic focus at CLCS is music. The school has successfully implemented El Sistema, an international system of orchestral training, as its core approach to music education as well as Expeditionary Learning teaching principles. The school is also lottery based, just like other district schools. Both BAA and CLCS share the fundamental belief that an arts-based education is transformative and gives students skills that will carry them for a lifetime, no matter what careers they pursue.  And now that CLCS serves students through 8th grade, more graduates are attending BAA.

It is important to note that while BAA is a pilot school within the Boston Public Schools district, CLCS is an independent charter school. This may come as a surprise to some, yet I have always maintained that charter and district schools have much to learn from each other and it is my firm intent to serve as a bridge, one that will share the best practices of each.  As a beginning to this conversation, I wanted to share this thoughtful piece by Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers: Charter Schools as Incubators or Charter Schools Inc. (

To facilitate dissemination, I am so pleased to be joining CLCS’s in-house not-for-profit, the Center for Artistry and Scholarship in Education (CASE), to which I will bring much of the leadership work that I began at BU. The Institute’s work will carry on; I am delighted that I will be able to re-name CASE after two of my mentors: Vito Perrone and Ted Sizer. I know that the Perrone-Sizer Institute for Creative Leadership at CASE will collaborate closely with BAA and Mission Hill School among other autonomous and district schools locally, nationally and internationally. We will continue to explore the intersections between arts-based and community-based teaching and learning. I also will remain closely tied to Boston Arts Academy as a trustee, supporter, and advocate.

As always, I will try and document my experiences as I move into this new role, including what I learn and where I see tensions. I hope you will continue to push my thinking as well. I look forward to speaking with many of you in the weeks and months ahead.  Please know how grateful I am for your encouragement, advice, and support as I contemplate my new role and the strides we can take together in nurturing the academic and artistic achievement of Boston’s youth. There is much work to be done!

Love, Loss and Friendship in Havana

How do we really ever understand another person and her struggles? How can we ever walk in another’s shoes? How can we truly tell another’s story without also telling our own?

I went back to Cuba this year because of my friend and colleague Margarita Muñiz. I made a promise not to forget her: To share her story and her legacy; to ensure that future educators knew of her fight for equitable and excellent bilingual education. Margarita’s story would be told through film with two colleagues. Veronica Wells graduated from BAA almost ten years ago and is now an independent film maker and actress. Blanca Bonilla, also an excellent documentary filmmaker, was one of my first theatre students over 35 years ago. She works as BAA’s Director of Admissions. We went to meet Margarita’s Cuban family. We wanted to better understand her upbringing, her sudden departure as a Peter Pan “orphan,” and the reality of Cuba today.

Yet I have returned to Boston feeling that Cuba told me a story about myself. A story of loss and love and friendships that ended too soon. I went to tell Margarita’s story, but Margarita’s story became mine.

Margarita was the principal of the Rafael Hernandez School in Boston for at least three decades. She became a community icon, in part, because of her fight to keep alive bilingual education in the 1970. The Hernandez, which was conceived and founded by a group of Puerto Rican activists, was one of the first bilingual schools in the United States. It quickly became one of the most popular and successful in the Boston Public Schools.

In 2011, just days before Margarita died after a long battle with cancer, the Boston Public Schools voted to found the first bilingual high school in Boston. In honor of Margarita’s many accomplishments, it was named: Margarita Muñiz Academy. Margarita gave herself to her school and her students and, in the best way she knew how, to her family. She was exacting, demanding and critical. She didn’t accept disagreement well from adults, yet she gave her students many opportunities to grow and learn and make mistakes. She could also be enormously kind, accepting and generous. As we learned in our travels, she missed her extended family with an aching poignancy that we hope to capture on the screen. Listening to her cousin read Margarita’s holiday cards made me wish desperately that history had not been so cruel. Margarita was not like some Cubans in the United States who had nothing good to say about the revolution. She rarely engaged in conversations bashing Cuba’s politics. Margarita just missed her family. Terribly.

Margarita’s gift to me was the opportunity to return to Cuba and discover her story in all of her complexities — good and bad. Ours was a journey filled with questions and confusions about what we were observing, listening or learning about.

In learning more about Margarita, Cuba helped me confront my own past and my own losses. I had not expected that. Perhaps that is how Margarita was generous with me. Cuba shone a light on my belief that we are all tied together in this life and in this world. We are here on this earth for such a short time to take care and honor it and learn from others. To act with kindness and generosity at the same time. Not always easy.

