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Lost Arts

Co-writer Kemala Karmen Deputy Director, Co-Founder NYCpublic   The trajectory of my life was forever changed by Eileen Daniel Riddle and James Gilchrist, two high school theater arts teachers who worked at my pre-busing, segregated suburban high school in the early 1970s. Read more

You Can’t Measure This

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Co-authored by Kemala Karmen
Deputy Director, Co-Founder NYCpublic.org

Sanise Lebron – CASA MIddle School, Bronx NY from Shoot4Education on Vimeo.

In the sturm und drang leading up to last week’s New York State budget vote, countless letters were written, phone calls made, and backroom deals negotiated regarding the new education policies Governor Andrew Cuomo had tied to approval of his financial plans. Much of that talk revolved around a new teacher evaluation law and the role high-stakes standardized testing should play in assessing teacher accountability. Should a full 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, as the governor proposed, be based on the test-score “growth” of his or her students? Would, as critics countered, such an emphasis lead to a diminution of social studies, science, foreign language, and arts instruction since those subjects are not regularly covered by the tests the state administers?

These questions are certainly worthy of debate; after all, there is no consensus as to the validity of the “value-added measurement” theory that underlies the governor’s proposals — and notable detractors include the American Statistical Association and the National Science Foundation. However, I have to wonder if, by virtue of this narrow focus, Albany has somehow lost track of what really matters for the children who attend our schools.

Certainly, schools must be places where the transmission of academic knowledge occurs, but a good school offers so much more than that; it becomes a home away from home, it is a place where students thrive because they feel safe and seen and valued, and are given opportunities to grow. Likewise, the best teachers do more than simply inform students of the facts and theories of their disciplines. The acquisition of those facts and theories might, imperfectly, be measured by tests. But that is so tiny in the scheme of things. What matters is that the best teachers care. They inspire. They forge relationships that acknowledge that children are complex beings; they see and address students’ needs and possibilities.

Recently, I had a tangible and powerful reminder of these truths. I was watching Jamaal Bowman conduct the weekly “community circle” at C.A.S.A. Middle School in the Bronx. I’d “met” Jamaal, C.A.S.A.’s principal, in a very modern way; knowing that I was looking to film public school experiences, he’d tweeted, “Come tell our story” at me and included a link to a wonderful YouTube video called 7 Habits. It wasn’t long after, that I grabbed my camera and headed to the Bronx. In the community circle, students gave all kinds of testimony: shout-outs to teachers who helped them or pushed them that week, apologies for mistakes or lack of effort, and affirmations for the joyfulness of the school. Jamaal conducted the meeting with the inspiration of a revival and the musical skill of a hip-hop DJ.

As I stared into the faces of these 12-, 13- and 14-year-old children, I saw immense joy. It was clear to me that these students learn and share in an atmosphere of understanding. It is an environment where their voices count, and their adversities are shared, validated, and communicated. What was truly remarkable was how the students worked with each other. As each child rose to give thanks or share regret, there was great respect and restraint shown. When the situation called for it, they were buoyant, enthusiastic, and boisterous. At other times, they grew quiet and focused intently on every word. These were middle school kids, but they were not posturing or sizing each other up or feigning boredom! They were in the moment, and as inspired as I was by the potential that existed in this world of school.

I recorded many of the student testimonies given on that initial trip to C.A.S.A., but for me the testimony of Sanise Lebron, an 8th grade student, best revealed the depth and power of what is happening at this Bronx middle school. She shared her story with her entire school. They watched her deliver the anguish in her life with such grace and beauty. Jamaal and his staff, and the students themselves, have created a compassionate space for children, fully aware that real learning cannot happen in the absence of empathy.

Sanise’s favorite class is Humanities and she hopes to be a lawyer when she grows up, to help transform her community. She is a winning member on the debate team, a huge contributor to the basketball team, and plays softball outside of school. Her best friends are Makala, Angelina, China, and Rebecca, whom Sanise describes as smart, fun, and always there for each other. Although her father isn’t around, she has an amazing mother, uncle, and grandmother who provide her with outstanding love and support. She identifies Ms. De Los Santos, Mrs. Doria, and Ms. Walton as her favorite teachers because they continue to push her and nurture her academically and emotionally.

So, Legislators of New York State, can a standardized test put a value on this?
Source: Michael Elliot

The Teachers Who Change Our Lives

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I graduated from high school as a failed student. When I describe the state of my education from that time I borrow a line from the Woody Allen film Love and Death because “I couldn’t write my name in the ground with a stick.” Now I could tell a story about all the teachers who let me down, which is something I hear all the time at hearings from people speaking up for high standards, common core and the test prep factories of charter schools. They talk about their resentment at arriving in college unprepared, with deficient skills and in need of remediation. But I’m not going to tell that story.

