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March 26, 2013
This piece was originally published on April 21, 2011.
One of my favorite parts of the Passover seder has always been the discussion of the Four Children. The traditional seder discusses four children — The Wise Son, The Wicked Son, The Simple One, and The One Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask. Each of these sons has his own question, and the haggadah explains the appropriate response for each one. Since entering the classroom, I’ve had my own thoughts about each of these children, and their manifestations in my own classroom.
The Wise Son asks, “What are the laws and statutes by which to fulfill the commandments of Passover?” This son is exalted, because he seeks to learn more about the rituals of Passover. Furthermore, this question is considered wise, because it shows understanding of the story of Passover and seeks deeper meaning from the seder.
A wise child in the classroom hopefully offers the same sort of questioning for the teacher. A wise child is not content with the cursory understanding of a topic or a strategy, but asks for more information. While too many children are willing to absorb knowledge passively without further elucidation, a wise child asks for more. (more…)
March 26, 2013
This post was first published on GothamSchools on May 2, 2011.
I participated in a Passover Seder meal this year. Raised in the Catholic Church, I’ve got a soft spot for ritual and the way that so many of our senses are engaged in religious ceremonies. As I sat through the Seder, I couldn’t help but think, isn’t this a perfectly crafted educational experience?
As a Seder newcomer (I’ve been to about three in my life), my interest trumped my lack of knowledge about Jewish religion and Hebrew language. Even though we sat at the table for over four hours, I was engaged throughout. Part of my engagement came from the knowledge that something important and sacred was about to happen. It made me wonder: How do I make classroom experiences important, even sacred, to my students?
The female rabbi, our leader in this Seder, provided a Haggadah she had assembled for each person at the table. The pages were numbered, as books in Hebrew always are, from back to front, tying us in a simple way to the traditions that we were about to practice. The ritual, which retells the ancient story of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, was conducted with a mix of Hebrew, English, and Aramaic language. While some participants were familiar with all three languages, some, like me, only knew one. As a teacher, I thought: How do I expose my students to cultures with which they are unfamiliar? How do I invite them to bring knowledge of their own cultures to the classroom?
The leader began by providing us with an outline of the parts of the Seder, pronouncing the Hebrew names of the components, with them providing an English translation along with a hand motion. Throughout the Seder, as we transitioned from each part, we chanted the parts we’d completed, using the accompanied hand gestures. While I never did fully remember each Hebrew pronunciation, my level of confidence increased each time we sang and gestured. And even though I hadn’t understood, I was fully able to participate in the hand gestures, my favorite part. I asked myself: How can I integrate the arts into the classroom to provide more entry points for experience an expression? (more…)
March 14, 2013
Flashback to early last month:
It’s 8:30 p.m. on a cold February night in Washington Heights. The huge crowd outside of the United Palace Theater is anxious about missing the opening number of tonight’s one-night-only “In The Heights” benefit performance. When the show’s writer/star Lin-Manuel Miranda races around the block, high-fiving fans and hollering, “We don’t start until y’all get inside!” people whoop and cheer. But our students barely notice their idol blowing by. They’re too wrapped up belting a cappella versions of the show’s greatest hits. Auditions for our school’s production of “In The Heights” are still a week away, but the kids have already memorized the whole score.
In the history of our performing arts program, I’ve never seen kids so amped up about a show before. But then, I can’t say I’m surprised.
For a decade, the kids in our program have been stretching far outside their cultural comfort zones to put on musicals that have little do to with their own life experiences. It doesn’t matter that we’ve intentionally chosen a broad range of shows, including ones that prominently feature people of color, like “Once On This Island” and “Aida.” At the end of the day, the French Antilles and the shores of Nubia are still a far cry from the corner of 172nd Street and Third Avenue in the South Bronx. And each of those shows, like every other show we’ve done — with the lone exception of “The Wiz” whose composer/lyricist is African-American — was created by white people.
It’s not like we weren’t trying to find Broadway musicals that could have hit home more directly. They just weren’t out there.
So when I first saw “In The Heights” on Broadway five years ago and found a stage packed full of performers who looked exactly like the students I teach, telling stories that Lin-Manuel Miranda could have overheard in our school’s hallways, I knew our students’ response to the show was going to be epic.
I wasn’t naïve enough to think that musical theater’s whole cultural landscape would shift overnight as a result of one show. If nothing else, the almost all-white Broadway crowd around me back in 2008 was a clear indication of how much work remained to be done in terms of access.
But ever since “In The Heights” has been on the scene, I’ve been less worried about young African-American and Latino actors coming out of our program after playing lead roles in “Les Misérables” only to find that their best hope in the professional world is getting cast as “Thug #3″ or the lead character’s “Sassy Best Friend.”
We’ve had to wait the better part of five years for the amateur licensing rights to “In The Heights” to become available, but the time has arrived. And now we’re kicking off our creative process with a field trip to see the original Broadway cast show us how it’s done.
As we finally make our way to our seats inside the United Palace Theater, one of my students looks around at the capacity crowd, does her best “Home Alone” shocked face and nudges me playfully. “Yo, Ms. Q,” she says, “There’s a lot of black and brown people in here!”