Cuba was kind and generous to us. And enormously complex. Margarita gave me the gift of Steve Blossom, friend and co-trustee of her estate. He allowed us to tell Margarita’s story. Veronica and Blanca brought extraordinary sensibilities to the work. The trip would not have been possible without their film-making abilities and depth of compassion and understanding. They helped me understand what makes a story compelling, even when painful. Both of them understood the range of emotions I felt as I met Margarita’s family and interviewed them. Gently and carefully they peeled back the layers of Margarita’s life through their questions and camera shots.

Cuba told me that my story IS the story of the many friends I have loved and lost. Cuba reminded me about the importance of family and the wonderful and loving family that I have. I ached to return home. All three of us did. We compared our own family stories and learned of one another’s passions and idiosyncrasies. We laughed together.

We also learned the beauty of being DISCONNECTED from cellphones and computers since Cuba has little internet and it is costly. We listened and connected to ourselves and others instead. No texts or news to distract us. We knew little of the outside world. Still, the Cuban people passionately desire to be part of the world wide web and to learn and communicate freely.

We made friends. Wonderful friends who were also interested in Margarita’s story, and in us. They processed the many layers with us—explaining why a family would send their daughter to an orphanage in Louisiana thinking they would never see her again. Our Cuban friends helped us understand why Margarita might have presented herself as much more upper class than she actually was. And Margarita’s family helped us understand the many connections between Margarita’s family of birth in Cienfuegos and the Claflins, her “adopted” family in Boston, specifically Belmont. The Claflin family owned the sugar plantation where Margarita’s family worked and where she grew up.

It was the Claflins who eventually helped Margarita’s parents leave Cuba and be re-united with their daughter, Margarita, who had spent about five years in a Catholic orphanage and school in Louisiana. The Peter Pan program, run by the Catholic church and probably the CIA as well, ferreted young children like Margarita out of Cuba and placed them in Catholic orphanages across the United States to “save” them from the “savages” of Communism. Most parents believed that they would never again see their children; hence they called them “Peter Pan orphans.”

We met the historian, Nancy, from the hamlet of Soledad, location of the sugar plantation “big house.” The many connections between Boston and Cienfuegos still support a warm sister-city sense, even though worlds apart and with the passage of almost 70 years. We learned so much from these people: Margarita was given an award at BU as the alumna of the year in 2007. Her mother worked in the registrar’s office at BU, many years after working as the governess for the Claflin children in Cuba.

The music, the dance and other arts are of enormously high quality. We saw a fabulous performance of the National Ballet, yet noted with dismay the very few Afro-Cuban dancers. We met Alicia Alonso, founder of the National Ballet and still the company’s director at 94. She is legally blind. In fact, she danced for many years blind. She comes to work every day and all decisions still go through her.

For eight days we tried to learn the story of a complex and complicated Margarita from an even more complex and complicated nation. We walked through streets of Havana that felt like a movie set from the 1950s. We rode in cars older than I am; we met taxi drivers with doctoral degrees in history and engineering.

We heard about Cuba as an upside down pyramid. Nothing quite makes sense viewed through our American capitalist lens. We listened to musicians made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club CD and movie. We danced to music in alley-ways and clubs. We laughed; we cried; we learned that the best way to know yourself is to learn about others. I returned to my home humbled by the experience of learning about Margarita. I returned buoyed by the possibilities that Cuba is on the brink of positive change. I have returned grateful for new and deepened friendships with Veronica and Blanca, and the chance to reminisce about the many friends that exist only as memories, albeit beautiful ones.

To my travel companions and film makers, Veronica and Blanca, whose energy and humor made this journey to Cuba an unforgettable experience. Gracias a todos. Especialamente a Cuba.

Connections of love and loss and friendship

Margarita lives in my memory with other cherished friends. Finding out about Margarita’s life caused me to relive parts of my own life. Margarita reminded me of other friendships, of lives cut short too quickly.

Margarita’s commitment to social justice is like that of Abbie Schirmer, my colleague and friend from many years at Fenway and in Boston Teacher Union (BTU) work. I miss Abbie every day. She helped me organize that first solidarity trip to Cuba in 1979 even though she never went with us. She, too, fought daily for students to reach their dreams, often against a backdrop of family and community difficulties. Abbie was a fighter, like Margarita. You wanted her on your team, always!

Margarita’s love of family reminded me of Amy Waldman, my best friend from college who later married Felix Vilaplana. Felix left Cuba in 1980 among what became known as the Marieltos—the Cubans who left by boats from the town of Mariel. Amy, with whom I shared almost everything, died too young and left behind Felix and two beautiful children—Maya and Talia.  I have the privilege of being Maya’s madrina. Amy was a connecter and a fierce advocate for family, and when she was living she traveled to Cuba to meet all of Felix’s family. She especially loved his sister Maria Antonia whom we got to meet. Like me, Maria was a principal and a teacher. Maria told me how it was due to Amy that so many of her family re-connected.