I grew up with a constellation of learning disabilities and was labeled an underachiever in the third grade. In reality, given my resistance, my inattentiveness, my issues with executive function which dog me to this day, I was unteachable. Many will say that’s an impossibility, but to this day, nothing has ever convinced me that I was present and able to be educated beyond what I was willing to take in. The expectations of school were all avoidance for me. I simply saw no value in it and I couldn’t marshal the personal resources to force myself to fit in.

One afternoon, in ninth grade, I was stranded at school because I missed the bus home, and I was waiting for a ride with a friend. He was on the stage crew for The Sound of Music, the spring musical that was being staged at school. He asked me to tag along and help him, so I did. I was small so I could hide under the stage of the outdoor amphitheater, and when the lights went down I’d race out to place props and move sets around. I had a lot of fun doing this, it was exciting, with the music, the singing and everyone taking it all very seriously. At the end of the night I was standing up on the stage waiting for my friend to drive me home when a teacher, Eileen Daniel Riddle walked up to me and asked what I was doing. I mumbled something about waiting for my ride, and she looked at me, then walked away. Moments later she came back with a broom and handing it to me, asked if I would sweep the stage.

She handed me a broom.

From that night on I worked on every play until I graduated. I rarely had time to hang out with my old friends who spent their time rearranging their body chemistry on a molecular level. I couldn’t get enough theater. I had never seen a professional production; I had no aspirations of being involved in theater. I just loved the connection, and belonging to something bigger than myself. I loved building sets, hanging lights, moving flats, and everything that had anything to do with putting on plays and musicals. Fortunately for me, I went to a school that could provide the experience of mounting theatrical productions four or five times a year. My life revolved around that schedule. Eileen was a tough taskmaster and the expectations were high, but she nurtured the desire in me and gave my life shape. That desire propelled me into college, because it was the only place where I could continue working in the community of theater. Once in college I learned to write because I needed the skills in order to develop a real grasp of how stories are told, how the design of a production is lifted from the pages of a script, and how to analyze the themes, the plot, the characters and demands needed to transform a play on paper into a production on a stage, or in a film.

I had a teacher in high school who handed me a broom and in doing so, inspired me to harness my intelligence to service my passion. She was a dedicated high school Theater Arts teacher, and she saved my life. This is what I take away from my failed educational experience, immense gratitude for a teacher who showed me something I’d never seen before, and it became the guiding force in my life.

We live in a time where the teaching profession is so maligned and education budgets have been stripped bare. The Arts have been eliminated in favor of a dirt dry, common core aligned test prep curriculum. So in order to remind parents about the need for solid creative programs in public education and in gratitude to teachers who give so much to our kids, in November I’m shooting a short documentary, interviewing former students and their mentor teachers about the ways in which teachers impact the lives of their students. I’m offering a group of adults the chance to thank the teacher who had such a powerful influence on the shape of their life, and share the story of how it unfolded. Over the years so many people have told me stories about a teacher who changed their life. It may not be the idealized version of some teacher we dream of for our children. For me, this was a tough relationship, born of adversity and failure, where I was lucky enough to encounter a teacher who could meet me where I was, without judgment, but with the inspiration that I needed. All it took was one. If you have a story, and want to share it with that former teacher, visit my Facebook page, Shoot4Education and leave me a message.

Follow Michael Elliot on Twitter: www.twitter.com/shoot4education

Huffington Post: Children of the Unraveling

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As we find ourselves careening into the dystopian unreality of this presidential election, I’m scouring the creative landscape with a survivalists instincts to understand the forces driving the chaos of what’s unfolding, I had the good fortune to see a music video release Our Love is a Garden from a new album Hope & Sorrow by Wilder Adkins. Directed by Marcus Tortorici and edited by a colleague, Heather Danosky, I was struck by the perspective these three millennials shared in their collaboration and it gave me a glimpse into some of the attitudes that are part of the undercurrent of social and political upheaval. It’s a beautiful song and the video is an exceptional visualization, suffused with an aura of the incomprehensible swirling around us. Wilder’s song is about the garden, in a biblical sense, but Tortorici tells us the visual story of a pair of lovers who come to this “garden” without the experience of innocence, while the lyrics speak an older language of love’s fragile nature, and how difficult it is to travel together through the landscape of union and life.

Something about the song and the visuals made me ask them how they felt about the world around them, what they see in the news, in the forces and velocity of what’s being released upon us. Heather stated very simply that she was terrified, and had no idea where her life’s trajectory would take her. Marcus shared the feeling of how hard it is to connect with people because there’s such a pervasive attitude of protectiveness and caution. It felt to him like people withhold their real or vulnerable selves and are disconnected from the very idea of it. Wilder told me he keeps the tools of his craft small and close at hand so he doesn’t need much in the way of resources to express himself. All three of them shared a similar sense of mistrust and confusion as to where all of these chaotically unfolding events would take them.


Although all three are at the point where their creative energies are propelling them into the lives they’re meant to have, they talked about not being able to see around the next corner. They expressed difficulty in having expectations about the future. The more they explained the feelings that lead them to the music and the visual interpretation, the more I was struck by how familiar this emotional landscape seemed. I was staring into an experience I’ve seen from a different perspective and I recognized the face of my son, of this age, which instantly propelled me into his life.