A combination of the show’s widespread popularity and organizers’ efforts to reach a broader audience with $30 tickets for Upper Manhattan residents means that the crowd is more diverse than any group of theater-goers I’ve ever seen. (And there’s reason to hope that this demographic shift may be part of a wider trend, since the evening’s proceeds benefit The Broadway League’s Viva Broadway initiative, a new audience development partnership with the Hispanic community to help bridge the world of Broadway with Latino audiences around the country, as well as Family First Nights, a nationwide program specifically designed to encourage at risk families to attend theater on a regular basis.)
The rest of the evening is a blur. The audience is cheering and singing along throughout most of the show. Actors pause before the big laugh lines so the audience can shout them out en masse. At the curtain call the whole place leaps up, dancing to the music and waving Dominican, Puerto Rican, Cuban and Mexican flags. We haven’t come prepared for this Rocky Horror Picture Show-level of audience participation, but we join in happily.
The emotional high of the evening sets the scene perfectly for auditions for “In The Heights” at our school. This year’s turnout is enormous and includes an unprecedented number of first-time participants.
At the callback, one 12th-grade newbie named Chris says,
There’s no way I would’ve considered trying out if we hadn’t been doing this particular show… Let’s just say musical theater was never really my thing. But being Dominican, these characters and the stories they’re telling through the music and the dance all really hit home for me.
Once auditions are behind us and rehearsals begin, the students show up with a level of professionalism and initiative unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Gone are the days of pulling teeth, begging actors to get focused and learn their lines. These kids are off-book at the first read-through, leaping up to perform each song fully memorized with provisional blocking and improvised choreography already in place.
When our leading man discovers that Lin-Manuel Miranda himself has “liked” a rehearsal photo of him posted on Facebook, his comment is the following:
“Omg omg omg, my heart’s gonna blow up!!!”
And while I like to think I’m immune to celebrity worship, here’s what I comment back to him:
“Yeah. I feel you, dude. Me, too.”
March 5, 2013
Most public discussion of the new Common Core standards have focused on math and reading, the subjects where state tests are the first to change. But the state has also quietly been crafting new social studies curriculum, and asking educators for feedback on its draft of a new a new 9-12 Social Studies Curriculum Framework (henceforth referred to as “Framework”). With the deadline to submit feedback coming this week, I was happy to weigh in because in my view, while the state’s plans in some ways represent a step forward, they also fall into longstanding habits that have not been conducive to strong social studies teaching and learning.
The new curriculum reflects two significant shifts. Whereas the old framework was essentially a series of topics, the new framework focuses on what the state calls “Key Ideas” and “Understandings,” as well as adding the Common Core Literacy Standards and what the state calls “Social Studies Practices,” which reflect the key skills in our discipline.
On the Framework’s opening page, there are a list of objectives that I found refreshing and of which I am very supportive. According to the document, the purpose of social studies “is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.” Toward that end, the Framework claims to allow “students to develop an understanding of concepts and key ideas driven by case studies, analysis of primary and secondary source documents, and an examination of patterns of events in history,” and teachers “to have increased decision‐making power about how to teach and illustrate conceptual understandings and key ideas to promote student understanding.” On those three points rests the entirety of the work I do with curriculum, teachers, and students. Count me in! (more…)
February 28, 2013
This piece is the first in an occasional series about a college readiness curriculum in use at the High School for Arts and Business in Queens. Future installments will include stories produced by HSAB students through the StoryCorpsU program.
The first day of my ninth-grade English class at the High School for Arts and Business this past year was like any other: full of nerves, anxious glances around the room, and fresh notebooks. But this year would be different, I informed the class. We would be embarking on a marvelous opportunity where their voices would be heard — literally and figuratively — through a program called StoryCorpsU.
To start, I directed students to get out of their seats for an activity. I handed out index cards with questions on them and within minutes the room was abuzz with discussions about students’ vision of a perfect day, their hopes and dreams for the future, and the three objects they would bring to a space station. Thus began our first StoryCorpsU class and we were on our way.
February 25, 2013
This post also appeared on The Hechinger Report’s Eye on Education blog.
It’s nearly springtime, when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). At least in odd-numbered years. I’m not so young, but lately I’ve been thinking about NAEP, which is widely regarded as the best barometer of changes over time in the academic performance of U.S. students. No assessment can do all that we ask of it, but NAEP is a well-designed project supported by $130 million per year in federal funds.
Though not a substitute for careful evaluations of particular programs and policies, NAEP does crop up frequently in education policy circles. In New York state and New York City, for example, the discrepancy between trends in performance on the fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math NAEP tests (which were largely flat between 2007 and 2009) and the performance of the same population of students on the state’s own annual assessments (which skyrocketed over the same period) led New York state to change the threshold for student proficiency in 2010, and to make the state tests more challenging and less predictable.