Margarita’s dignity and determination as she confronted her cancer reminded me of Emily, my friend from high school, who so bravely fought leukemia. Emily spoke before medical school classrooms about the stages of denial and then acceptance as her death became imminent. Emily, with her long dark hair and dark eyes, spoke before the publication of the Elizabeth Kübler-Ross book “On Death and Dying.” Emily wanted young people in the medical profession to know the beauty in death. She, too, wanted her story told, her twenty-one years remembered and to leave something to help others. So she gave talks whenever and wherever she could. I was spellbound by this and angry. I wanted my friend alive and not so accepting of her death. It felt unfair.

Margarita was similar to Deidre, a colleague from BAA, whom I had the privilege of knowing for nine years as she worked on issues of access and equity for our students. She was deeply committed to creating the conditions for a strong student government and for student decision making about issues related to language of origin, race and gender. Deidre took students to conferences, to college visits, to work internships. She repeatedly found ways to provide access to unique opportunities for all of her students. She gave herself to their growth and development. Deidre came alive even more after her death as I helped prepare for her final celebration and memorial.

To Abbie, Amy, Emily, Deidre and Margarita, I thank you for the gifts you shared along the way. I am humbled to have shared time with each of you.

What’s Right About Schooling?

What’s right about schooling?

Too much of school these days is relegated to a relentless focus on raising test scores. Too little of school is dedicated to creative and inquisitive pursuits. Too much of “schooling” is about learning what someone else has decided young people must know and be able to do—what factoids must be crammed into their brains. Or worse – schooling and learning have become almost synonymous with high scores on a test.  Creativity, critical thinking and communication skills have taken a backseat to our obsession with testing, compliance and accountability. There is nothing wrong with a data-driven school, but the data cannot just be about what reading and math quartile 3rd graders are in. Learning is more than numbers on a test.

I was fuming about all that is wrong with “education reform” today until I walked into the NuVu Studio on a snow day last month — note that it is not called “school.”

NuVu describes itself this way:

NuVu is an innovation center for middle and high school students whose pedagogy is based on the studio model and geared around multi-disciplinary, collaborative projects. NuVu nurtures creative problem solving, collaboration, and presentation skills, all critical for student success.

It’s tag line is “innovative education for the future.”

NuVu feels like a mini-version of MIT’s Media Lab, but for younger people. As the founder/director, Saeed Arida, explained to me “NuVu is really for young people for whom the traditional school model has failed.” NuVu doesn’t believe in traditional classes and classrooms. Students work in large studio spaces. There is a main office which is divided with glass walls so that students and adults always see one another. 3-D printers line one wall. Mannequins are grouped in the entrance inviting fashion design projects.


Saeed Arida with pictures of students

A more traditional wood shop with work benches and various cutting tools has a separate entrance and an actual door, but again the walls are mostly glass. Coaches work with students in small groups and introduce them to a variety of open ended problems. There are no traditional subjects like math or history, science or art.  Students use a method called the “studio model” or “design thinking.” In this model one learns “to navigate the messiness of the creative process, from inception to completion.” Classes are not segmented into hour long blocks; instead, students spend at least two weeks, daily from 9am-3pm, re-imagining solutions to complex questions such as: How to redesign school breakfast or lunch? One student, who has gained some notoriety on NuVu’s web site and vimeos, works diligently to improve access for students who are physically challenged and in wheelchairs.


students in the studio




mannequins welcome students in the morning


Shop Etiquette: these are the only rules I saw at NuVU

How does the studio actually work? Here is NuVu’s own description:

Students are provided with access to outside resources – leading thinkers and experts – to whom they present their framework and receive feedback. Students document their process and progress, continually reviewing it with the Coach. They set parameters, synthesize, and continue refining, refining, refining. NuVu trains students to apply multiple perspectives to challenge and refine ideas over and over again until it becomes a natural learning process. All of this is documented through individual student portfolios. [This is in lieu of traditional grades].

Here is a graphic from NuVu that describes the student’s processes.

studio process

I found it such a relief to return to discussions about real assessment of student work instead of just tests.  NuVu describes its assessment system as follows:

A portfolio serves as a compilation of student work done at NuVu over the course of the term, semester or full year and is meant to show the student’s growth over time and development of key academic and life skills (creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, research, quantitative reasoning and analysis). Each NuVu student is provided with their own online profile on NuVu’s online platform where they document and present their work. At frequent periods during the term, NuVu’s team works with the student to assess how far the student has developed since the beginning of the term. The portfolio-based assessment helps make learning and assessment relevant to students’ lives.

