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Celebrando a Margarita Muñiz

In November 2009, I had the privilege of attending the Thanksgiving play at the Rafael Hernandez School, a bilingual elementary school in Roxbury where Margarita Muñiz was the principal. This annual musical is a long standing tradition, and in 2009, the play was about Margarita’s life, travels and journeys as an educator in the Boston Public Schools.

The play chronicled her departure from Cuba as a young girl as part of the Pedro Pan (Peter Pan) children, her landing in an orphanage in Louisiana, her eventual reunion with her parents, her graduation from college, the beginning of her career as a teacher in the Boston Public Schools, and finally her directorship of the Hernandez school. It also included wildly funny times with all of us in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

It was magnificent to watch the total enjoyment on the faces of the students, from kindergarteners to eighth graders, as they played different aspects of the life of their world-traveled principal. Whether it was struggling to learn English in the orphanage, learning how to order food in Japan, or running from elephants in Zimbabwe, the children danced and sang their way through the script, both poking fun at Margarita’s demands during her travels and demonstrating compassion and understanding for the many cultures and countries she visited.

Besides the outstanding performances of the students who played Margarita, two things stood out for me: 1. the incredible love and devotion that Margarita’s students and staff had towards her, and 2. how the play demonstrated Margarita’s deeply rooted beliefs in education: that all children can reach high levels of literacy, that the arts are essential for a good education, and that family involvement is key for a positive school climate.

When I think about her beliefs (and mine) about what makes a good school, I will think of the Hernandez. This play was a wonderful tribute to Margarita, but more importantly, it was a tribute to the hard work of fantastic teachers, families, and students. I was proud to be involved in some small way.

Margarita Muñiz died on Friday, November 18, 2011. Just that Tuesday, Boston Public Schools announced the September 2012 opening of the first dual language high school- Margarita Muñiz Academy (MMA). It will be led by Dania Vazquez, who coached principals and school change teams for many years at the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE).

Margarita was one of the most compassionate, dedicated and insightful educators whom I have ever known, and I am grateful for her friendship and guidance. We realized somewhere in Zimbabwe on our Barr Fellows trip that we both shared a love for the same 19th century Spanish poet, Antonio Machado. This verse – one of our favorites – sums up much of who Margarita was:


No hay camino

Se hace el camino al andar

My clunky translation:


There is no path

We make the path by walking.

Margarita made new paths each and every day and I hope to honor her memory by doing the same. Margarita, te quiero mucho.  by Yvonne Abraham  by Meg Campbell


Celebrating Vito

On Saturday, December 3, we gathered in the assembly hall of Boston Arts Academy/Fenway High School to celebrate Vito Perrone, who passed away in August. It was fitting that we gathered in this space, since Vito cared passionately about schools.

I was so pleased that some of my students could be there for the occasion. They served as ambassadors, hanging coats and giving tours of BAA, but I believe that they also learned something about this great man and his staunch belief that schools could and would be better, and that students deserved to be actively engaged in all classrooms and with all teachers.

Sunny Pai, a founding BAA faculty member and Fenway student teacher and now a Program Director at an alternative program at Charlestown High School in Boston, read from a 1998 letter that Vito had written to his students in Harvard’s teacher education program as they were ending their student teaching. Vito wrote, “…I hope you were able to understand that… adolescents and young adults… can be powerful learners. They can be responsible. They can be active participants in their communities. They can be serious about their physical well being, friends to those younger and older, humane and committed in their relationships. They can be serious readers and writers, and thinkers, persons capable of changing the world. We can’t ever afford to see them as less, even as they often try to convince us that the less is all there is, even as they sometimes content they don’t care about anything that connects with our interests as teachers. Our ongoing task is to see and work from whatever strengths they bring forward, even if that strength is mostly resistance.” I watched my students nod their heads in agreement to these words.

It was a virtual brain trust in the room as Jay Featherstone showed a video from the North Dakota Study Group of Vito speaking in 2000. Jay gave historical context to Vito’s words, and Deborah Meier, George Heins, Ann Cook, Eleanor Duckworth, Larry Myatt and many others shared stories, readings and memories. I was happy to hear some of the younger educators in the room asking those in retirement to keep fighting for more equitable schools.

Two of Vito’s grown children and their spouses as well as two grandchildren and Vito’s widow all were able to attend. I believe that they, like all of us, appreciated the opportunity to learn more about this amazing man… this “teacher with a heart,” which is the title of one of his books.

I can still hear Vito’s voice in my head as he talks about schools with larger purposes and generative questions—both Vito terms. I hear him remind me to keep asking those hard questions and to keep studying history so we can make intelligent connections to what has come before us. I appreciate knowing, as he said in the video, that there are more good schools now than in the 1970s. Sometimes when we are in the thick of it, we forget that.

Thank you to all who joined in this celebration of Vito. I know Vito would have enjoyed being with us.

