Posts Tagged 'Boston Public Schools'

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.

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Reflections and Looking Ahead

My first year leading BAA’s Center for Arts in Education sent me to schools and teachers across the country and around the world.   These visits repeatedly reminded me of Parker Palmer’s words: “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” From Denver to New Bedford and Hawaii to India I witnessed good teaching, as Palmer describes, that comes at the “dangerous intersection of personal and public life.”

Good teachers make themselves vulnerable to students—to their judgment, to their excitement, and even to their indifference. We see this in arts classrooms when we ask our students to create and invent work and make connections with ideas and concepts we have taught and studied.

A teacher choreographing with his students is on a deeply personal journey of the expert beginning to shape the novices. The teacher/choreographer has a concept and a “story” (quotes intentional) to express. Yet the student dancers give form, energy and substance to the piece that ultimately creates the aesthetic experience for an audience. The interplay between choreographer and student/dancers must be based on trust and a belief that the dancers will “get it right.” Choreography is a mere abstract idea until it is performed. When given shape, movement and sound it can be transcendent.  Experiencing transcendence from her/his students is breathtaking for a teacher. I have seen this same energy in academic classrooms, too, when a teacher enters a “zone” describing a chemical property, an engineering principle, the meaning of a legend, or a time in history. Students are captivated by a journey of discovery.

Students sense this integrity from their teachers and they largely respect it. They feel how their own teachers embody RICO at BAA, or Refine, Invent, Connect and Own.  They see how their teachers express RICO and find themselves swept up in the lesson or the project. They are willing to take risks, expand their imaginations, and work harder than they thought possible. I hearken back to Palmer and his imagery of “teachers with a heart.” So many of us became teachers because of reasons of the heart, and our passion for helping young people learn.

Nevertheless, my sense is that our policy makers have ignored Palmer. They seem to operate under the misguided belief that testing will cure what ails our schools. Allow me to share a recent scene in a “turnaround” school. This new nomenclature promises miracles—usually premised on firing all of the teachers, bringing in a new administration, and focusing relentlessly on test scores. Some schools in this “turnaround” model have raised test scores.  With double periods of math and English students clearly will test better on those subjects. No research shows that these test scores are sustained over time, however, or that deeper understanding or an excitement about learning more has taken place.

This turnaround school was using the arts as a way to engage students. When I visited the school, I was so pleased to see mural paper covering all of the walls of the classrooms—and even the offices. I was thrilled to see the school engaging in an all-school mural activity. I couldn’t wait to get a paintbrush or marker and begin drawing. However, my enthusiasm was misplaced. The walls were covered because it was high-stakes testing season and the rules during testing require that all print material be hidden. I was appalled. Of course I can understand covering print material that would compromise  test results, but posters and teachers’ diplomas?

Consider the very skills that arts teach: persistence, collaboration, judgment, practice, refining, conscientiousness, critique, determination and, most important of all, an appreciation for developing one’s own sense of beauty or aesthetics. These will never develop if we don’t embrace teaching the arts for their own value and not for improving test scores. Yes,  the skill of persistence can be modeled by learning how to sit and take a difficult test, but that is not why we teach the arts.  While employers cry for students to graduate with 21st Century skills of communication, collaboration, and facility with technology, self-styled education reformers are pressuring our schools to grossly narrow the curriculum to satisfy scores on bubble sheets. And those are almost always tests of memory and recall.

Good teaching is not the same as good test coaching. I am proud to work for a school that allows teachers to be vulnerable, to lead with their hearts and their passions, and that puts testing in perspective where it belongs.

BAA supports teachers as they innovate and imagine and engage with their students. This June 26-28 we will celebrate at our 9th Annual Summer Institute professional development where educators from around the world will join us and do the same thing. (Click here to register!)

What’s Been Lost in the Bubbles: Comments from Occupy DOE, April 5, 2013

These are my comments from Occupy DOE in Washington, D.C. last week. You can also see video of my talk here! I’d love to hear other people’s experiences with testing in their classrooms and schools.

I’m not against testing. I am against high stakes testing in which, as a result of a single (or often now a series) of short answer bubble tests, decisions are made about a student’s future. Decisions that, at least in Massachusetts, are tied to money for attending state colleges.   

I am here today to remind us to be wary of quick fixes—promises that a new regimen of tests will cure all or that by embracing common core curriculum we will have equity and excellence in schools. Equity comes from equal opportunities for all students, and from equal funding that truly levels the disparate playing fields between schools. I believe true equity also comes from trusting and empowering teachers to do their best work with the young people in front of them.