The disparity also called into question Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s and Chancellor Joel Klein’s claims about progress in student performance and closing the city’s achievement gaps. There’s little doubt that the mayor and chancellor were annoyed with pesky reporters and bloggers using NAEP scores to poke holes in their claims. (more…)
February 19, 2013
Those straight A’s I was pulling in my graduate program at Teachers College didn’t matter worth a damn in that makeshift theater classroom. Standing there in front of those kids, I felt like I had no idea how to teach anything to anyone, let alone an art form based on trust and vulnerability A.) to African American and Latino teenagers whose experiences were worlds away from my upper-middle class suburban roots, B.) at a school that trained teachers to embody a top-down, boot-camp style of classroom management (and routinely fired the ones who couldn’t pass muster), and C.) in a neighborhood where street codes punished kids for risking emotional openness with taunts and even violence.
About halfway through that first year, at a moment when I was seriously considering quitting teaching and never looking back, a ninth-grader named Denisse Polanco made the audacious suggestion that we put on a musical. I tried to explain to her that I had never directed a full-length show before and that I was way too overwhelmed with my other teaching responsibilities to take on such an ambitious project. But Denisse wasn’t having any of it. Never mind that she herself had zero musical theater experience; she arched an eyebrow at me, smiled and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll help you.”
We’ve come a long way from those days in the church parking lot. A decade later — (full of humbling moments, behind-the-scenes nightmares and hard-won triumphs of student leadership) — my colleagues, students and I are thrilled to officially unveil a 10-minute documentary that chronicles the evolution of the Bronx Prep Performing Arts Academy — a program which Denisse and many of her fellow Bronx Prep graduates have returned to help nurture and lead. Over the years, the academy has grown into a multi-generational family of performing artists, designers, and directors, many of whom are now pursuing college degrees and careers in the performing arts and mentoring the young actors, directors, and designers following in their footsteps.
Stay tuned as our kids set aside their corsets, fling off their fedoras and lay down their French revolutionary flags — so they can celebrate their own cultural traditions and family histories in a show that finally feels like home.
Special thanks to Academy co-founder Andrew Simon, Academy co-directors Lou Cardenas and Sarah Rosenberg, the whole Bronx Prep artistic staff, the huge crew of creative professionals who have supported us throughout the years, the alumni who continue to nurture and inspire our students, and especially to Bronx Prep Artistic Director and my creative partner in crime, Dr. Geoffrey Kiorpes. Video credit and special thanks: Alejandro Duran and The Digital Project.
As always, the views in this post are my own and not those of my school’s administration; the students featured in this post agreed to let me share their stories.
February 15, 2013
How many New York City public schoolteachers are so incompetent that they should be fired? That’s the $250 million question that must be addressed by both sides wrangling over what kind of teacher-evaluation system the city is going to build.
For months now, despite a state mandate to build such a system, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the city’s Department of Education have been locked in a stalemate with the United Federation of Teachers over the terms of a teacher-evaluation process that, by law, must be agreed to via local collective bargaining.
The parties have already missed a Jan. 17 deadline set by the governor, sacrificing a 4 percent increase in state aid for education to the city. But the governor and other state officials should have known that punishing the city and its children by withholding this aid — and future funds as well — would be both bad public policy and an ineffective strategy to force an agreement.
This dispute is about principles that each side believes to be far more important than the money at stake, and at the heart of the disagreement is just how many teachers we’re talking about calling incompetent — and therefore unsuited to educating our kids. (more…)
February 13, 2013
At the Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters — the decade-old unscreened district secondary school in the poorest Congressional district in the country, where I have taught for the last six years — we do a good job with a tough hand. The work here is big and challenging, and the people are wonderful.
But every year, another policy-level challenge makes our already difficult work seem nearly impossible. First it was massive budget cuts, then centralized layoffs of school support staff, a special education overhaul, rotating teachers sent from the Absent Teacher Reserve (but not enough money to hire them!), and rising numbers of mid-year over-the-counter transfer students. Now, the challenge is a second year of space changes planned by the Department of Education.
Like many other public schools in the city, our school shares space with three others: a District 75 school for students with disabilities in grades K-8; a district middle school; and as of this year, a charter elementary school. After less than one year since the last space shift, the Department of Education has proposed two big changes: The district middle school, M.S. 203, will phase out over the next two years, and Bronx Success Academy 1, the charter school, will expanded to eighth grade over the next five years. (more…)
February 6, 2013
Recently, when I picked my second graders up from lunch, several of the girls rushed toward me in a tizzy. “Ahmed and Mohammed told us we couldn’t sit at their table at lunch because we’re not Boy Scouts,” they reported indignantly. I dropped my jaw in front of the offending boys, put my hands on my hips and said the words that I hope inspire some sort of dread amongst my little ones, “We will have to talk about this when we get back to the classroom.”
Now, as a fourth-year elementary school teacher in a public school in Brooklyn, I am no stranger to lunchtime drama. No matter how much work I do toward creating a positive classroom community and a supportive learning environment, all bets are off when my students enter the lunchroom. Typically, my co-teacher and I brush off these cafeteria skirmishes by encouraging our students to deal with their issues during lunch and not bring them back into the classroom. But every now and again a problem pops up that needs to be addressed with the entire class back upstairs in our room. The Boy Scouts issue certainly merited further discussion.