First Person

“Guys and Dolls” in the South Bronx: Learning To See The (Real) Value Of Arts Education

A few days ago I got an email that changed everything.

The cast of “Guys and Dolls” take their bows

It’s been a full month — and a seemingly endless succession of graduations, end-of-the-year recitals, awards ceremonies and fundraising benefits — since the kids I teach in the South Bronx put on our school’s annual spring musical, the 1950’s classic, “Guys and Dolls.” This year’s rehearsal process served up an especially overwhelming array of challenges and behind-the-scenes mayhem, all intensified by the parallel unfolding of my second pregnancy. (In case you missed them, here are Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of our 100-day countdown to opening night.)

“Well, OK…” you might be wondering, “So, after all of that dramatic build-up … how did the actual show go? (And why has it taken you so darn long to write about it?)”

Well, if you had asked me last week, before the email arrived, I might have heaved an exhausted sigh and launched into what, in the end, would’ve amounted to a sob story.

For starters, I would’ve told you that due to insane scheduling conflicts, our opening night performance was the first time we’d ever had the whole cast together, so it ran more like a dress rehearsal than an actual show, with huge chunks of missed dialogue, brutally slow pacing, and countless costume and prop malfunctions.

I’d have gone on to tell you that the following night’s performance, despite big improvements in overall energy, was still plagued by major problems, not the least of which was a case of vocal strain so intense for one of our male leads that by the second act he could barely talk, let alone sing.

And then I would have hit you with the real zinger and told you that 15 minutes before the sold-out crowd came in on closing night — after the vocally-challenged male lead had been given a cortisone shot in the neck by the only voice specialist in Manhattan willing to treat a young man from the South Bronx with no insurance on a last-minute, walk-in basis, and I was finally letting out a sigh of relief, thinking we were poised to redeem ourselves by putting on the show of our lives — the lighting designer raced up to me breathless and panicked to tell me that the dimmer rack had  blown out and that 85 percent of the lights were now not working at all.

Then I might have told you that when I emerged from the utility closet two minutes later (following a brief but violent explosion of all the built-up tears I’d managed to hold at bay over the preceding four months) I found that the leader of our set crew had transformed a hastily-assembled army of crew kids into an impromptu lighting team who would now have to operate the dimmer rack manually from backstage, each one of them sticking a finger into one of the switches and pressing down hard to recreate some semblance of the original lighting design for each scene, which, though it didn’t yield foolproof results — (halfway through Act II the lights started flickering because Shakeel’s hands went into muscle spasms and he couldn’t keep pressure on his switch) — nevertheless got us through the show.

At this point, I would have confessed to you that by the time the kids took their bows on closing night, jumping and dancing and beaming with pride, all I wanted to do was go home and fall down.

I would have acknowledged that although I put on a brave face over the next few weeks while the students happily reminisced about their accomplishments, I was still internally obsessing over everything that had gone wrong.

In the end, I would have admitted that for the longest time, even the simple act of sitting down to write this blog post felt so physically overwhelming to me that for weeks I haven’t been able to force myself to chronicle what — despite objective signs of positive outcomes and reminders from supportive friends and family that this work is about process not product — still felt to me like a disappointment.

Eighth-grade dancers light up the Havana scene

But if you asked me right now, at this moment, I would have a very different answer for you — all because of a simple email from our photographer that finally allowed me to pull back and catch a glimpse of what we had created from an objective outsider’s perspective.

12th grader Melanie as “Sarah Brown” sings her heart out

The change happened immediately, as soon as I opened the email and clicked the link to the gallery of photos. I moved through the images, my heart started racing, and click after click, I felt the weight and exhaustion of the last six months loosen their grip and spiral off me, leaving a fresh new feeling of excitement in their place.

10th-grader Norberto entertains as “Nicely Nicely Johnson”

I clicked faster, image after image, amazed at the force of this unexpected perspective-shift, flooded with waves of satisfaction and pride …

Because, yes, there may have been lighting problems …

“Adelaide” (12th-grader Brianne) makes her grand entrance

Click.

And yes, there was the cortisone shot, and the crazy scheduling …

Click. Click.

Not to mention the expulsion hearings …

“Adelaide” and her “Hot Box” dancers

The kids crying after being kicked out of the show due to failing grades …

12th-grader Marcus in his stage debut as “Arvide”

The late nights agonizing over whether my decision to give the actor playing Sky another chance had motivated a struggling student to get his grades up and graduate, or taught a slick kid that he could game the system …

Click. Click. Click.

11th grader George, as “Benny Southstreet,” strikes a pose
11th grader George, as “Benny Southstreet,” strikes a pose
The guys fly high in “Crapshooter’s Dance”

Yes, there were actors who missed rehearsals because they got jumped in the park …

Because they had to visit family members in prison …

Because their mothers had to work and no one else could look after their siblings …

Because two of their friends were shot and killed at a party on a Saturday night …

Fifth- and sixth-grade future stars wave to their fans

Click.

All of these things are true.

And yet …

Looking at these photographs …

Those truths receded and made room for me to step back, really see at what we accomplished, and remember why we started this program in the first place.

When I look at these pictures …

I see integrity.

I see determination.

Most of all, I see joy.

And last Friday afternoon, after I showed the kids a full slideshow of photographs at our end-of-year wrap-up celebration, I was forced to shift my perspective even further. I found myself surrounded by a roomful of engaged, inspired young people who, even after a long and draining year, were chomping at the bit to get started on summer programming, research shows for next year, and step into leadership roles when I go on maternity leave in the fall.

Listening to them speak about what they had learned from putting on the show, I got a fresh outlook on a process whose value — I can now see clearly — undeniably transcends all of the frustration, heartbreak and exhaustion it may have entailed.

Thomas Sosa, an 11th-grader who before this year had never been in a play before, summed it up well.

“I think the biggest thing I learned this year is that faith in your work goes a really long way,” he said, “especially when there are major challenges you have to overcome to get to that end product.”

Amen, Thomas Sosa.

After a year that tested my faith as an educator in countless ways, I’m beyond grateful to be wrapping up the year on that note.

As always, the students featured in this post agreed to let me share their stories; the views expressed here are my own and not those of my school’s administration.

Special thanks to my dear friend, photographer/videographer extraordinaire, Alejandro Duran (all photo credits).

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.