Perhaps all trends in education are cyclical. Portfolio assessment was widely implemented in the late 80s and 90s. In fact, when I was co-directing Fenway High School from 1984-1998, we spent a great deal of our professional time as faculty developing a portfolio assessment system. As state tests (such as MCAS in Massachusetts) began to consume more and more of educators’ attention, it became more difficult to focus on developing the criteria for measuring student mastery as well as the myriad ways of assessing that mastery. We didn’t feel that the ideas that Ted Sizer had developed in his now seminal Horace books (Horace’s Compromise, Horace’s School, Horace’s Hope) were irrelevant, but we found it increasingly difficult to find the time to develop and implement deep and challenging portfolio experiences, especially in the face of high stakes testing.  Many educators began to retreat from developing curriculum and assessments that aligned with students’ own passion as the pressure to produce good student scores on tests increased. We knew that our students were still learning some important basic skills; nevertheless, the trade off between test scores and engaging curriculum has had negative repercussions. Personalized learning and competency-based teaching and learning have almost become “boutique terms” only available to those who can pay for it in private independent schools or for those in highly specialized schools.

At Boston Arts Academy, which I founded in 1998, as state testing was gaining momentum, the school has managed to keep some portfolio assessment at the center of learning for students. This means that test preparation for the MCAS may be sacrificed in favor of more time, for instance, developing senior grant projects which require students to use both their artistic and academic skills to solve a community based problem. Students research a range of issues in which they want to make a difference such as fighting homelessness, aiding children of incarcerated parents, increasing arts programs in schools, confronting body image issues in teens, and providing access to the arts for deaf and hard of hearing students. In their proposals students describe how they will address their chosen issue. Even if a student’s specific project is not chosen by a panel of judges for funding, students report that this year-long, multi-disciplinary experience often carries them into college and career, and they even find themselves returning to the project many years later. This is what it means to educate for and with passion. That is what NuVu is doing, too.

This kind of learning happens only in isolated pockets around the country. NuVu now must charge tuition to be solvent. They have found it difficult to work with public school districts that can’t figure out how to “fit” the studio model into the constraints of credits, grades and state regulations. All sorts of rationales are given: it is too expensive; students won’t learn the basics; students won’t do well on tests; teachers can’t teach this way, and the list goes on and on. Yet, we have exciting examples across the country of schools that do just this. Big Picture Project  and its MET ( schools view students as passionate competent learners who deserve to have some choice in their approach to learning. High Tech High in San Diego  ( shares much of the same philosophy as NuVu about how schools and studio models might overlap.

I want to see more schools inviting students to approach their education passionately and creatively. Risk taking and “mucking about” with ideas in the company of adults who take students seriously might actually give us another window into effective teaching and learning. Studio thinking, design thinking, maker spaces, fab labs – all these catch phrases don’t just belong in higher education institutes like MIT or in Innovation Labs at Harvard. They belong in our public K-12 school with our students who are desperate for engaging and personalized learning.

“Why not have Project Year and School week?” Thinking about Vito Perrone and Innovation today

As I look around the country, I get more and more concerned that our state and federal mandates have caused us to ignore the idea that education is about empowerment and the ability to make change in one’s own life and community. Vito Perrone, my mentor and a mentor to hundreds of educators around the country, wrote in his book A Letter to Teachers about how quality education is about the ability to connect learning from the community to school and the school to community. Perrone wrote that education is about “build[ing] bridges…” and not just about reproducing the materials and expectations of our current society. He asked, “What do we most want our students to come to understand as a result of their schooling?” Perrone urged us to think about “setting ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement.” By that he meant the opportunity to discover joy and play and the power of community. Perrone didn’t shirk away from recognizing the devastating impacts of poverty, poor nutrition, unemployment, or racism, but he pushed us as educators not to allow the trauma surrounding so many of our students’ lives to prevent them (and us) to think about aesthetics and authentic learning. Perrone used these terms before they sounded trite to our 21st century politicians. He exhorted us to think about larger possibilities for learning, and not to settle for quick fixes and test scores. He often paraphrased Dewey, especially in the ways that Dewey thought about the importance of habits of mind, heart, and hands. For Perrone, vocational education, project based learning, was for all students not just those who couldn’t “do school.”

