Senior year is by far the most demanding at Boston Arts Academy. Students must truly demonstrate one of our shared values: passion with balance. Their final senior Humanities paper and group project is due. Opening nights for their final arts exhibitions and performances are just around the corner. Many must still scramble to pay for senior dues, prom, and yearbook.
These demands can feel like too much, and adolescents often forget to react to stress with grace. How many adults know how to do this? So today, in our assembly, I reminded our seniors about the importance of showing teachers their appreciation.
If each senior writes one note to one teacher, I would feel I had done my job. I want students to recognize the brilliance and selflessness of so many of their teachers. Sadly, the general public could benefit from this education as well.
I recalled in assembly how each of my staff has done something terrific with kids and with one another as colleagues. In my “Celebrating Another Year Together” presentation each year, I name remarkable things that our faculty has accomplished. I remind us of the various ways teachers took on extra responsibilities, implemented a new curriculum, succeeded with a particular project or simply were present daily for students. If I could, I would reimburse every teacher for the thousands of dollars they have collectively spent on student supplies, taking students to lunch, driving students home, etc...
And finally, if I could, I would put a huge stop sign at the door to prevent high-stakes testing from taking over the curriculum. I would let teachers know that I hold them accountable for high standards, that I trust them to do an excellent job, and that I will not tie their evaluations to test scores.
Alas, it is the letter and my own writing that I know I can deliver. The rest is up to the students I encourage, and to a behavior of appreciation that the community can model for them.
Every year we ask all of our students and faculty to select a book from our Literature Circle book list to read. In the early weeks of September we divide the entire school into book groups to discuss their book of choice. Here are some of my favorites from this year’s list:
My mentor and dear friend, Vito Perrone, died this August. I always like to re-read his books before the school year begins. A Letter to Teachers andTeacher with A Heart are books that help me re-energize and re-focus each year. I know that Vito would have liked to have discussed Wilkerson’s book and that he would have pushed me to describe the connections that I saw with Warmth of Other Suns and Porgy and Bess. He would have helped me develop those generative questions to guide difficult discussions. I know he would have come and sat in our literature circles, too. He would have wanted to hear how books captured my students’ imaginations and passions. When I am at my lowest about the state of schools and education policy, Vito would inspire me to “recommit ourselves to a wide-awakeness on behalf of our students, schools, and communities, to a greater understanding that we are about democratic work. Our schools are not yet as good as they should be (Teacher with a Heart, intro p xi).” I hope I can take that wide-awakeness into this new school year.
Recently, I had the chance to participate on a panel discussion at the Center for Public Leadership (Harvard Kennedy School) following a screening of the newly-released documentary Waiting for Superman. I was joined on the panel by Jim Berk (CEO of Participant Media, the film’s production company) and Thackston Lundy, a student at Kennedy school and former Director of Operations at one of the schools profiled in the film. David Ager, Director of Undergraduate Studies and Professor of Sociology at Harvard, moderated the discussion.
Panelists Thackston Lundy, Jim Berk, and myself with Moderator David Ager
You’ve probably heard about this moving but controversial film directed by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth). In Waiting for Superman, Guggenheim documents the aspirations of five families seeking charter school admission as a way out of under-performing district public schools. By focusing primarily on charter schools while omitting well-performing district schools entirely, the film (intentionally or not) promotes charter schools as the logical alternative to public school systems. Although charters have been one source of innovation and best practices, the overall record for these schools has been a mixed bag at best. As a person with first-had knowledge of many high-functioning district public schools, you can be sure that I had a few things to say!
In our discussion Jim Berk stated his hope for a sea change as a result of this film; a vision of people rising up to get involved in their communities to demand better schools and better results for kids. I do hope that this will happen and that the film doesn’t continue to polarize the debate about charter and public schools. 96% of our young people go to public schools in public school systems, so we have to get public education right.
Maybe charters can help show the way to some “best practices.” While the autonomies of charter schools (and of pilot schools–Boston Arts Academy is a pilot school within Boston Public Schools) certainly provide some of the tools necessary for improved schools. These autonomies in and of themselves are not a magic bullet. They are part of the solution. The autonomies in both charters and pilots are:
1. Autonomy of curriculum and assessment, within the constraints of state tests 2. Autonomy of schedule and school year calendar 3. Autonomy of budget 4. Autonomy of governance 5. Autonomy of hiring and staffing
A major difference with pilots and charters is that pilots are still within the district and teachers part of the union.
Waiting for Superman truly excoriates the union–in incredibly vicious ways. While there are many areas in which I’d like to see unions become more progressive, I don’t want us to forget that it was the union that brought us pilot schools and it is always the union that fights for better conditions in classrooms (often when districts or even the public is looking the other way). And if the union was so much the problem, why wouldn’t non-unionized states like Texas, South Carolina or Virginia have fabulous schools?
To end on an optimistic note–let’s hope that this film does elevate the dialogue in all communities about how to improve schools and help all of us focus on what’s important in education: students who are truly engaged in learning communities; teachers who are inspired and inspiring, creative and knowledgeable about content area, and dedicated to kids; and clear standards and assessments that allow all students to stretch to high standards of achievement.
We need fewer constraints and less bloated bureaucracy to get there, that is for sure. And the film does point this out. Let’s make sure that everyone feels motivated and welcomed in their local schools and that there are great schools for all kids.