Perhaps the best part of this book tour is the chance to be with teachers and students. Especially the students.
So much of my day is spent behind the scenes, keeping the vision and not connecting directly with kids. I live in a whirlwind of putting out fires, dealing with non-instructional issues, friend and fund-raising, working with our Board and others, and yes, hopefully visiting classes and seeing the wonderful work my faculty does. Don’t get me wrong: I love my job and I love the fact that I get to do about 39 different things each hour, but I don’t get sustained time with kids anymore. That’s just not the job of a principal.
Traveling with kids means being together almost all of the time. We eat, talk, prepare for presentations, and debrief. We get to know one another in different ways, away from the pressures of school, our lives, or even our communities and families. The time together has been precious for me. I am proud that we spread the BAA word, and share our successes and challenges with an ever-widening group. I have truly cherished those small moments of being witness to our students’ interactions and antics. I have also been reminded, again, how much our kids don’t know—how little access to social and cultural capital they really have.
What’s Lincoln Center? Who is Leonard Bernstein? What’s a private school? What would going away for college really be like? What’s a good salary? How much should you pay for rent? What kind of job could I have when I’m grown up? These are just some of the questions that emerge.
Each trip has been a lot of fun. This trip was no exception. Allow me to explain why.
We met on Tuesday, December 2nd, at Ralph’s Restaurant and celebrated one of the student dancers’ birthday (cheesecake all around).
Wonderful conversations at dinner made me so proud of the way these students love our school. The first thing we did after arriving at the hotel, was watch So You Think You Can Dance. I loved the boys’ pride at seeing Russell Ferguson-one of their own dance alums, on TV.
The Calhoun School, our host for this trip, is an independent progressive private school on the upper west side. It began as a private school for Jewish girls who couldn’t go to Upper East Side girls’ private schools and has evolved into one of the more progressive schools in the city. Almost the entire school is laid out in an open classroom format with few walls, although technology and ubiquitous smart boards have actually closed in teaching areas.
While I was touring the campus, our boys were in classrooms. I watched as they listened to discussions in science or humanities in classes with 12 or less who sit around Harkness tables. The Harkness table is a large oval as in our conference rooms. Andover Prep School made them famous and Ted Sizer talked about them in his writings. The notion is that students learn to have discussions with one another–not back and forth with the teacher. Everyone is also an equal at the table.
The very idea of teaching without walls raises fascinating questions about who really is at the center of the classroom, the teacher or the kids. From kindergarten through high school students were deeply engaged in the doing of work. Perhaps five different classes operated in the same room. I wondered about the distractions and the noise level, but this is their pedagogy. The scene resembled the CES principle “teacher as coach” in action. There was little teacher lecturing going on.
Needless to say, edifice envy prevailed as I walked through Calhoun’s spaces: it’s a nine story building that doesn’t feel big. Students maintain gorgeous rooftop gardens that, in part, feed the school.
Lunch was truly amazing. Chef Bobo (a proud, proud professional chef) and six employees in a tiny kitchen offer an amazing and beautiful variety of food for Calhoun students each day. The Chef is very much a part of teaching and learning in the school (he told me how he worked with students after they finished dissecting a pig in bio class to teach them how to make roast and pulled pork). I was beside myself at the fact that every child at Calhoun (and every parent who comes for breakfast) gets to eat nutritious, well-cooked, imaginative food every day. What would it take for this at our school?
BAA dance teacher William McLaughlin asked our young men during our debrief: “If you could bring one thing back to BAA, what would it be? Here is a smattering of our students’ answers:
- The intense student focus
- The student engagement and the high expectations of themselves
- How teachers engage everyone
- Maturity level (“theirs was through the roof”)
- Layout of classrooms
- The way kids talked (“their vocabulary was really different;” “at BAA we don’t talk that way”)
- How everyone listened and talked respectfully with one another
Our kids didn’t really think that the Calhoun kids were smarter, but they certainly felt that they knew more words and used words in more imaginative ways.
In between the school visit and the evening performance, our students packed away another huge meal. During rehearsal I watched Billy watch his students. The dance is extraordinary, but seeing Billy, his back ramrod-straight, observing his students was very special.
I was witness to his incredible high expectations, as well as his limitless love and respect for them. I observed a private moment between teacher and students—a moment when teaching and learning fuse and you forget who is teacher and who is student. As young students watched the rehearsal you could see that they were captivated by the dancers.
After the performance the audience, about 80 strong, began asking questions. The young men were dripping and still breathless but they answered questions for about an hour.
“What do you feel you have learned from your school?” Each of the students spoke about how much they felt they’d been given at BAA. “My school has taught me what being an artist means. I’m proud of being an artist. It’s not easy work.”
The next day we went to a middle school in East Harlem. My son is an after-school teacher there with Citizen Schools. There were 90 middle school students and my son had been worried about their behavior for both the performance and the workshops we planned to do (teaching dance). Billy had worked hard with our students so that they were prepared.
The middle schoolers arrived like big Labrador puppy dogs—particularly the boys—almost rolling over one another, barely able to contain their after-school energy. Yet, they were an excellent audience and appreciated the performance.
A couple of the dancers were successful and had many kids in the front of the room trying to learn different moves. Others had a harder time getting everyone motivated, but were working in an open area in the café. The boys just weren’t going to take risks in such a public space. Another student had his kids making pyramids, doing somersaults, and lyrical moves. It was incredible.
Late in the afternoon we had to make our way back to the Upper West Side for another event—a book party at a friend’s house.
Although I was completely exhausted by Friday, I was actually sad to see the trip end. We had a good time together and I was so proud of these young men; of who they have become and of course, their fantastic dancing. What a privilege!