Recently, I learned about the Workshop School in Philadelphia, which is a small school that focuses on solving real world problems. The four co-founders are Dr. Matthew Riggan, Executive Director and engineer, Simon Hauger, Principal, Dr. Michael Clapper, teacher, and Dr. C. Aiden Downey, the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Division of Educational Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

The web site describes how the school is different from most schools because “students spend their days working on meaningful projects that solve real world problems.” Vito would have loved this school. Simon Hauger, one of the school’s founders and an engineer says, “We believe learning should be interesting, even fun. The Workshop is a place where your ideas matter.  Sure, we focus on all of the stuff you need to be successful in school, like reading, writing, and math. And we definitely work hard. But we also learn the things you need to be successful in life. Like how to ask the right questions, push through adversity, make positive change, and work well with other people.” Projects run the gamut from building a solar powered house to investigating topics such as immigration or climate change. Students say that the school feels like “family.”

In today’s high stakes turnaround approach to learning, “family” is almost seen as a curse word. At the very least, it is seen as being “soft on standards.” We are not allowed to talk anymore about the trauma and pain that our kids come to school with. Double periods of English and math and scores on tests are all that is measured and all that is reported. But we know that when school is truly about engaging young people, learning really occurs. Schools like this might show us the way forward.

When I first began at Fenway High School, Vito Perrone suggested that we visit Ann Cook at Urban Academy in NYC. Vito wanted us to see how they did Project Week.  We borrowed many of Urban’s ideas and introduced Project Week to Fenway in the early 1990s.  One of our essential questions was: “What makes a good museum?” 250 students fanned out across the city to study this question in various forms. At the week’s end, we reported out our findings to museum directors, city councilors and other interested officials. It was an exhilarating learning expedition for students and teachers. To this day, Fenway continues Project Week and Boston Green Academy (another Boston Public School) also has introduced Project Week. It has morphed a great deal and is not necessarily one essential question that everyone studies, but it continues to be a high point of the year for everyone. I vividly remember one of our earliest discussions after Project Week with Vito. As he listened to our excitement about all we had learned he asked, “Why not have Project Year and School week?” That question has stayed with me.

I had always hoped that the Boston Arts Academy would find a way to bring “project week” into the school’s curriculum. Finally, under the leadership of Anne Clark, BAA’s headmaster, and Monika Aldarondo, Creative Director, “Intersession” was born at BAA. Students and teachers offered 33 different sessions. In the proposals the leader had to describe the goals of the learning experience as well as the activities and the community partners (if any) involved. “Think about all the actions you can take to understand and experience a topic more deeply. In addition describe all the ways your experience will allow people to learn to explore, create, investigate, make, do, engage, perform, play, question, connect, practice and deepen.” These words and their meaning are so compelling to me and to students.

Some of the projects included: Site Specific Dance (students studied exhibits at the Museum of Science and then responded in dance), Mini Musicals, Youth Activism, Documentary Film Making, Healing with Music (including learning about Alzheimer’s and performing at a senior citizens home), Cooking, CosPlay which allowed students to study anime characters and construct their costumes, Exploring Local and National Monuments, Study of the Caribbean, Sculpting Fashion, Basics of Owning a Car, Jewelry Making and the list goes on and on.

A dancer working on a site specific dance showed me his duet on balance. “I went to the exhibit about the human body and spent a lot of time learning about the ear. My dance is an exploration of how the ear helps us balance.” Another dancer showed me her quartet she had finished choreographing about planets and their inter-relationships. “We spent a full day at the exhibit learning, reading, playing, choreographing. We made our dance right there. No one wanted to be Uranus at first, but we had to figure out how that planet was interacting with Pluto and Neptune. It was fun to learn about planets in a different way.” The idea of interacting with a museum exhibit through dance was exhilarating and challenging for these young dancers. I’m certain they wouldn’t have spent so long at an exhibit if they hadn’t had the chance to use their passion and their way of experiencing the world—through movement—as their medium for understanding.  One of the students in the cooking group talked about how much he had learned about shopping on a budget and how you could still eat nutritious food but how planning was so crucial. A small group of girls (with a male teacher) studied pregnancy both from a scientific and emotional perspective, reading literature, studying reproduction and even carrying an 8lb weight around to learn about the physical dimensions to pregnancy.

I believe that because students to chose their projects (and even volunteered to lead projects) the level of enthusiasm and engagement was breathtaking.