I want to paint two pictures for you. Recently I visited a turnaround middle school in Colorado. (Even that terminology gives me pause.) All the walls in the hallways and offices and classrooms were covered with brown paper– the kind you see in art classrooms for making large mural like painting.  I was so excited. I knew the school was arts focused and I eagerly asked about the mural projects! Of course I couldn’t have been more wrong about purpose. Everything was covered so that during testing there would be NO print materials visible for students to ostensibly use to cheat– no posters, no teachers’ diplomas, no word walls, no formulas, nothing. I was aghast and so disappointed. Don’t you want to know more about the tests we are giving our students if a teacher’s college diploma could lead to cheating? I was even more dismayed by the deadened eyes I saw on these middle schoolers who had just finished 9 sessions of testing. The next day was their big arts show but the testing regime had cut into a large chunk of rehearsal time. The tensions and tempers now flared. The students in this school are all poor and primarily immigrant and ELL students. They come to school hoping for increased opportunities and to experience worlds that because of race and class have been denied them. How do these weeks of testing (and all the weeks and months of test prep) provide an avenue for advancement for them? I met with their art teachers all of whom bemoaned the days of missed classes because of testing—they had counted—46 days of testing or test prep. That is not uncommon anymore. And as we know most school years are only 180 days.

Speaking at Occupy DOE

Now let me describe what is going on at BAA. According to the state department of education in Massachusetts, we are now a level 3 school (on a five point scale). Level 3 is almost a failing school. One more point lower—i.e. level 4 and we might be eligible for state take over. That is not a good thing.  BAA sends 93% of our graduates to college or conservatories. Our graduates include two members of Alvin Ailey Dance Company and countless other alums who have taken their place in the world of art, education, culture and service. In a recent study 63% of our grads had either finished or were still in college. There are 100s of students on the waiting list. These are good statistics. How are we almost failing?

We are a level 3 school because the department of education ONLY uses the data from MCAS (which is Massachusetts’ much praised high stakes bubble test. MCAS  stands for Mass. Comprehensive Assessment System—I have argued for years that MCAS is not a comprehensive assessment system at all but scores on a series of high stakes tests).

The State requires schools to set targets for scores on the test. Last year, we exceeded all our targets, including targets for high needs students. In fact, we have been praised for our results with our highest need students particularly, our special needs students. In addition, we have had graduation rates in the mid-80th percentile. But, our school’s cumulative “PPI” or Progress and Performance Index places us in the lowest 20% relative to other schools at the same grade level. In our district there are five schools that are level 1 schools. Three of these five are exam schools. Two of them take students through an interview process. While BAA is an audition only school we do not look at academic record or previous grades at all in our admissions decisions. When our headmaster appealed to the State about this new categorization she was told that we were on the higher end of the lowest 20% (“almost not in the lowest 20%” they said). She was also told that was our cumulative PPI NOT in the lowest 20% we would be a level 1 school because, as I said a moment ago, we met or exceeded all of our targets last year.

Even though we have made progress and met all our benchmarks on all our goals with all our sub-groups (another term I find despicable which means ‘high need’ students) we are still in the bottom 20% of cumulative PPI. MCAS is NOT supposed to be a normed test. Even though we are well above statewide averages on the test with regards to the percentage of students scoring at proficient or advanced in both ELA and math, someone has to be near the bottom. And because this new way of calculating levels is normed, someone will always be at the bottom.

If your head hurts trying to understand all this, join the club. I’ve tried to show you visuals so you can perhaps see how this all works.

But really: How is the average parent supposed to understand all this?

The major takeaway is this:

How can a school such as BAA that invests deeply in its students meeting artistic and academic benchmarks, scaffolding student learning and engagement to meet the demands of college research, reading and writing, be considered an almost failing school? If BAA is so categorized, what about the hundreds of other schools caught in a failing system of labeling, comparison, and judgment of school and student success through one narrow measure—a  bubble test. And how can we change this?

Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union, speaking at Occupy DOE

I recently visited Urban Academy—a 28 year old school in NYC that serves “second chance” students—i.e. students whom have been unsuccessful in another school. School founder, Ann Cook, reminded me that preparing kids to do well on a high stakes tests (like the Regents or MCAS or any other of the myriad tests floating around these United States) is QUITE different than teaching kids an inquiry process of reading. Let me explain. Our goal as educators is to help our students achieve ever more complicated and complex levels of understanding of text. This is a good and important goal. The current popular argument goes something like this, “If kids are doing well on your type of curriculum- Urban Academy- than they’ll do fine on our tests.” However, Ann and many other seasoned educators like her patently disagree. As Ann explains, “This may be true for kids who come into schools with an already strong foundation in reading, but if you really want kids to do well on a certain test, you have to teach to it. Trinity, which is a private exclusive school in the Upper West Side found that its 8th graders did NOT do well on the Regents tests because it wasn’t part of their curriculum.”  Ann pushes further and argues that if you want kids to be truly proficient readers and writers by the time they graduate high school then you have to focus on that—every day and over time. Ann argues that when schools chip away at a rich curriculum of reading and writing and substitute it with test prep materials you get a little of nothing. I sat in on a class of Urban students who had just read Call it Sleep by Henry Roth. They were discussing how the author used dialect to explore questions of social class and characters. I wanted to participate in their debates and I was overjoyed to hear young people discussing a book so foreign and faraway from their time and place; yet, they were making such authentic connections. Again those on the testing frenzy side would say that this is proof that these young people will do well on high stakes tests, but in fact, they do not. And yet they read, write and discuss literature in ways that I wish all young people could and would. If anything these kids are the kids with the sharpened critical and analytical skills.

When Ann interviews graduates about what they appreciate about their education at Urban she hears the following, 1) I appreciate that we have a choice in the kind of courses we take and even in the kind of literature we chose to study. 2) I appreciate that we get to develop our own ideas about texts and history and even math and that our voices and opinions matter. I know I can lead a good discussion and participate in one too. 3) I know what I’m interested and why. 4) I appreciate that I can change my mind. And finally, 5) I like doing things that are hard for me especially when I got a lot of support.

As I continue to fight against high stakes testing being the way we measure progress for schools and students, I want to remember the words of these Urban graduates. I am hopeful that they will lead the way for a new understanding of what matters in public education.

I am also mindful of what Ted Sizer, founder of Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) taught us in the 80s—that what really matters is deeply engaged teachers who have the time to focus on their students’ needs and building last relationships that will help our young people enter an increasingly more complicated world.

Notes from India- February 2013

Delhi filled my life earlier this year with unforgettable experiences and reflection. The scenario began with an invitation to visit, learn and work with Heritage School, which is similar to Expeditionary Learning (EL) schools.  My history with EL is long and deep, since I was a collaborating writer for the first school here in the Boston area in the early 1990s. A former graduate student from HGSE, Vishnu Karthik, asked me to visit Heritage with two main goals:  To explore both the meaning of a democratic school and the Habits of the Graduate. My former student hopes to build an arts high school as part of a school consortium that includes Heritage. I can’t wait to help with that venture.

Before I share the details of the school experience, allow me to set the scene of Delhi:

I cannot make any claims that I understand India. Reading Katherine Boo’s recent behind the beautiful forevers: life, death and hope in a Mumbai Undercity was a helpful introduction to one sector of India.  Sarah MacDonald’s Holy Cow was a different kind of introduction. And the novels of Roy, Desai, Adiga, Mistry and Lahiri provided other perspectives.  Still, I have barely scratched the surface.  That said, several modern-day phenomena were repeatedly clear:

People drive as if they are in an ongoing game of bumper cars.  I’m not sure which vehicle, if any, rules the road—truck, bus, car, rickshaw, bike, motorcycle. They all weave in and out, coming very close and then darting around one another. Lanes seem non-existent.  This mayhem actually never felt frightening. No one goes particularly fast.  On the backs of trucks and busses “honk please” signs appear in huge letters.  And everyone obliges.  People and donkeys and cows also populate this mass transit system. When a taxi driver seemed to take an alternate route so as not to inconvenience a cow, I was glad I had read Holy Cow. Cows, after all, are holy.

Cows Street

Head bobbling is real.  I learned this unmistakably when I tried to get help with an outlet in my hotel room.  “Is it working?” I asked. The obliging service man kept bobbling his head side to side in a motion that to my Western eyes looked like no. So I repeated my question a bit differently, “Can you make it work?” Again, he would bobble. We went back and forth a few times until, at last, I realized he was telling me that it WAS working. His side to side bobble was really a yes.  Finally, I grinned. He grinned. And the outlet worked.

