Posts Tagged 'Teacher Professional Development'

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!)

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

Notes from Artist Proof Studio

“Yes! That’s what I say!”

“Yes! That’s what I believe!”

“Yes, we have that exact problem!”

What gives these refrains such a sense of energy and relief between kindred spirits or kindred organizations?  Is it the recognition of one’s own dilemmas elsewhere, even in a different context and country? Perhaps a sense that human beings share essential experiences of passion, of struggle, of success and recognition? When you happen upon a kindred spirit or place the recognition is so instantaneous that one’s reaction can be joyous: “Ah, you understand me,” one sighs with relief at finally not having to explain everything.

I have just returned from an intense week in Johannesburg (Jo’burg), South Africa at Artist Proof Studio (APS), a community organization that trains and educates young people from ages 19-23 in print making. Printmaking in many ways both documented and instigated change during the years of Apartheid. Kim Berman, with her arts degree from Tufts University/The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, was determined to answer Mandela’s call for each citizen to contribute to the building of the new democracy. She returned to Jo’burg in 1991 and co-founded Artist Proof Studio.

APS banner

[Photo credit Monika Aldarondo]

The belief that arts could play an important role in social change fueled a commitment to the necessary and painful processes of mutual interchange to overcome the distrust and alienation of the apartheid years. Some 21 years later APS continues to help artists discover their own capacities as creative voices for social change. APS leads by example in many of its programmatic initiatives. They use a visual medium to teach about HIV, AIDS and other health issues. They staff a professional printmaking shop that employs young up-and-coming printmakers. They offer printmaking classes to approximately 40 or 50 students a year. The life and work of Artist Proof Studio parallels the development of democracy in South Africa.

BAA STEAM teacher Ramiro Gonzalez looking at printmaking equipment with APS Executive Director Kim Berman

BAA STEAM teacher Ramiro Gonzalez looking at equipment with APS Executive Director Kim Berman [Photo credit Monika Aldarondo]

Five years ago, when I first visited APS, I felt an intensity of focus on the work; evidence of caring teachers,  and a clear commitment to quality as demonstrated by the critique I observed. APS felt oddly like Boston Arts Academy (BAA) with its energy and buzz.  Kim then sent us two young teachers to work with students. Next came an exhibition and symposium in 2009 that showcased the work of Kim and her students.

Molefe and Motsamai, who came to BAA from APS in 2007

Molefe and Motsamai, who came from APS to work with BAA students in 2007

The interchange was an unparalleled success. Our BAA students and community were drawn to the social issues portrayed in the work—issues of xenophobia, of racism, of shame to discuss HIV and AIDs. And work that demonstrated deep sensitivity to issues of family, children, and alienation from one’s self and/or community, and the importance of the importance of play, beauty. Young people from two very continents seemed compelled to express themselves about social issues and also called upon to create new work.

APS, just like BAA, has a strong practice of critique. What makes work strong? How does one communicate one’s ideas with the audience? What does it mean to be an artist and an activist? And how does the organization continue to grow and improve?  This last question brought BAA back to work with their entire staff to analyze these questions and more.

Our goal during our week at Artist Proof was to provide the studio with a more coherent approach to curriculum and assessment, as well as to help the various parts of the organization gain clarity about mission and vision. The words of an APS report of our exchange demonstrate what BAA means to them: An innovative  pedagogical approach that integrates the arts throughout the academic curriculum based on best practices. BAA has created a successful model through its “inventive approach to leadership, professional development, community building, incubating new curriculum designs, arts integration and student support” (http://bostonartsacademy.org).

Visioning exercise

Working with APS faculty and staff [Photo credit Monika Aldarondo]

After a great deal of work we came up with four terms. We wanted everyone to be able to innovate, to be self-aware, to engage and to excel. The acronym was ISEE which was particularly apt given that the organization is dedicated to visual arts. The next steps involve APS staff returning to their curriculum to specifically describe how students will demonstrate these habits in classes, projects and every day interactions. We hope that APS will develop a clear assessment process over time so all students and teachers can attest to the attainment of ISEE.

Working on mission, vision, and framework to ultimately create "ISEE"

Thinking about mission, vision, and framework to ultimately create “ISEE” [Photo credit Monika Aldarondo]

Our work with APS was an opportunity for all of us to be learners, teachers and observers of one another. The power of interchange offered exciting prospect for collaboration across many spectra and organizations in general, not just the artistic world.

