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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.

Moving On

I have just made a huge decision to leave the school house and join the district office. I don’t think I ever imagined I’d work “in town” but we have an interim superintendent, John McDonough, for whom I have enormous respect. He has been working with Boston Pilot Schools since day one to help provide budget autonomy, and we have succeeded in that area. But there have been too many other stumbling blocks. Too many places when we haven’t gotten it right. I’m excited by the chance to try and help more schools gain the autonomy that I have enjoyed as a principal. I’ve included a link to my personal letter to my school community.

When I was on my book tour, an insightful school committee representative from a city in North Carolina said to me, “I really see what a good school yours is. And I know lots of good schools. But can you have a good school system? Or just a system of good schools? Do you see my question?” I’m not sure I really did.

But as I take on a new challenge with the Boston Public Schools to look at the possibilities of autonomy for all schools, I am asking lots of those questions. As autonomous schools in the Boston Public Schools have increased (we are now almost 25% of the schools), the district administration has not shrunk much. In fact, little has changed in the way the district and schools see one another, even though we have incredibly talented individuals working in our district. I hear this critique across the country: “The district office is too big; the district can’t get out of the way; there is too much bureaucracy; too many rules…”

What is the right relationship between a district office and individual schools? What is the right balance between autonomy and accountability? How do we come to these decisions? These are questions I will investigate during this coming year, through continued conversations with teachers and administrators across the Boston Public School system. We envision this year as one of collecting data and then making some proposals that can be the basis for policies moving forward.

The pilot schools (and Mass. charter schools) were founded on the principle that with autonomy comes accountability. There were five areas of autonomy: budget, hiring, schedule and calendar, curriculum and assessment, and governance. Each of these is complex; together they are indeed representative of what can make a great school. But we have seen that having these five autonomies doesn’t make schools automatically better. Of course, part of the challenge is defining “better.” Does that just mean better test scores? What are the more intrinsic ways of thinking about “better” and about what it means for a school to succeed? These autonomies we have been given may be necessary but they are not sufficient ingredients for success.

Then there is the question of Turnaround Schools. Is this a sustainable strategy? These schools, like pilot schools or in-district charters or Innovation Schools (in Massachusetts), get an infusion of money and the promise of autonomy. Within two or three years they are supposed to be transformed, and by transformation we mean higher test scores. But is there any evidence that these changes can be sustained, especially after the money goes away?

What about the teachers’ union? That is a question I’ve been exploring a lot these days as I take on the exciting task of editing a book about school reform and the role of unions. What have we learned about the ways in which teachers unions both support and detract from school reform efforts? Again, is there a balance that we might pursue that could lead to more harmonious and mutually beneficial relationships between the schools and the districts?

I will try and document my experiences this year, including what I learn, where I see the tensions, and what forms of balance we can achieve. I hope you will give me ideas of questions to ask and that you will keep your own questions coming. I am passionate about public education and there is so much at stake right now. I invite you on this journey.

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).

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