Vito Perrone group image

“Reading Vito” attendees- an amazing group of educators, friends, and family.

Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum

Last Saturday, a group of BAA students performed for the closing session of the CES Fall Forum in Providence, RI. These students created a unique performance piece combining music, visual arts, spoken word, theatre and digital media. Participants were Althea Bennett (VA), Ashleigh Brown-Fuller (vocal), Gary Gonzalez (theatre), Justin Hynes-Bruell (instrumental), Janibell Santana (theatre) and Daniel Whitelock (instrumental).

Their original interdisciplinary piece, Listen!, wrestles with the tension between the power of the young artist’s voice and adults’ tendency to put it on “mute” in order to fit a prescribed vision of who and how young people should be.  After the performance, students discussed the piece, their creative process and how it reflects their experience at Boston Arts Academy.

Our librarian, Debbie Froggatt, commented in her reflection on the session, “The power of student voice! Honest, thoughtful and commanding… Their artistic piece moved and provoked us to ponder how we are listening to our students. Are we really in conversation with them? Who are their authentic selves and what are their internal struggles?”

Our work is hard, but I always feel energized and inspired when when I see my students come alive through their art… I feel recommitted to making the world WORK better for these talented and thoughtful young voices!

Congratulations to CES on another powerful Fall Forum!

The CES Board: myself, Debbie Meier, Misha Lesley, Jill Davidson, and George Wood (missing: Nancy Gutierrez) giving Jill a gift for serving CES so well for so long as we hired a new director, Elizabeth Jardine

Visiting with Julian Schnabel

A school leader’s primary function is to ensure that teachers can teach to their fullest and best.  Much of the mundane naturally falls on a school leader: clearing hallways, doing lunch duty, meeting with upset parents or irate students, making sure a broken toilet is fixed or that a light bulb stops its annoying flicker.

Of course, other parts to the job are completely engaging: observing a great class and debriefing afterwards with the teacher about what made the lesson sing. Even the opposite still captivates me: observing a not-so-great lesson and discussing what could improve.  The ultimate moments of my job come when I have the rare opportunity to be with my students (and teachers) when they have a transformational experience.

A few weeks ago, 20 students, three alumni and three teachers traveled from BAA to New York City to spend the morning with contemporary artist and film maker Julian Schnabel.  On the bus ride down, the students watched his latest film, “Miral,” and many of them knew something about his paintings or films. But none of us were prepared for the generous and genuine interest that he showed our young artists.

He shepherded us from the lobby, in which two enormous photos from Schnabel’s film “Before Night Falls” hang. The photos are dedicated to Sir Norman and Norman, respectively. Norman is Norman Rosenthal, married to Manuela Mena, both extraordinary art critics/historians and curators, and great friends. They originally introduced me to Schnabel. I was delighted by the inscriptions!

We couldn’t all fit in the freight elevator, so two trips got us up into one of his studios. A series of large paintings greeted us.  Schnabel gave us an okay to take photos or videos, but encouraged us to just absorb the experience and not get hung up on documenting it. He tried to learn everyone’s name during our 2½ hours together, and he did a superb job.


“Gary, what do you see?” he asked one student as we looked intently at a painting. I loved listening to the interchange between master painter and aspiring young artist. Schnabel explained that when people visit his galleries he sometimes likes to have just one painting on display. “If you have ten paintings then people will look at each one for one minute. If you have only one then they will look for ten minutes and really see. It’s important to really see what’s there.” My students nodded.  As we toured throughout the galleries and his palazzo (his great home) Schnabel returned to the theme of seeing. Again and again he engaged the students by asking, “What do you see?”  With each work he explained his own artistic process, as well as a story or fascination behind the painting. As one of my students reflected, “Thank you for sharing your work with us. Your mark-making knows no bounds.” I couldn’t agree more. Schnabel showed us how he attached a brush to a huge pole and painted. He explained how he painted with a tablecloth or another object. He captivated us with how he created each piece, especially what was purposeful and accidental. Another student said, “I love your painting methods and the space you work in. Your process is very unique and inspirational.”

Schnabel studio

While fascinated by the paintings, students were also enthralled by the entire aesthetic of the house. JJ couldn’t stop feeling the plush oriental rugs or craning her neck to look at the hand-blown chandeliers, some from Venice and dating back to the 1800s along with other replicas from that time period. Everyone stopped to stare at the stuffed bear and the bathtubs scattered in different rooms. In one room, Schnabel stopped to play a piano that had been created by the artist Tom Sachs and re-orchestrated with something that looked like a synthesizer.