History is everywhere. In almost every corner of Delhi I walked on and through history – from the Red Fort to the Palace to the hundreds of mosques and temples. Some ruler or mogul or Raj or imperialist lived in each. The Taj Mahal (3 hours outside of Delhi if you drive on a private highway) is breathtaking and the most incredible expression of love I’ve ever seen.  Yet I scratched only the surface since I needed days to delve into the fascinating history. Delhi is a wonderful, exciting, pulsating city filled with extreme contrasts and conflicts.

Linda Taj Mahal

A bit of educational context

Among the Indian student population, about 25% of rural children and 50% of urban children go to private schools. Not all are expensive schools. Some cost as little as 100 rupees (about $2) a month. Government public schools are available to all. Usually the infrastructure is decent, but class sizes are large—sometimes 40-50 kids in a class. Since teachers often don’t live in the villages or locations of the school, absenteeism among the faculty can be very high. Small schools in India are almost non-existent. The norm is student bodies of 2,000-3,000.  Heritage is a private school with 2300 and growing.  While it serves a primarily upper-income population, a new law in India requires that 25% of seats be reserved for the economically vulnerable (an Indian term), so income diversity is coming to the school. Two other schools in the network are about the same size. Indian schooling, whether private or public, is all about the score on that one test in grade 12. That test determines your future. Of course the 10th grade test determines whether you will even sit for that 12th grade test. Your score delineates whether you will go on to a career in science, commerce or (lowest on pecking order)—arts and humanities. Taken directly from the British system, the 10th grade test is the sorting mechanism, more or less, for what your job prospects, and certain your tertiary education options will be.

Delhi University, the largest and best in the country, is considered the Harvard of India. The university is also free so the competition to score high is fierce. Only students who score in the top 3% will get into the top tracks in science and commerce. In other words if you score lower than 97% you believe you don’t have a chance at success in life, or so students told me.

The 12th grade is all about the “grind” for those tests. Parents demand that teachers “grind” the students (this is actually the verb that is used) and students can study for up to 12-15 hours a day to get good scores.   Within this educational context the Heritage School was founded..

The Heritage vision

Heritage School is located in Gurgaon one of the new cities near Delhi. Heritage is a special place, founded by a very special man, Manit Jain. His aspirations are all-encompassing and even revolutionary: to create a large network of progressive schools in Delhi that educate Indian children toward more-than-superior scores on a high-stakes test. I was asked to visit Heritage, one of Manit’s three schools, by Vishnu Karthik, the former HGSE student. Manit and Vishnu had two goals to explore with my visit:  the meaning of a democratic school and the Habits of the Graduate.

My job, over the course of four days, was to listen, learn, meet with students, teachers, administrators and to visit classes. This was in preparation for two workshops I would give. One, for the core leadership team on democratic schools; the other for the entire senior program faculty on building Habits of the Graduate for the senior program and hopefully the entire school.

The front lobby has a large sign reading, “Education is that which Liberates.” The central question upon which the school is founded is: Is education a means to an end in itself?

Liberation

Consider this quote from the Heritage School website: “If education is the journey and the destination, then what needs to be the nature of schools and what kind of children would be nurtured in such schools? At Heritage, it is our constant endeavor to seek response to these persistent questions. These are the questions and answers which affect all stakeholders—children, parent community, school and society at large- at the most fundamental level.

For us, such questions and responses form the basic edifice upon which we have built our dharma (belief and value system) and karma (doing and praxis). It is our firm conviction to continue asking such and other questions to arrive at the true meaning of education and learning. Our vision is: A learning community where each is free to be and grow towards the realization of his/her highest human potential through a harmonious integration of spirit, heart, mind and body. “

If that isn’t revolutionary stuff in today’s world, I don’t know what is. I have heard it said that once you are touched by India you are forever changed. That may be true. I hope this was just the beginning.

To read more about my time at Heritage School, please click: Four Days of Heritage

To read more about the rest of my trip in India, please click: Elsewhere in India

First Annual Teaching Artist Conference

Life has made some dramatic turns in these last few weeks. For the first time in 35 years, the end of August brought no class prep as a teacher and no teacher prep as a principal. What it did bring was a wonderful opportunity to expand our work beyond one school to many schools in my new role as Executive Director of the Center for Arts in Education at Boston Arts Academy.

