First Person

Showcasing Our Best And Worst

Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

The Brooklyn Arts Academy is special for offering electives, taught by local professionals, in areas such as hip-hop dance, emcee, deejay, music production, digital photography, fashion design, choir and band. Many students who attend the school were drawn to it for this reason. At the end of each semester, students would show off their new skills in an arts showcase. Sometimes these were held in our cafeteria, and other times in an auditorium we rented from a local college. I never missed one of these performances, and they almost always inspired the same conflicted feelings: pride and awe at my students’ abilities on stage, combined with frustration and embarrassment at the rowdiness and disorganization of the event as a whole.

For a few students, the arts showcase was a time to shine. There was one student who everyone called Michael because he fashioned himself after Michael Jackson. He always had a solo during the hip-hop dance performances and would bring the house down with his impeccable rendition of the moonwalk.

There were two young men — one black and one Hispanic — that formed a rap duo good enough to sign with a label. They kept the crowd spellbound with their brilliant flow and rhymes such as “some of my boys / lost themselves in the bong / truth blowing like bombs or condoms put on wrong / never stepped out of the hood / but say that they gone / I want to travel on planes / because of my songs.”

Another one of my students wasn’t as good as a rapper but amazed me with his stage presence. He could work the crowd like no other, raising his hands in the air and getting people to clap along with him, a wide smile across his face. He performed an unforgettable duet with his girlfriend, rapping the verses while she sang the chorus.

There were four or five students who composed “the band.” This wasn’t a traditional school band with clarinets and trombones, but more like a rock and roll band. They played bass guitar, electric guitar, keyboard, and drums and performed rocking medleys of Stevie Wonder songs as well as original compositions.

The girls’ hip-hop dance routines were another highlight. Their instructor helped them with choreography but they added their own flair and the energy was palpable. Those girls practiced constantly in the days leading up to the performance, even ditching classes at times to do so in the back hallways.

The school’s mission explicitly promotes student self-discovery and self-expression though the arts, and the showcases were the time and place when this was best on display. Our kids had a sense of style and individuality all their own, from the way they dressed (jelly bracelets color-coordinated with shoelaces) to the way they interacted with one another (lots of hugging, cheek-kissing, and elaborate hand-shaking). Attending a showcase was a little bit like going to a hip-hop concert, as our students threw their hands in the air and shouted encouragement to their friends.

Unfortunately, the general raucousness of the crowd made it difficult to focus on what was happening onstage. From my perch in the back rows, I couldn’t see the dance routines because students in the front rows were standing up. When the drama class performed a skit, I could hardly hear them because kids in the crowd were horsing around. Then the students in the audience would devolve into typical classroom behavior. One student would yell, “Shut up you guys — they’re trying to perform!” Then someone else would laugh. Then someone would cough. Then you’d hear lots of “shhhhs!” We needed to teach our students norms for being an audience at a public performance.

We needed to teach other students about the responsibilities of free expression. Though students were told to keep their language appropriate, we inevitably had rappers who cursed or made gang references in their songs. On one occasion, a group had their microphones cut off after dropping a line about “red bandanas.” On another occasion, a boy made a reference to oral sex. In both cases, the students actually had the audacity to get angry at the principal for cutting them off, acting as though the performance was a right and not a privilege.

I believe our students would have behaved better if we made a greater effort to turn the showcase into a more high-stakes experience and a more collective enterprise. For one thing, we could have done a better job advertising these performances, to both parents and the community at large. If students knew they were performing for an audience beyond themselves, they might rise to the occasion. We also should have put a lot more effort into rehearsals and preparations. Students should have been better coached about transitions between performances, and also about how and when to respond as an audience.

Finally, I wonder what the showcase could have been like if it involved all students and teachers working together with a shared goal of putting on a great performance. As a content-teacher, I was minimally involved in the planning or execution of the show. I thought it might be cool, though, if students were expected to incorporate ideas from my history lessons into their performances. As a school, we could create the expectation that all students would have to be involved in some way, and that all classes must also in some way be represented.

I believe that the showcase had tremendous potential to be a powerful motivating force in the lives of our students. The event presented an authentic opportunity for our students to share their creativity and their best selves to the world. It also represented an opportunity for the Brooklyn Arts Academy to demonstrate just how transformative arts education can be for inner-city students. But, in my opinion, this potential could not be realized until the school promotes discipline as much as it promotes student self-expression.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.