But while I was thrilled to see Intersession at BAA, I also was sad. This kind of open-ended exploration with joy is not generally the norm in schools. We are continuing to feed our students a steady diet of discrete and disconnected facts and text book learning. We seem to avoid the obvious: when students are engaged they will learn. When students are included and asked about what they want to study, they will respond. This doesn’t mean that students should never be exposed to stuff that they don’t like or don’t want to learn, but at least half the day should be spent engaging in activities that directly relate to questions students are asking.  This is what Vito meant when he talked about the “larger purposes of school.”

Check out these pictures from intersession. I hope you can begin to ask, “How can ice skating be part of school?” Or “What does it mean for musicians to study abstract painting?” Or even better, “What does it mean when students are leading the sessions?” We must not settle for what currently passes as schools. We must keep pushing ourselves to ask how our classrooms can become more open to real community and interests of our students. Then, and only then, will school be a place where we all want to belong as a family.

Vito and me

Vito and me

Students learning to figure skate during intersession.

This student group learned to figure skate during intersession.

Students learned to make their own candy and constructed a "candy land."Students learned to make their own candy and constructed a “candy land.”

Learning to make jewelry

Learning to make jewelry

Asking the Hard Questions

Last month I spoke to Deborah Donahue Keegan and Steve Cohen’s Tufts University undergraduate education classes. About half the students had spent a morning a week all semester volunteering at Charlestown High School in Boston. Others had visited Boston Arts Academy. Many had read my book, The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test. Others had been reading current educational theory about what makes schools successful. All came to class curious and filled with questions.

Here are some of them:

1. How do you create a nurturing school culture?
2. What makes a good art educator?
3. Are all students inherently artists?
4. How do you build creativity especially in a developing country?
5. What are the biggest challenges of setting up a school?
6. What do you wish you’d known when you first started out?

Our conversation touched on many themes. I began by discussing that what makes a good art educator is the same as what makes a good educator—the ability to listen to young people, to connect to young people’s passions, to create lessons that are challenging but have support. I reminded the students that teachers, and leaders, have to be able to go home at the end of the day and, even if it was an awful day, they have to have the capacity to come back tomorrow with new perspective and generosity. Holding grudges will get you nowhere. And I talked about some of my own early (and recent) faux pas as a teacher and a leader. I discussed the importance of knowing the community that is the school and the community from which students enter. I recalled trying to teach mathematical concepts early in my teaching career that I thought were “cool” but had no bearing on anything students had seen or done previously. I was grateful for a principal who re-directed me and told me to teach what was in the curriculum and save my ‘creative’ ideas about the importance of Egyptian numerology until I had a semblance of control over my unruly middle schoolers.

I especially loved the question about how to build creativity in young people and I was reminded, sadly, that with an over-exposure to high stakes testing and to curriculum that is all about teaching to the test, creativity will be diminished. And for our nation and our world that would be a travesty. We must invest in story telling, in drawing, painting, acting, moving, playing music—all sorts of creative play—otherwise we risk creating a citizenry that lacks the ability to ponder questions about judgment or perspective or seeing the world from someone else’s cultural or linguistic lens.

One student wanted to probe the connection between a strong and positive school community and individual excellence or success. Is there a balance? Does too much community create a lack of individual ownership? I found these to be intriguing questions but in my own experience a strong community and culture is the basis for strong individual success. Unfortunately too many of our institutions, schools and others privilege individual access and success way above the ability to collaborate or create a strong sense of community. I wonder if some of these Tufts students will have the chance to get this right.

One young man said to me, “I’m a freshman and I love math and hope to major in math. When I visited BAA I was so excited by the math teaching there and the way teachers and students talked about math. Maybe that’s what I want to do. “ Another student thanked me for coming and said, “I never realized that all children are inherently artists.” Many students talked about how they would reflect differently on their own schooling and consider whether their school had been good for them or for all of the students. Another student shared that even though she wasn’t going to go into formal education in the future, “everyone has a chance to educate…and the themes you’ve raised are important for all of us.”

I appreciated the graciousness and gratitude that these young people greeted me with. I left feeling buoyed by their insights and emerging connections to public education.


Making the road by walking: A roadmap from an after-school initiative to a better school system

Who would have known that an informal theatre program for young children in the early 1980s could yield such fertile ground.  I had been teaching an after school theatre program that had achieved some notoriety.  A visionary principal began to believe that he could turn around his K-5 school by providing arts for all students.

The first task was starting a middle school so that the school would grow to be K-8, and very few K-8s existed in that era. The school was located in one of the worst housing projects in Boston. The community was ravaged by violence, drugs and high rates of teen pregnancy. Busing was in full effect but few students from outside the neighborhood wanted to come to this school. Yet eventually, we worked across all grades to ensure that every young person in that large elementary school had daily arts experiences.

