The 25th anniversary of the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) Fall Forum opened with words from Nancy Sizer, Ted Sizer’s widow. Nancy spoke eloquently of Ted’s vision–the importance of conversations amongst friends and detractors from the ten common principles. Even in times of budget-slashing in schools and disheartening claims about the importance of high-stakes testing and racing to the top, CES and Ted remind us to keep the ten common principles in the forefront of our work. These ten principles could not be more relevant today 1. Less is more  2. Depth over coverage  3. Learning to use one’s mind well  4. Goals that apply to all students  5. Personalization  6. Student as worker, teacher as coach  7. Demonstration of mastery  8. A tone of decency and trust  8. Commitment to the entire school—teachers and principal should perceive themselves as generalists first (teachers and scholars and artists in general education), and specialists second (experts in one particular discipline  9. Resources dedicated to teaching and learning  10. Democracy and equity.

While these seem like simple principles, they are actually deeply complex and take a lifetime of work to truly integrate them into any school. That was Ted’s brilliance. What CES offers is not a quick fix brand or model. Rather, it is set of ideas to bring to schools, classrooms, students, and family members so that we all can continue to ask the hard questions: How are we doing (with these principles)? Where do we see the principles at work in our school? What would it look like if they were more evident? (For a full explanation of the principles, visit the CES website).

I appreciated the questions that framed this year’s conference: What does it mean to each of us to demand education that matters? To our communities? Our students and families? How do we organize with a stance to demand education that matters?

Pedro Noguera, from NYU, was the Fall Forum keynote speaker and he shared some sobering statistics: the achievement of African American males is worse since the implementation of No Child Left Behind. He demanded we think about this question: “How can we put the most inexperienced principals and inexperienced teachers with the neediest students in the neediest schools? That’s called Teach for America!”

Nevertheless, he exhorted us to not necessarily defend the status quo either. He asked that we engage in educational debates without allowing ourselves to become sandwiched into rhetoric, to not simply say, “I’m pro or anti-charter or pro or anti-union” without looking at the complexities, particularities, and nuances of each institution. Unions need to change andwe must acknowledge that some charters have done a good job, Pedro asserted. (Later Linda Darling Hammond quoted a Hoover Institute study that cited 17% of charters outperformed “regular” public schools serving similar students, about 37% underperformed public school counterparts and the rest (just under half) did about the same. Here is a link to that study). Pedro also warned the gathered audience about the challenges of electing public officials who truly know how to listen, or are affiliated with powerful interest groups, lobbies, or corporations. My sighs here were audible. How do we do that? The federal officials seem so far away and disconnected from what we need in urban schools.

These big ideas were the framework for our conversations over the next few days.

I was proud to have two outstanding teachers: John ADEkoje and Juanita Rodrigues, with me, as well as four remarkable students from Soul Element. All four had been well-trained as ambassadors by Corey Evans, Director of our Center for Arts in Education, and coached not only by their BAA theatre teachers, but also by a BAA theatre alum!

BAA students and faculty

BAA theatre students and faculty

On the first day, our students led a youth forum for 40 students from eight different schools around the country. The title of the workshop was “Transforming Through the Arts” and was about creating personal narratives using the methodology of Soul Element. I witnessed all of the scenes that students wrote and performed (under the direction of our students) and  they were excellent— exploring issues of race, culture, class, family dynamics, peer pressure, etc… When the workshop ended, no one wanted to leave. I was impressed by the power and focus of these young people, so determined to create a more just and equitable society.

Students learn from students

The next day I was privileged to have the students and John ADEkoje join me in my session–one that was specially featured at conference. We had again, about 40 people, including a contingent from the Netherlands. We spoke about BAA—both from places of pride and also of the places we wanted to improve—and our students were quite persuasive about the role of RICO and shared values in our school. We also shared how we think about creating artists-scholars-citizens. We began and closed with theatre warm-ups.

Students teaching teachers!

The students joined me for a book talk at Book Passage, an independent bookstore in Marin. There were about 20 folks gathered, ranging from a doctor who studies wellness with adolescents, a midwife, retired and current educators, to personal friends of mine.

We also had time for some picture-taking and fun, thanks to one of our supporters, Lilli Ouyang, who fought horrendous SF traffic, jamming all five of us into a small car to get us across the Golden Gate Bridge in daylight.

Classic Golden Gate Bridge shot of me with kids

We had a great visit to Marin Academy (a private school) which was an interesting experience for all of us. Yes, we  developed edifice envy seeing their jewel box theatre AND black box, as well as beautiful arts spaces—ceramics, painting and drawing, photography, dance and an outdoor ping-pong table area. Again, I was reminded painfully, about the ability to truly expand learning when the space compliments learning expectations. I kept saying to the kids, “Edifice envy is an ugly trait, but I have it badly!”

Marin Academy

In addition to the visit to Marin Academy, we also visited our 2010 Principal Intern, Michael Lee, now a Vice Principal at a large comprehensive high school. Mr. Lee took us to visit both Mills College and UC Berkeley, and also took us sightseeing. We also had an opportunity to visit another Principal Intern, Laura Flaxman, at the ARISE charter high school in Oakland. All in all, we (as usual) were able to squeeze quite a lot into a very short time!

On a more sober note, I do hope that CES will sustain these bad economic times. Educators truly need these opportunities to come together and engage in conversations at a national level. An example is a great workshop that I attended, lead by George Wood (Director of the Forum for Democracy and Education), Deborah Meier, and Linda Darling Hammond. Linda is such an inspiring educator and extremely knowledgeable about federal issues of education. It was not all gloom and doom, but their message was clear—everyone needs to sign up to be a member of the Forum and CES. We must have a voice in Washington, so that it’s not just the Gates Foundations and other big corporations directing policy.

Our students closed the conference on Sunday with their theatre piece “The Waiting Room.” Here is what Christina Brown, from the Center for Collaborative Education, wrote me about the kids and their performance:

Just wanted to say that I was on the plane with your amazing students.  I told them they were rock stars. Their performance was amazing, and their presence and eloquence in discussing educational issues was even more amazing. Their words truly were as powerful as their acting skills. [They] channeled their inner Ted Sizer or inner Linda Nathan, since you are both famous authors now. They said BAA was about RICO and described it and said students can’t learn unless you engage them first. What a perfect closing.”