Born at the dawn of the internet, growing up in Los Angeles, at first in a gentle life. He had neighborhood friends, bikes, and skateboards, accented by video games, swimming parties, roller coasters, and birthday parties. One afternoon the city erupted in flames from the immense injustice of the Rodney King verdict and the ’92 riots unfolded. We lived close enough to be inundated in the smoke and sirens and we watched the steady stream of images from inside our home, unsettling and traumatic. Then early one morning the house began to shake so hard it felt as though it was ripping apart and the ceiling of our bedroom opened up to a dark sky while our house filled with dust. It was a long time before the shaking faded into his memories while the weave of his family was pulled loose in divorce.

Before long, the house, the pool, and the neighborhood were gone and his life in Brooklyn began. Then the World Trade Center Towers came down, 20 blocks from his school. A door opened in his bedroom, with the beginnings of social media and YouTube. The images of change and upheaval were no longer witnessed in the newspaper or on the family TV, he discovered them in the dark, often alone, as we invaded Iraq and the deluge of destruction poured in through a wire. During his college years, he began to see my life change. The f company I created deteriorated with incredible speed when the recession took hold. There was a brilliant flash of hope as Barack Obama was elected President, but the unraveling continued. He made his way home from school as we moved from our house. My company closed. We moved again, and again until finally there was no more room for him. I pushed him out as he transformed into his adult self and the world he entered was not one of promise and potential, but shaped by limitations and scarcity with hope in short supply.

He is a cautious and wary young man, creative and soft spoken. He can erupt in joy and laughter, but it’s always tempered. There’s little room for reckless abandon in a world of frequent change and unexpected loss. These children of ours having grown up in a hyper internet connected world have seen and experienced so much more than I did. They possess the tentative sensibilities of those who have experienced first hand, this unstable, dramatically changing world from the wide-eyed vantage point of a child.

While watching the groundswell of political activism within the ranks of these children of the unraveling, suddenly the notion that so many of them would passionately support an experienced and wizened veteran senator instead of youthful vigor as the embodiment of their hopes and dreams, doesn’t seem as incongruous as it did prior to the simple act of experiencing this song and video. Although this vision of the garden with its absence of innocence conjured a series of dark, complex and difficult memories for me, it left me feeling hopeful. They took the dreams and recollections of their experiences and transformed them into something quite beautiful. The capacity to find and feel love remains and it will be interesting to see what they weave out of it.


Our Love Is a Garden from Marcus Tortorici on Vimeo.

Source: Michael Elliot

Bronx Principal Jamaal Bowman Redesigning Education

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Bronx Middle School Principal, Jamaal Bowman spoke before Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force at The College of New Rochelle in New York on Oct 29. Beginning with his own personal dilemma over choosing a school for his own daughter, Mr. Bowman laid out a vision of what education should be and isn’t under the pressures of the federal mandates associated with NCLB and Race to the Top. This past week the NAEP scores (National Assessment of Educational Progress) were released, revealing significant weaknesses after many years of high stakes testing and educational reform initiatives. The NAEP results reflect the apprehension Mr. Bowman, and many teachers and parents have expressed. The reforms are costly, disruptive and lack any research or evidence to back up the results promised.

Principal Bowman makes the case to the Task Force that if we honestly want to raise student achievement, lower the achievement gap, or the opportunity gap as he calls it and prepare students to meet their future challenges; we need to begin by focusing with great emphasis on birth to 8 years old. Bowman offers up a vision for public education, evidenced by the practices at his CASA Middle School, that is more humane, more intimate and more closely aligned to the needs of students, the strengths of teachers and the innate brilliance in all our kids. Jamaal Bowman knows his kids and with the research to back up his approach, he makes it clear that by empowering teachers and inspiring children toward their passions, in an atmosphere that embraces our diversity, we have the capacity to realize the goals that the current reforms are failing to produce.

Time to Unite To Face Addiction

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Today, the health crisis of addiction cuts across so many other issues we face. It’s a social justice issue with mass incarcerations overflowing our expanding prison industrial complex. It’s an education issue because it affects children in such incredible numbers, and is one of the most profound killers of young people in this country. It’s a political crisis because politicians lack the knowledge and courage to take action. Addiction takes a terrible toll on families, on our health care system, on the economy and on the vitality of our youth. Currently we treat addiction like a moral failing, like an issue of personal responsibility rather than treating it like the disease it is.

Addiction to alcohol and other drugs is a public health crisis impacting more than 85 million Americans. Today is the day we begin facing addiction. We stand with thousands of others on the National Mall to #UNITEtoFaceAddiction and end the silence on addiction, along with Joe Walsh, Steven Tyler, Sheryl Crow, The Fray, Jason Isbell, John Rzeznik and more special guests. Watch history unfold live: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/2yJ3N2cjfjp

This article originally appeared on HuffingtonPost.com

Source: Michael Elliot

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