Gallery walk

Gallery walk of the work created by APS faculty and staff during a strategic planning/visioning exercise [Photo credit Monika Aldarondo]

Jo’burg is a study in contrasts. Enormous wealth is evident in the manicured suburbs with houses hidden behind high walls and shopping centers more opulent than any I have seen in the US. On the other hand, residents in neighborhoods of Jo’burg and townships like Soweto or Alexandria live in crowded conditions, with no running water or other amenities, and sky-rocketing unemployment. They also rank near the top of the  entire continent with the incidence of HIV and AIDs. While the 1994 Constitution speaks eloquently of human rights in all forms, the reality of life for the majority is quite different. In a country where music, dance and art are foundational parts of human life and expression, in Soweto, of the 350 schools, only two offer any kind of art experiences. It is a miracle that each day students leave Soweto for Artist Proof, often traveling over an hour each way, committed to becoming skilled printmakers.

APS stands as shining example of what can happen when political, human and artistic forces combine for the advancement of young people.

Ramiro Gonzalez (BAA), Kim Berman (APS), myself, and Monika Aldarondo (BAA)

Ramiro Gonzalez (BAA), Kim Berman (APS), myself, and Monika Aldarondo (BAA)

Group photo

The amazing APS faculty and staff!

Elephant

We did have time for some fun at Kruger National Park! [Photo credit Monika Aldarondo]

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

OLA Workshop at BAA’s Center for Arts in Education

Last week, BAA’s Center for Arts in Education hosted Darcy Rogers for a full-day workshop on her Organic Language Acquisition (OLA) technique. I first met Darcy at her school, Crater Renaissance Academy in Oregon, and then I ran into her again at the Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum, where she presented her workshop on OLA- a kinesthetic approach to learning a language. I knew we had to get her in to BAA, so when I learned she was coming to the Parker School in Western Mass, I jumped at the chance!

We had about 15 educators from Boston and the surrounding areas as well as Boston Public Schools central office folks (including Yu-Lan Lin, the World Languages Program Director for BPS) attend the full-day workshop, which included BAA students actually learning the technique alongside the adults!

I see Darcy’s work as one of the many valuable techniques that innovative teachers develop to counter the increasingly high-stakes-testing-obsessed culture we live with in our schools. In my new role next year as Executive Director of BAA’s Center for Arts in Education, I am excited to sponsor more workshops and institutes featuring work like Darcy’s… We were so glad she could join us at BAA for this high-energy workshop!

Instructional Rounds

Last Thursday we hosted Instructional Rounds (IR) at BAA. Instructional rounds are the new buzzword in education, largely defined by Lee Teitel and Richard Elmore at Harvard. The purpose of the rounds is to analyze and improve teaching and learning practices at the classroom level. Although I’m not completely convinced yet how helpful the results of the observations are, what IS powerful is getting teachers, students, parents, and administrators out of their routines and looking deeply at the practices of teaching and learning in a different context and through a different lens than they experience during the day-to-day.

I am proud that BAA was the first Boston Public School to have students and parents participate in the rounds. They were absolutely phenomenal. The parents were honored to be a part of the process and found it extremely helpful to think about the school as a whole rather than just the needs of their own student.  The 5 students who participated spoke eloquently and passionately about the positive aspects of BAA, as well as pointed out the real challenges for including all learners.

One of my favorite comments came from a BAA music student who pointed out the differences between the theatre student warm-ups she observed and the music vocal warm-ups she experiences in her own classes. She enjoyed how theatre students both warmed up their bodies and built community at the same time, and she was excited to bring that practice back to her music classes. I loved watching this mini “teaching moment” happening for a student!

Later that evening at my HGSE (Harvard Graduate School of Education) class, three seniors from a new turnaround high school came and spoke. They were all transferred to this new school after their high schools were closed for underperformance. Despite the fact that they had experienced their previous schools firsthand and hold a wealth of information about what worked and didn’t work for them, they told my class that they had no input on structures or practices at their new school. Their disempowerment and lack of engagement in the process of constructing their own educations was jarring, especially after watching parents and students blossom during the IR at BAA earlier that morning.

The takeaway from last Thursday for me was this: when we’re thinking about school reform, I am reminded again that we need to put the voices of students and parents at the forefront of the discussion. How do we incorporate these voices so that they are not an afterthought, but a forethought? After all, who is school reform really for?

Occupy the Department of Education!

I had to blog about Confessions of a ‘Bad’ Teacher from this past Sunday’s New York Times… everyone needs to read this article so we can stop and think about how our federal and state policies are affecting teachers and kids in our classrooms.
I will be joining BAA teachers and many others in Washington, DC at Occupy the DOE (Department of Education) at the end of March for a teach-in to underscore how limiting and short-sighted so many of our current policies are. They are based on an “I gotcha” mentality- on how we can “improve” education by punishing teachers and kids.
I know it’s complicated to create a system of accountability that actually trusts teachers, but we must try. As Johnson points out in this NYT article, the messages we are sending teachers are confusing and contradictory, and the ways we are assessing kids and teachers are ludicrous.
We cannot hope to have engaged students and young people who want to participate in our fragile democracy with such backwards policies. We must be the change we want to see. Let’s organize and go to DC!

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