The principal knew that the arts would be a strong draw. He gave us another challenge: Make the middle school a bilingual middle school for the arts. Ensure that graduates were competent and conversant in both Spanish and English and also had skills in theatre, stagecraft, dance and music.  At that point, our visual arts program was almost non-existent.

A group of committed teachers worked for months to plan an interdisciplinary curriculum that would create multiple opportunities for students to experience science and arts, math and arts, English/history and arts. We had autonomy to create our own academic curricula and also to think about ways that arts and academics might enhance learning.  And we did it in Spanish and English, which may have been most important. To get a speaking part in a play, students had to speak both languages. Although students professed to hate the academic study of English or Spanish, those courses became some of our favorite since so many students wanted to be in a play.

Others who wanted no part of being in front of an audience became expert carpenters, lighting or costume designers, or stage managers. Family members helped with sewing, make-up, posters and general chaos control.  Folks had no precedent for bilingual musicals by 11-13 year olds, including Man of La Mancha and West Side Story. Yet we packed the auditorium every night. Since most families had had no experience with live theatre, we had to do considerable audience education.  People learned, for example, that they shouldn’t throw things onto the stage or call out in the middle of a song or an actor’s lines.

That school was meant to be the feeder for an audition-based high school for the arts. Two other strong magnet arts programs emerged during this era, but none could create the impetus for a true arts high school. Many other cities were opening such schools, often called magnet schools, as a way of stemming white flight and keeping the middle class invested in public schools.  Various attempts in Boston to organize the arts community brought tremendous resistance to opening an audition-based high school. The desegregation court order still controlled much of Boston school politics and there was no appetite for taking on what might be seen as an end-run to that order.

Without thoughtful dialogue the doubts became barriers to any action. Various proposals eventually died. The middle school arts programs languished with leaders who felt only their fingers in the dike of public school chaotic policies. The teachers in the individual schools knew programs like their own existed across the city but felt isolated and without a sense of agency to create a strong network. We kept hearing that we were the groundwork for the new high school, but we could barely do our own jobs let alone create a political force for real change.

We were all very committed teachers who made huge inroads with community organizations and families, but we had no authority or even protection to keep growing our school. Slowly we watched as our well-laid plans began to evaporate and our administration became interested in other programs. Our school began to look like a Christmas tree with one program or ornament being added each month. Our arts focus was just one of many things we were trying to do. Raising student achievement by any and all means became the new mantra. Funding and energies dissipated. Many of us began to look for new opportunities to effect change in schools. Then our own principal left and another arrived who didn’t share our zeal for a bilingual middle school for the arts.

Fast forward to the early 1990s

During this era Massachusetts experienced far-reaching education reform legislation that brought state testing (MCAS) and charter schools. The ProArts Consortium (a group of private and public colleges of the arts in Boston) was ready with a proposal to found a charter school for the arts. The State rejected that proposal as too expensive. Simultaneous to the legislation that brought charter schools, Boston Public Schools, the Boston Teachers Union and the Mayor’s office agreed on an innovative contract provision that allowed the formation of  “in-district charter schools” called Pilot Schools.

ProArts immediately applied for pilot school status and in 1995 Boston Arts Academy (BAA) became one of the first pilot schools in Boston, although we would not open for three more years until a facility could be found. I was then the co-director of Fenway High School which was the founding member of the group along with Greater Egleston, Health Careers, Young Achievers, Lyndon Elementary and Boston Evening Academy.   That group of six schools paved the way for what would later become Horace Mann Charter Schools and Innovation Schools in Boston and across the state.

Later, as the founding headmaster of BAA I met with all of the ProArts presidents to hear about their visions for this long-awaited and long-fought-for school. Ted Landsmark was the president of Boston Architectural College, one of the members of ProArts. Landsmark was the city employee captured in an iconic prize-winning photo that depicts him outside City Hall being stabbed in the chest with the pole of an American flag by someone opposed to court-ordered busing. Our meeting had special meaning for both of us. Landsmark never referred to the photo.  Instead, he talked about his vision for a school in Boston. Because of the rigors of an arts education, it would allow students, perhaps for the first time in our city’s history, to cross racial, socio-economic and language barriers and create meaningful work together.

Boston Arts Academy today

The arts created an environment where explorations of polarizing issues could be the norm. Young people grow up in an atmosphere that both validates their own backgrounds and experiences while simultaneously teaches about “other.”  BAA has done this for the past 16 years. Young people confront their own issues, and they learn to accept and even embrace the issues of their classmates and their history. This happens in the arts studios and also in math, science, language and history classes.