The Tom Sachs piano

He tapped out a song and sang a few notes and then asked if anyone else played. Yoselin, one of our amazing alums, sat down and played. “Tell me the chords from the song you were just singing,” she said, “and I’ll play and you sing.”  The two of them did a little duet that ranked as one of the best moments in our teaching careers. To see our alum, our beautiful, talented, hard-working Yoselin, playing for Schnabel while he sang, brought us to tears. “We’ll have to practice more,” Schnabel smiled. He could not have known how special that moment was for all of us. He certainly could not have known the struggles Yoselin has endured to get where she is. She will never forget that moment, nor will any of us.

No question was off limits. “Why do you wear yellow glasses?” asked one young woman. “The world is pretty blue, don’t you think?” Schnabel queried. “It looks much better through this shade of yellow. Try them.” And Cami grinned in agreement as she donned Schnabel’s glasses.

We didn’t want to leave, and we all felt the same as Althea, who wrote, “I would be honored to be a fraction of an artist with your skill and mind. It was incredible meeting you.” And Taylor, another student, summed up the day perfectly: “I am very grateful that you put time aside from your schedule to welcome us BAA students into your home… You are the first contemporary artist I have met who works from their intuition rather than over thinking. I really like this artistic side of you because it makes your work speak for itself and leaves everyone to draw their own conclusions. I love your loose brush strokes. You have influenced me to get out of my comfort zone!”

Schnabel speaking to group

I am appreciative of our time with Schnabel, and even more appreciative and proud of my students and alums. They get how special it is to be at BAA. I am so grateful for the opportunity they gave me to spend a morning learning alongside them witnessing their delight and awe and curiosity. We were all transformed in both small and large ways. I can return to the mundane parts of my job with renewed energy and focus. Today was amazing.

Group photo 10.14.11

Our BAA students and alums!

Literature Circles

Each year as the school year opens, we begin as a community of readers. A few years ago, we borrowed an idea from Beverly High School to implement Literature Circles. Throughout the school year, teachers and students recommend books to our librarian, who then selects a variety of books for summer reading for students and faculty.

In September, we gather for two consecutive days in Literature Circles, grouped not by grade or arts major, but by the books we read. Last year, we piloted Literature Circles co-lead by a teacher and a student, and it was so successful that the number of students who volunteered doubled this year.

All Literature Circles involve talking about books- where we as readers connected to plot, character, events, etc. Each faculty member leads the group a little differently, but it is amazing to walk around the school, look into any room, and see everyone doing the same thing at the same time: discussing, analyzing, and connecting to literature.


Math faculty Tess Mandell – “Keesha’s House”


Math faculty Cassie Wallace- “The Hunger Games”


Music faculty Greg Holt- “American Born Chinese”

Some books are graphic novels; others, non-fiction; others, long poems. The important part is that we are building community and excitement (among students AND among teachers!) as we talk about books, sometimes wearing down the tough shell that some students have about reading. We want all our students and faculty to feel the freedom of reading for pleasure and sharing that joy with others.



Music faculty Allyssa Jones- “The Help”

I am interested to hear how other schools think about literacy and/or building community, perhaps through a different kind of whole-school initiative. What summer reading books have been successful at your school?

The Art of Leadership

I wrote The Art of Leadership for the American School Board Journal in June 2011… it’s also posted on the Publications tab of my blog. Comments are welcome!

Educational Disparity and Minority Youth Symposium

Last Friday, I traveled to Connecticut with BAA theatre teacher Juanita Rodrigues and five of our theatre students for the Educational Disparity and Minority Youth symposium, presented by Quinnipiac University School of Law and Yale Law School. I was invited to speak at the conference by Marilyn Ford, a law professor at Quinnipiac, who I learned is called “Hurricane Marilyn” – for good reason! I was blown away by the convening she pulled together – panelists ranged from the co-founder of Essence Magazine to Carlotta Walls Lanier of The Little Rock Nine to athlete Marion Jones!

Our students performed a piece called “Perceptions,” dealing with race and stereotypes,  in front of the entire 1,000 person audience – in a sports arena! – and got a very positive response.

Student performers

Byron Rodriguez, Penelope Delarosa, Deaundre Price, Molly Pope, and Danielle Christian. Photo by John Hassett

Take a bow

Take a bow!

But their favorite part of the conference (and mine!) was the panel and performance by First Wave, an organization that brings together young artists from across the country to learn together in a “spoken word and hop-hop arts learning community.” They were amazing speakers and performers and exemplified a level of professionalism to which our students could aspire.

Watching First Wave performance

Mesmorized by First Wave performers

We also had the opportunity to have dinner and a tour of Yale University with Seth Bodie, a former BAA teacher and current Yale student in the design program. We were joined by two members of the Yale a cappella group “Shades,” which comes to BAA every year to perform for our music students.


BAA students and Seth Bodie with 2 members of "Shades"

We had a wonderful time- thanks again to Quinnipiac Law School, Yale Law School and Marilyn Ford for getting together so many amazing groups and speakers to discuss the educational and racial disparities that we work to address every day at BAA.

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