One of the Center for Arts in Education’s signature programs is the National Artist Teacher Fellowship. We will give approximately 20 fellowships each year to teachers working in public art-focused high schools.  With this program in mind, I traveled to Norway in August for the First International Teaching Artist Conference.  Read more here: Notes from the First Annual Teaching Artist Conference

Opening Day 2012

I was proud to be able to spend some of the opening day of the Boston Public Schools 2012-2013 school year in the renovated building that Mission Hill K-8 School and the newly founded Margarita Muniz Academy (MMA) now share. I am honored to have been on the planning team for Mission Hill so many years back, and more recently for the MMA. I have to say I didn’t even recognize this building, which used to be occupied by the Agassiz school… the BPS has done a wonderful job renovating the space!

Opening any new school is no easy feat, and opening a new school in a newly renovated building has additional changes – but I could feel Margarita’s presence in the purples and the reds that Dania had selected for the walls and the logo, and I know Margarita is approving of all the choices. I have full faith that Dania and Ayla will continue to keep the vision as they work on the many details of running a school- best wishes for a successful year to them both!

Even when districts sometimes seem to have trouble systematically bringing good work to scale, it is worth noting and celebrating all the good things going on in BPS this year, including opening another new school in addition to the Margarita Muniz (the Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School) and renovating two schools in addition to the MMA and Mission Hill Elementary (New Mission High School and BLCA at the Hyde Park Education complex). And congratulations to Fenway High School, which was just selected by the US Department of Education as a national “Exemplary Improving” Blue Ribbon school!

It is worth noting that Mission Hill K-8, Margarita Muniz, Dudley Street, and Fenway are all either pilot schools or in-district innovation schools. The question I ask is: What can we learn from the success of these schools to help the entire district be successful? And how can a district be more active in helping all schools achieve more autonomy?

Celebrating Another Year (and Transitions!)

The beginning of this school year marks a momentous and exciting change for BAA. Our Associate Head of School and founding Academic Dean, Anne Clark, has stepped into the role of Interim Headmaster for the coming school year. Anne leads with a brilliance that will usher BAA into its next era; already the rearrangement of space is giving the school a fresh new energy and life!

We continue to move BAA forward as I relocate across the hall to become Executive Director of the Center for Arts in Education at BAA, the professional development, dissemination, and advocacy arm of the school. The Center offers professional development institutes and workshops, provides consulting and coaching for schools interested in using the arts as a reform strategy, and runs a number of programs:

At the end of last school year, I gave my final celebratory speech as headmaster (excerpted below) to faculty and staff at our goodbye lunch, a tradition that has carried through our fourteen years. The enduring questions I raise here are ones that we asked after our first year in 1998 and continue to ask today. I believe these questions have universality for other educators, too:

  1. Would we be both a model of academic innovation and a model of arts education?
  2. Would we produce students academically and artistically prepared to enter our ProArts partner institutions or other colleges or careers of our students’ choosing?
  3. What would it mean to create an arts school that exemplified the best aspects of the Coalition of Essential Schools?
  4. Would we be able to emphasize depth over breadth, or would the frenzy of standardized testing knock out our best laid curriculum plans?
  5. How would we develop and communicate a shared understanding of our standards with students, parents, board members and others?
  6. What would developing and modeling democratic and equitable practices in the classroom, hallways and faculty room mean? (We did have a faculty room once upon a time!)
  7. As an inclusive school, how would we express our commitment to diverse learners and address ongoing shifts in demographics?
  8. Would we be able to create enough personalized learning situations for our students?  Did we have enough different pathways to graduation for our kids?
  9. How could faculty meeting time be used to spend more time talking about our students with the teachers who actually taught them, and more deeply connected to our own needs as developing teachers?
  10. How would our Habits of the Graduate (RICO) live in our classrooms?

Even (and especially) after 14 years, we ask these questions so we can serve all our students well… We want to keep learning how to take professional risks together- artistically, academically and emotionally. We want to continue to push one another on issues of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and other societal realities… What I want to celebrate today are those values of getting better, of patience, of figuring it out, of saying NO! to the rest of the world when mandates make no sense. If I have a legacy, I want it to be that you all know how to talk to one another, to disagree respectfully, and to come together in complete solidarity- as the powerful group that you are- in order to do what is right for kids… BAA will continue to soar if you remember to build from love, respect and collaboration, and always with students at the center. 

The BAA class of 2012!

I am so proud of what BAA has and will continue to become, and am excited to bring more of that work outward in my new role. I am taking off for Oslo in a few weeks for the first annual Teaching Artist conference and will be sure to blog about it when I return! As always, please leave comments and questions and I am happy to respond!


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