The culture of experimentation in new media, of risk-taking, striving for excellence and of collaboration permeates all classrooms. Students talk about how BAA is a “writing school.” They mean that everywhere, no matter what class, students learn to express themselves with written words. Students proudly discuss the values of the school, which include “passion with balance,” “vision with integrity,” “community with social responsibility,” and “diversity with respect.” These concepts, which can be difficult for most adults to live by, are infused in all aspects of the BAA community.

Students and parents are also quick to point out that a stellar faculty make this remarkable school possible. In fact, the deep ownership and pride of teachers for BAA has fueled a successful leadership transition to a wonderful new Headmaster selected by teachers, parents, students and Board members, who was also a founding faculty member.  Teaching at BAA requires lots of debate and meetings that allow teachers considerable control over what is closest to them: curriculum, assessment, schedule and working conditions.

Today, BAA is part of a growing number of autonomous schools in Boston. Pilot schools were the first to guarantee autonomy in six key areas: governance, budget, hiring, curriculum, scheduling and school calendar. Some autonomous schools are developed through a contractual agreement with the teachers’ union and the district. Others are legislated through new state education laws, and still others are part of federal “turnaround” policies.  While some slight differences exist within these autonomous schools, the principle of teacher ownership has remained the same.

From founding principal to a broader world

In my new role in the district, I work to better clarify what these variations in autonomies mean to different constituents. Some schools haven’t yet figured out how to ensure that teachers feel a strong sense of ownership. Other schools operate almost as if they don’t belong to any district. Collecting the evidence of the variations and the areas of tension has been fascinating.

Most exciting for me has been the opportunity to connect with young teachers and administrators who, as with myself over 30 years ago, embrace the challenges of public education and use autonomy as a way to ensure the creation of the best school possible.

Rochelle is an alum from BAA whom I visited recently. She works for another Boston public school, spearheading that school’s new destiny as a proposed Innovation School. I sat with Rochelle and her team of teachers, her principal, and students. They described their vision of a school with a focus on entrepreneurship, job development and the arts and new media. We talked about how to create a curriculum that was “hands-on” and project-based. What about a woodshop class where students made things that could be sold? What places of intersection exist between arts and entrepreneurship? Could students imagine starting and marketing their own business? As one student said, “Though I am senior and won’t be part of the new school when it starts, I give my full support to the idea… I believe that [this school] is what Boston is lacking right now. I have a little brother going into high school and [I’m glad] there will be a school like [this] for him.”

Whether or not faculty will vote to transition from a traditional school to an Innovation school is still uncertain. Still, the ideas shared around the room held great promise for young people who have not experienced success in school. Rochelle spoke about her vision for this school. “I learned so much as a student at BAA. I know the importance of creativity and collaboration. I was trusted to do a senior project as a high school student—and the topic was something I was passionate about—not an assignment a teacher gave me. I want to bring that same sense of excitement and ownership of learning to these young people.”  Rochelle described the transient population at her school, and how many students arrived with limited English skills. She was certain that by engaging them in the arts and entrepreneurship school might finally compete with the streets.  I look forward returning and seeing what Rochelle, her colleagues and her students have created. I have no doubt it will be magnificent.

A few weeks ago, I attended the 10th reunion of the BAA class of 2003. The founding ProArts presidents and founding faculty would have been thrilled to see this group, some whom had traveled great distances to get there. Students spoke to one another, or used American Sign Language, since this class had a number of deaf and hard-of-hearing students, about their challenges and their successes. A surprising number were in law enforcement or the military. Others were teaching. Some worked as professional artists as church accompanists and choir directors or writers or after-school teachers or in nonprofits. Still others were in marketing. Some were still finding their way taking classes part time, working and raising a family.

Little judgment existed among these young people about what “making it” really looked like. I felt only a sense of camaraderie and support and evidence of the lessons we had taught in high school. Students reminisced about whether RICO—refine, invent, connect and own, still held true 10 years later. “I use it every day with my staff,” said a young woman program director. “RICO’s not just an academic skill. It’s a way of looking at life, learning and how you do just about everything.” Even with some concerns about how some alums were faring, I had the strong sense that they would stay connected and continue to create an even better Boston or Raleigh or San Jose or wherever they were living.

The shared values we struggled to inculcate in our community seemed alive and well within each one of them. Many of them would end up, like Rochelle, likely creating their own schools, or business, or organizations. They would feel strongly about the importance of collaboration. They would value knowing others different from themselves.  They would emphasize the balance between the importance of autonomy and the power of being part of a greater whole.

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